Friday, 13 September 2013

More English than the English

Marina Farkas's biography reads similarly to Charlotte Mendelson's. Both share Hungarian relatives - although Mendelson's grandparents always referred to themselves as Czech - and an educational background at a reasonably prestigious boys' school that went co-educational recently before they arrived (for Marina, that's the fictional Combe Abbey; for Mendelson, the King's School, Canterbury.) Mendelson studied Ancient History at Cambridge but hated it; as Marina is advised in the novel, she thinks she would have been better off doing English at a newer university like Leeds. Marina, of course, is one of the heroines of Mendelson's latest, and Booker-longlisted novel, Almost English - the other being her long-suffering mother, Laura. The notes on Hungarian at the back of the novel make its autobiographical origins obvious, and I haven't exactly done hard-hitting investigative research to trace the parallels to Mendelson's own life (Google is your friend). But I went searching in the first place after reading the endnotes because I wanted to confirm something I had suspected throughout the novel, which reads curiously like a debut, even though it is in fact Mendelson's fourth; whether it was the fact that this novel seems so autobiographical that made it fall so flat for me.

If Americanah was an example of how to write about one's own experiences well in fiction - although Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's book reminds me of Charlotte Bronte's novels in the sheer power she draws from her own life, so 'writing well' is putting it mildly - this novel exemplifies why I was suspicious of semi-autobiographical novels in the first place. Professional reviewers have praised it for its observation, humour and flowing prose, and I don't really disagree with any of this, although I didn't find the novel especially funny (its most humorous moments are centred around Marina's three ageing Hungarian relatives, Rozsi, Zsuzsi and Ildi, who haunt the narrative like the trio of Norse crones, crushing both Marina's and Laura's romantic hopes unwittingly). The problem for me was that I didn't feel that Mendelson was offering anything especially new. Marina's travails at Combe Abbey are well done, although the blurb made me expect rather more drama than eventually unfolds and this is a poor shadow of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep as far as adolescent school life goes. Mendelson is very good at awkward dialogue; Marina's struggles for speech in the face of people she wants to impress are almost unbelievably hopeless and painful, but utterly realistic. The Combe Abbey plot, however, is much too predictable, and the same can be said for the sub-plot about Laura, which I started skimming after a while. 

I'm left unsure about what Mendelson was trying to achieve with this novel; is it meant to be a comedy of manners, or something more? Mendelson's focus on the minutiae of social life certainly situates her novel in a firmly English tradition and makes the title even more ironic than it already is. Marina may be half-Hungarian, but her floundering attempts to imitate upper-class manners and become one of the more popular girls at the school are quintessentially English. Mendelson plays with this theme well, with the ending of the novel inverting our previous assumptions about what it is to be English, and suggesting that those who know they are playing a role are often the ones who inhabit a certain identity most convincingly - but it doesn't seem enough to hang a novel on. My heart also sank when I realised that Mendelson's earlier novels - Love in Idleness, Daughters of Jerusalem and When We Were Bad - trace similar themes. I think I'll be striking When We Were Bad off my reading list - unless anybody has read both and feels that it's very different from this one.

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