Sunday 20 June 2010

"The Crying Game" by John Braine

Confusingly, this title was also given to a Neil Jordan film which has nothing to do with this book at all. John Braine was of course the author of Room at the Top, one of my all-time favourite novels, but until finding this in the library, I had not read anything else of his.

Incidentally, there is another connection sparked by Swiss Cottage library here. For anyone who has not read Room at the Top, (which sold half a million copies in first four years after having been rejected by several publishers) there is a wonderful literary device; the narration switches without warning, almost in mid-sentence, from first person to third person. This occurs on the happening (or reporting) of an event which simultaneously awakens in the central character both self-realisation and self-loathing in the same instant. Suddenly it is as if he is standing outside the story, observing himself with distaste. It is an electric moment, and I have always held it up to people as a supreme example of the novelist's craft.

However, some time back I took out a book called A view from Downshire Hill, a memoir by a lady called Elizabeth Jenkins of her time working in publishing, and of all the wonderful characters she had known. In it, she reveals that, when originally submitted, the book had a different title and was written entirely in the third person. It was she who persuaded Braine to re-write it, and suggested the title. So much for the novelist's craft! However, I still like to think that it was Braine himself who spotted the potential for the switch.

It is difficult to say too much about The Crying Game without giving away the plot. Suffice it to say that the central character is once more a young man from the North of England who faces some difficult moral choices, and comes increasingly to view his lifestyle with dissatisfaction and unease There are some wonderfully dissolute and disreputable characters, almost all of them selfish, greedy and jealous.

Braine's greatness as a writer, however, is that (rather like Mozart) he can paint an unattractive person in such a way as to arouse, if not pity or sympathy, at least a wry smile of understanding. His characters share a common seediness, which Braine often paints in deliberately luke-warm tones. How about this?

She had an atmosphere about her of tiredness and the wrong sort of meal, of pork pie and beer for lunch, and spaghetti and Algerian wine for dinner. She seemed clean enough, but I felt that she'd bathed hastily in a tiny and chilly bathroom like the one in my flat off the King's Road. She didn't look positively ill; but if I'd been told that she was suffering from a fatal disease I wouldn't have been in the least surprised. And for all that, she was powerfully, rankly attractive.

The balanced phrases which make up each sentence, the second posing a tawdry contrast to the first, is almost Orwellian, as is the hammer blow contradiction at the end of the paragraph. Braine is a fine writer. A fine writer, moreover, of the old school, with a perfect grasp of the English language (when did you last see the word "tessellated" in a novel?), and a sure stylistic touch.

His books are a pleasure to read, and I fear I feel another of my obsessive phases coming on.

1 comment:

Sonia Aguirre Duque said...

Great review. I just have read the Spanish translation of Room at the top and love it.