Online Edition: Winter 2010/2011

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 Notwithstanding

 Louis de Bernières

 Vintage U.K.

  by John Cox

In two of the most touching scenes in this collection of connected stories, women cavort fantastically with their long-dead lovers in a hopeful reminder of the power of memory amidst inevitable change. These two scenes bookend Louis de Bernières’s Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village, and capture something of the relationship of the author to the life he seeks to portray: not completely gone, but in need of significant acts of imagination to be lovingly reconstructed and memorialized. The first of the scenes, near the beginning of the book, features Mrs. Mac, who is mysteriously accompanied by her deceased husband Joseph to the cemetery to tend his grave. This vignette has some overlapping characters and places with that of the elderly Miss Amanda Feakes, who, close to death, dances to big band tunes with the suave Lieutenant Alec Montrose who had not, alas, survived the Second World War. This is sorrow more potent somehow than that in the rest of the book, but nonetheless one of the chief sensations throughout is that time is winding down, inexplicably, unseen, as the various characters age. But de Bernières carefully balances the woes and the pensiveness of his characters with the joys of good music, companionship, loyal pets and love.

From a historian's perspective, the book is above all the swan song of a rural place faced with ineluctable change. The change does not have so much to do with the structural changes facing Britain as a whole—immigration, financial and industrial globalization, the atrophy of political parties, relations with the rest of Europe—as it does with the disappearance of native youth into the cities and the growing presence of newly settled urbanites, leaving the older stratum of the village population to enjoy retirement, sell things to one another, throw dinner parties, commute to work, preach old sermons, clip the hedges, remembers joys and tribulations past, and maintain the golf greens. In another, smaller way, the book's characters, in the rich silt of both their memories and their possessions, allow us a look into the century's experiences of empire and war; there is a lot of memorabilia and a lot of patriotism, though not as much residue from the defining traits of Englishness (tea, anyone?) or of capitalism (ads and jingles and boxes) as one might expect. Still, the emotional impact of the book is greater than its historicity. De Bernières transports us into a world of the muted and familiar, where there are limits both to pain and to color.

Among the characters we get to know a bit in various stories are a naked general, a communion-obsessed baronet; fussy, naïve priests; lots and lots of pets; whacked-out spinsters with “stupefying halitosis” who own lots and lots of pets and houses; the “malodorous” last peasant of the district, good old Obadiah Oak; people who confide in spiders instead of their friends; and smart university-bound teenagers. We learn of a Maltese turtle dove holocaust, the cruelty of human-spread myxomatosis, the romantic and the brutal sides of war, a mysterious case of food poisoning, the silliness of socialism, and deaths lyrical and tragic—an elderly gentleman dies laughing in a circle of friends but a beautiful generous women dies suddenly of cancer before she's forty. That so many women in the book are in the grips of “the menopause” can only be emblematic of the stage of evolution of the village as a whole. A number of the stories are memorable because of their poignancy, and several are quite funny; perhaps most illuminating are the three “Auspicious Meeting” tales in which an unlikely band of merry musicians finds each other and connects to something bigger than the village.

De Bernières, one of the great novelists working in English today, has delivered a volume that is altogether more satisfying than his last effort, The Partisan’s Daughter. Still, this is very different literature from his Latin American trilogy or his Balkan-Turkish works. This substantial volume of interrelated pieces, over half of which had been published elsewhere but which have been competently fleshed out and fused together with new tales, consists of, if you will, miniatures. Reading this book is like listening to Schumann—it’s a good thing, it’s a great thing, but it’s not the Shostakovich or Beethoven we were listening to a decade ago. We too can learn to love this sprawling English village and its rambunctious cast of characters, although we will also come away with the feeling that this old England, like its Church, "was not an extemporising institution." And, ultimately, if we know what to look and listen for, we may agree that “it looks so magical, like something out of a Salvador Dali picture, all those branches growing into each other" in this crazy country and countryside, where so many people knew each other's names.


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