Posted by Sari
Not such a long time between numbers two and three on my best books ever list. See how approaching deadlines on PhD -thesis increase the need to write something completely different...
I Guess I am kinda cheating here, so many of my favourite books are actually series, but it is my list and I don’t really care. Third in the alphabetical order comes Martin Boyd’s Langton Quartett, which is clearly less famous work than the previous nominees. Amazon does not even have pictures up.
Martin Boyd unites two separate spheres of interest for me. First is the novel of manners, second is Australian literature. Boyd was part of Australia’s artistic and social elite: his siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and even parents were all famous painters, arcitects, potters and other visual artists. His family was also part of pre-wars Melbourne elite, wealthy enough to divide their time between Europe and Australia. Boyd’s most famous work, the Langton Quartett draws heavily from his own family amalgamating real persons and events with pure fiction.
Through his alter-egoish narrator Guy Langton, Boyd spins the tale of his family’s life in the pre-first world war Europe and Australia. In the first book, “Cardboard Crown” Guy reconstructs the life of her grandmother Alice through her diary and memories of his relations. In the second and most famous novel in the sequence, “A Difficult Young Man” Guy ponders on the youth of his brother Dominic. Third novel, the exquisitely named “Outbreak of Love” details the marital problems of Guy’s Aunt Diana making the the plot in a way a parallel to the events of the first novel. The last book “When the Blackbird Sings” is the only one which does not have Guy’s distancing narration, but is a straight third person narrative of Dominic's experience of the First World War.
I don’t know why Boyd’s novels have charmed me so. Perhaps it is the the love for a time past, and the impending doom hanging over everything in the form of the first world war. (Boyd, a veteran of that war began to write only after it, the war – as Barret Reid has put it – “released in Martin Boyd the blazing anger of a romantic betrayed”) These are novels of a irrevocably past way of life, grasped at the last possible moment. There is also the effort to relate past and present with each other, the search for reasons, sometimes absurd for why people turn up the way they do. And then there is Boyd’s vision of art and life, his pleasure of art and his fear that life was going to destroy it.
I am also fascinated by the way Langton’s and their class divide their time between two continents settling on neither and always missing the one they happen not to be on. Even though Australia as “the other”, something alien never to be taimed is never a major theme in the novels, the restlesness of the clan does relate to the post-colonial preoccupation with the land and landscape many Australian novelists and poets share.
But mostly, I think my love for these novels has to do with the integrity and transparency (or maybe I am fooling myself and it is an illusion of transparency) of Guy’s narrative voice. The gentle irony and the disance Guy’s narration gives to the stories makes them extremely readable and beautiful novels, but the real wonder is Guy's desperate need to explain and understand which allows him to give voice to all of the characters from the secondary characters like the strangely obsessive Hetty and upwardly mobile aunt Baba to – ultimately - his different and misunderstood brother Dominic without becoming just a cipher.