The King of a Rainy Country, by Brigid Brophy
One of the oddities in getting older is the seeming culling of possible lives. I say seeming because our options are often greater than we think, but as jobs and children and life-choices accumulate the room for movement gets narrower.
At 10 you might be anything. At 20 the options are still pretty wide, though by then you can probably make a fair guess as to whether you’re straight or gay, good or bad at sports, practical or a bit of a dreamer.
By 30 most people are either in a long term relationship or looking to be. You’ve likely got a job, perhaps a career. You may well have children. In years past you’d probably have bought a house if you were working steadily (you’d be lucky to do that at 30 now, in the UK anyway).
By 40 odds are you’re settled in that career. You’re probably married, possibly even divorced, and the children are getting older. The prospects now of suddenly giving it all up to open a bar in Belize aren’t looking as good as they used to.
And so it goes on. If you make it to 90 your biggest remaining decision may be whether to stay in the TV room or to take a nap.
Written like that it all sounds pretty gloomy, but my notional average person has a partner, children, a career, a home. Those may not be things that ring down the ages to the applause of posterity but they can be pretty good.
Let’s go back to that “seeming” though, right there in my first sentence. Life closes doors to us, but we close more ourselves. We choose who we are, and then forget we ever made a choice. King, in part, is about that time when those doors are still open, when we don’t yet know which we’ll walk through.
In 1950s London Susan is living with Neale in the kind of poverty that’s only picturesque when you know it’s temporary. They’re young bohemians (Neale has a “tie for reading Baudelaire in”; Susan “can bear anything except a status quo”). They’re supremely uncommitted.
Susan and Neale live together, but they’re not quite a couple and they don’t have sex. At the same time, they’re not quite not a couple either sharing so many private jokes and references that their friends sometimes can’t understand what they’re saying when they talk to each other.
Neale asked: “Are you afraid they’ll think we go to bed together?”
“No, I’m afraid they’ll guess we don’t.”
They’re broke, but they speak French and Italian and have travelled abroad and seen the opera and in 1950s London that’s a fairly straightforward class signifier. If they wanted they could call their dads and they would stop it all. For now they’re enjoying their freedom, but even bohemians have to pay the rent. Neale works washing dishes; Susan gets a job in a bookseller’s.
The bookseller is Finkelheim, though he’s not Jewish. He just thought sounding Jewish would help him in the book trade. He sells a range of titles, but he makes his money with porn. One day, as Susan idly glances at the stock, she finds a striptease picture book where you flick the pages and a woman gradually disrobes. The woman is Cynthia, Susan’s old crush from school (cue link to J Geil’s Band’s classic track Centrefold at this point).
In her schooldays Susan was besotted with Cynthia; loved her utterly. Does that make Susan gay? It’s not that simple, lots of people have schoolday crushes on the same sex after all yet self-identify later as straight. Her sexuality is uncertain.
Neale’s sexuality is also somewhat uncertain. He brings a gay French tourist named François home to stay and it’s not clear what Neale and François’ relationship is exactly, but then it’s not clear what anyone’s relationship is exactly. François’ presence does allow however for some wonderful comic Franglais dialogue as Susan tries to make conversation using her rather limited French.
Neale and Susan decide to track down Cynthia, eventually discovering that she was last seen in Venice. Before long they’re out in Italy acting as last-minute tour guide hires to a coachload of particularly uncultured American tourists. The fact the tour agency was willing to send them despite their total lack of prior relevant experience should perhaps have been a warning…
The woman behind asked Neale: “What are carnations in Italian?” Neale looked at me.
“I can’t remember.”
“They don’t know,” the woman said to her husband.
I got up and went to the front of the bus, where I say down at the steel hump besides Carlo. He looked, smiled at me, and turned to the road again. I waited till another boy tried to sell us carnations, then asked Carlo what they were called.
“Fiori,” he said. “Fee-Aw-Ere.”
“Si, si,” I said, “ma che specie di fiori?”
“Fiori,” he repeated. “Fiori rossi – o fiori bianchi.”
