‘Writers are Ruined People’.
When I read ‘Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont’ – one of the novels on the 100 greatest novels reading list that Lucy and I are working our way through – I was dazzled by its melancholy brilliance. Ever since, I’ve been looking for an excuse to read another of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. A lucky nose around the Oxfam bookshop rewarded me with a whole stack in one trip, and as it was my turn to choose this month’s bookgroup book, I plumped for ‘A View of the Harbour’. In the introduction, Sarah Waters said it was her favourite of Taylor’s novels, and if its good enough for Sarah Waters, it’s good enough for me.
Set in a sleepy seaside village, the inhabitants are frequently thrown into each other’s paths by close proximity, yet loneliness and restlessness seep into their bones like damp. There is not much to do but observe the comings and goings of neighbours in search of fragments of gossip to add colour to the monotony, especially out of season. It’s no wonder that an illicit affair doesn’t remain secret for very long. In constant vigil, the lighthouse casts its cold dispassionate eye across the harbour, and it is not alone. Bed-bound and bored, old Mrs Bracey feeds on the unfolding micro-dramas beneath her bedroom window.
The visiting artist, Bertram watches from a distance both physical and emotional. He might think of himself as an artist, but he is a tourist, picking up and looking at people’s lives like holiday souvenirs. He is a collector, observing the novelty of the local residents rather than belonging and connecting. There is a wonderful moment in the novel when, having become enchanted by Tory, he suddenly feels dejected when she doesn’t answer the door to him, (unbeknownst to him, she is relaxing with a face pack).
‘I shall go away,’ he told himself. ‘In the end I always move on somewhere else, as all selfish people do, who do not let themselves become deeply involved in others, nor bound to one place. For all I feel is curiosity; and curiosity… is quickly satisfied, a fleeting thing, leading nowhere’….’I am a man with a passion for turning stones,’ he thought. ‘And wherever I went there were always more stones than I could turn.’
The disparate lives portrayed in the novel are all well drawn, but lend themselves to a fragmented jumble of characters rather than a strong single narrative. This is a village in decline. The future feels devoid of possibility – even the travellers who run the Funfair during the holiday season stop bothering to come. The feeling of decay and claustrophobia is all-pervasive, and makes for bleak reading. In some ways, the novel reads like Bertram’s attempt at oil painting:
Little blobs and clots of colour lay isolated over the canvas….Each little blob was separate, meaningless.
The character of Beth, the writer, really added to my enjoyment of the novel. I could really identify with the fictional world she inhabits during her waking hours, not to mention her blindness to the messy house around her – a state that I’m sure anyone who has attempted to write fiction, however tentatively, will be able to relate to. Writing about how fiction writers think, is clearly something Taylor knows a lot about, and she’s very insightful into both how Beth thinks and her relationships with those close to her. It’s not all positive though, Tory’s comments cut close to the bone, and are hard to argue with
Writers are ruined people. As a person, you’re done for. Everywhere you go, all you see and do, you are working up into something unreal, something to go on to paper… you’ve done it since you were a girl…I’ve watched you for years and I’ve seen you gradually becoming inhuman, outside life, a machine. When anything important happens you’re stunned and thrown out for a while, and then you recover…God, how novelists recover! and you begin to wonder how you can make use of it, with a little shifting here, and a little adding there, something can be made of it, surely?
Despite having a tough act to follow,’A View of the Harbour’ didn’t disappoint. Elizabeth Taylor’s writing is exquisitely wrought but she certainly doesn’t sugarcoat what she sees. I found it to be a very depressing novel, and the disparate lives washed up like flotsam and jetsam along this little stretch of coast, was almost too much to bear. I think I cared more about the characters in ‘Mrs Palfrey’ so that remains my favourite of the two. However, when I’ve managed to dispel the sheer bleakness of Taylor’s vision of the world, I’ll be heading back for more.