Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Clothes on Their Backs

To say that Vivien Kovaks, the protagonist of Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs likes clothes would be an understatement. The story begins with a middle-aged Vivien convinced to buy a flattering ruby-red silk jersey dress from a closing sale at a Marble Arch boutique - a dress that signifies a new beginning and fills her with general optimism about things to come. Then we get to go back to Vivien's younger days where we discover that the outstanding image of her childhood is that of a man in an electric blue mohair suit with black hand-stitched suede shoes, a watch attached to his diamond bracelet and on his arm, a black girl in a nylon leopardskin coat and a mock croc handbag with gilt clasps. We also get to learn about young Vivien's induction into the world of clothes - a trunk bottom comes apart when a man in a stained leather jacket and studded boots carries a dead woman's belongings out of her flat leaving in its wake silks, satin, velvets, anglaise, lace and feathers. Vivien grows up with the times, in turn acquiring and discarding such icons of high fashion as the half-length skirt, the bolero jacket, wide high-waisted Katherine Hepburn pants, Dietrich shoulder pad and the flapper fringed dresses and cloche hats from vintage stores usually run by dirty old men. She arrives at the uni in a crepe de Chine cocktail dress, an instant sensation as a result of which she gets to be the costume designer for the drama society. This exciting position has some fringe benefits - all gay men in the drama society have one last fling with Vivien before they come out. If you are wondering by now whether you are in the middle of a Sex and the City episode, wait, it gets better. A stranger randomly walks into her bath (and is reminded of a Modigliani painting, what else!), marries her and promptly dies off as expected, and then a mandatory erotic relationship with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks before settling into domestic bliss completes this picture.

But this is not a book about clothes. No wait, it is - it is about the clothes we wear and how they change us from the inside out as Grant explains to us in one of her final chapters. Good that she tells us because we would never have guessed that from reading the book. I for one thought she was giving the reader a crash course on this city's fashion history over the second half of the last century. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing, just that if that's what one wanted to do, I don't see why one should insert story of immigrant Hungarian Jews and slum landlords. What, I hear you cry. What Hungarian Jews and slum landlords? Where? Here only, in same book.

In a mansion block off Marylebone Road[1], Vivien grows up, an only child of Hungarian Jewish parents who moved to London from Budapest before the War. Her father Ervin works in Hatton Square in a backroom of a jewellery store. Vivien's parents brought her up to be a mouse, she says out of gratitude to England which gave them refuge, they chose to be mice people. They lived quietly and had no friends, never talked about their lives or families back in Hungary and encouraged Vivien not to ask questions. A colourful visitor turns up at their doorstep one day claiming to be an uncle who Ervin promptly throws out. A few months later, Uncle Sandor is all over the news - the King of Crime, slum landlord who lived off poor West Indian immigrants finally caught and sentenced to prison. Nothing is heard of this man for long years until when Vivien is back home in Benson Ct after her husband's death and basically has nothing much to do than to take up family history. Uncle (now out of prison) and niece find each other in a park in Regents Park (yep, London is that small) and Vivien takes up a secretarial job with her uncle to type up his memoirs. The relationship between these two is the rest of the book - Vivien learns about family history and in a sense, comes into terms with her uncle's warped morality the gist of which is like yeah well, now I know every monster is human in some respect and btw, its not like the West Indians lived in better conditions back in their country and anyway, no one here rent them flats and someone's gotta do it. Plus you know, this is a man who spent years in a forced labour camp and whose parents were sent up a chimney, so his sense of fairness and justice is slightly different from ours. Fair enough. I just found it interesting that this deep insight into human nature merited a place on the Booker longlist. Obviously, the folks on the Booker committee did not grow up like the rest of us or worse still, they never read any childrens' books.

I know I am sounding mean but if truth be told, I didn't actually dislike the book. Two things that did not work for me (if not clear from the above paragraphs): one, this metaphor with clothes which is utter nonsense, and two, the banality of what seems to be the underlying message of the book. But a book is not just about what it says, it is very much about how it does it. On that count, I liked the book. Grant's prose is simple and (quite often) delightful at the same time especially when she talks about London and well, clothes. It is only when she tries to explain these deep things in life that she transforms into your regular Hollywood screenwriter.

In conclusion, The Clothes on Their Backs is an eminently readable book especially if you are into fashion and such. There is also a nice little story in there somewhere which manages to get lost between all the clothes and the explorations into the nature of hypocrisy. So go on, read it, it takes only a couple of hours and you probably won't remember anything of it by the following morning.

PS: Must say that the book that this one most reminded me is Art Spiegelman's Maus, and not just for the obvious mouse analogy. I know you can't compare a graphic novel here but both have similar themes - a first generation Jewish refugee narrative that describes life as it was back in the homeland, the children born after the War in the exiled land and their difficult relationships with their parents or uncle in this case - though Maus is more about the former than the latter. I liked Maus for telling the same old story in a new way, for telling things as they are and not attempting to explain everything. Perhaps if this book had stuck to that, I might have liked this better.

PPS: Now, for the real reason I am being mean: you can't see the traffic lights of Hyde Park Corner from Edgware Road and anyone who says that you can in a book set in London just doesn't make the cut.

[1] Astute readers of this blog no doubt know that this is the same neighbourhood where yours truly has lived for the past couple of years


Falstaff said...

You are much too kind.

Veena said...

Falstaff: While I typed up this post I went on saying "I am not Falstaff. I shouldn't be mean".Glad to know it worked a little.

But please to do a proper Falstaff job on this one. Can't wait.

Falstaff said...

Veena: You don't have to. Here you go.