I went back to my seat. “You find out?” the woman said.
“I’m afraid not.”
Presently I turned round and told her: “I’ve remembered. Garofani.”
“O,” she said.
I heard her husband ask: “What she say?”
“Some Italian word.”
This is a remarkably witty novel. The dialogue between Neale, Susan and François is priceless. The American tourists are a wonderful mix of the unworldly and the arrogant, comparing everything to something back home and ticking off European sights without any real interest or understanding. One constantly worries about hygiene; another can’t rest unless she has seat 13 on every coach and room 13 in every hotel (at one point she’s accidentally allotted room 31, they arrange for the hotel to reverse the numbers on her door so she doesn’t know).
There’s a distinctly three/four act structure here. The early part in London with François and faux-Finkelheim culminating in an extended flashback to Susan’s schooldays; the road trip with the Americans as Neale and Susan make up historical detail for the places passed, the whole thing like a classic ’60s comedy; then finally the melancholy of Venice and the discovery of Cynthia who is in the company of aging yet still gifted opera singer Helena Buchan. The mood changes quite markedly section to section, and yet somehow never jars.
Identities here are fluid, adopted as required or not yet assumed. The book is unusually free of judgement. In a sense Neale and Susan are playing at their lives, but at the same time that play is the reality – it’s not as if they have other lives somehow more real. Neale and Susan both are searching for “the moment” – a single moment in life in which one can be fully present. The search of course is the moment.
In the end I find myself struggling to capture this novel, which is perhaps appropriate. It’s deceptively light, and yet you don’t explore themes of gender, sexuality and identity while managing significant shifts in tone without having put some serious thought in to what you’re doing. It’s reminiscent in some ways of Oscar Wilde, who in Lady Windermere’s Fan has Lord Darlington say ” life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it”. So it is.
Neale and Susan are an educated pair. Their conversation, and therefore the book, is full of allusions to opera (particularly The Marriage of Figaro). If you know your opera better than I do I suspect there’s a world of references there to unpack. For me it sufficed to recognise that opera is a space where lives are lived large, but where identity is as malleable as the next costume change.
I’ll end (almost) with what struck me as perhaps the most quietly radical thing in The King of a Rainy Country, and that’s the lack of sex. This is, in part, a celibate sex comedy. Neale and Susan share a bed in 1950s England, but nothing happens in it save sleep (and since she works days and him nights even that doesn’t overlap that much). Susan and Cynthia were young lovers in school, but long walks and holding hands were about as far as it went. Helena Buchan, the opera singer, is beautiful and something of a hero to Susan and Neale both, but she too travels with a male companion who seems more friend than lover. The lack of sex subtly undermines expectations. It’s clever, like the rest of this delightful novel.
I’ll end (properly), with a poem by George Szirtes taken with kind permission from his website here, inspired by (but not a straight translation of) the Baudelaire original:
Spleen in a Rainy Season
A burlesque after Baudelaire
I’m like the king of a rainy country, rich
but wobbly weak; both cub and toothless bitch.
I’m through with books, and poems, and string quartets:
I’ve sold the horses, shot the household pets.
Cheer up? Not likely, board games are a bore,
and as for ‘the people’ dying by my door,
fuck them, and fuck that guitar-wielding clown,
who’s worse than useless when I’m feeling down.
See, here he is – that’s me – stuck in his bed,
the girls can put on sex shows, give him head,
go girl on girl, no point, it just won’t work,
it won’t jump-start this junky royal jerk.
The quack who brings him pills and knows a trick
to harden flaccid aristocratic dick
may as well bring blood and the Roman Baths,
the kind that suited those old psychopaths.
No good, he’s dead in muscle, nerve, and brain.
It’s all green Lethe and that bloody rain.
Heavenali reviewed this here; a blog titled Emily Books reviewed it here; and a reviewer called Aimee Wall wrote a very good review for the site Lemon Hound here. I also found this rather interesting piece on an opera blog about the book’s connections with opera. If you know of others, as always please let me know in the comments.