Feel­ing down? Then frock up

The Clothes on Their Backs By Linda Grant Vi­rago, 293pp, $ 32.99

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stella Clarke

GRAPH­I­CALLY set in 1970s Lon­don, and im­mersed in the busi­ness of private his­tory, this is a highly read­able book. With char­ac­ter­is­tic verve and an en­thralling, at­ten­tive en­ergy Linda Grant, a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist, nov­el­ist and win­ner of the 2000 Orange Prize for Fiction, makes the grubby old me­trop­o­lis the back­drop for a wo­man’s rest­less quest for self- knowl­edge and fam­ily truths.

To those familiar with Grant’s pub­lic hobby as an ama­teur fash­ion­ista the ti­tle will come as no sur­prise. It seems she needs to add an even deeper di­men­sion to her as­sid­u­ous wardrobe, which in­cludes com­men­taries in the Bri­tish press and her thethought­ful­dresser blog, which she con­stantly up­dates with her sar­to­rial de­lib­er­a­tions. The vigour of her cu­rios­ity and scope of her abil­ity ex­tend across a broad spec­trum.

In pre­vi­ous books, Grant has been con­cerned with gen­der and po­lit­i­cal is­sues, and with the post- Holo­caust di­as­pora and co­nun­drums of lost iden­tity. The nitty- gritty in­ter­sec­tion be­tween private strain and pub­lic change has been her sub­ject. It might there­fore seem re­mark­able that Sex­ing the Mil­len­nium ( a his­tory of the con­tra­cep­tive pill, pub­lished in 1993), When I Lived in Mod­ern Times ( 2000, set in Tel Aviv) and The Peo­ple on the Street: A Writer’s View of Is­rael ( 2006) are writ­ten by the same wo­man who pro­claims ‘‘ 2008 will, mark my words, be the year of the $ 100,000 hand­bag’’, and is even now try­ing to de­cide whether boots or bags should keep you sleep­less. This novel fi­nally demon­strates how the two do­mains, so­cial his­tory and tog­gery, can be seam­lessly joined.

How does she do this? Vivien Ko­vaks, child of Jewish- Hun­gar­ian im­mi­grants, needs the full story to clothe her and to com­plete her.

Grant com­bines Vivien’s per­sonal dilemma with an in­quiry into the im­por­tance of self­adorn­ment. Ap­pear­ances are not just skin- deep, they are a ten­sile sort of mem­brane be­tween inside and out­side. In The Clothes on their Backs Grant looks at the is­sue of get­ting dressed and get­ting a life from a num­ber of an­gles. Lonely, age­ing ec­centrics and youth­ful mis­fits alike know this. A good frock, a sharp suit, a bit of spit and pol­ish or a cult look can add up to tri­umph over so­cial dis­ad­van­tage. She takes Vivien on a jour­ney to a point in a mid­dle age where she con­cedes that an out­fit can be con­so­la­tion for the direst grief and mud­dle.

Vivien Ko­vaks is the deeply be­wil­dered only child of reclu­sive par­ents. The high point of their day is cir­cling their evening telly pro­grams in the Ra­dio Times . Vivien grows up tightly com­pressed in the fusty em­brace of the fam­ily’s cen­tury- old apart­ment in cen­tral Lon­don and her par­ents’ ex­treme timid­ity.

As a teenager, Vivien re­alises the im­por­tance of pro­ject­ing an im­age, of in­hab­it­ing habit. She starts to watch her­self and oth­ers closely; she grasps ‘‘ the trick of be­ing part of the hu­man race’’. She fre­quents op shops, an­gles her im­age be­guil­ingly to­wards the dra­matic, ar­rives and thrives at York Univer­sity and en­joys brief but ju­bi­lant mar­riage.

Then it all falls hor­ri­bly apart, and Vivien is sucked back into the vac­uum of her child­hood home where her early years with her par­ents were spent rolling slowly and qui­etly ‘‘ like three tor­pid mar­bles across the lino floor’’. Resur­gent Bri­tish fas­cism is mak­ing them newly tremu­lous. Wid­ow­hood, abor­tion and de­pres­sion trig­ger Vivien’s search for what is lost. She sus­pects that the mino­taur at the cen­tre of this per­sonal labyrinth — once trau­mat­i­cally glimpsed in child­hood — may be her re­viled Un­cle Ko­vacs. Whether or not she finds her­self, she cer­tainly en­coun­ters the im­por­tance of cou­ture.

Ko­vacs is a no­to­ri­ous slum land­lord, wom­an­iser and wearer of ex­pen­sive suits. Vivien tracks

him down and of­fers to ghost- write his life story, which turns out to be som­bre and tor­tu­ous. Taken pris­oner by the Nazis dur­ing World War II, Ko­vacs, along with many oth­ers, was driven, beaten and starved, un­til his clothes melted into his body, their rem­nants just a mem­brane of hu­man pride. Ko­vacs, then, we find, is pos­si­bly not a taste­less hood­lum but a hard- headed sur­vivor.

Ap­parel is a mat­ter of spirit, of af­fir­ma­tion, of guts, of cel­e­brat­ing the life you have been given or have won. Life it­self, in­deed, is a sort of gar­ment, a hap­haz­ard mat­ter of su­tured mem­o­ries and emo­tions. As Ko­vacs’s self­ac­count­ing in­fers, it should not be cob­bled to­gether, it should be el­e­gantly re­ar­ranged, with ar­ro­gance and de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Grant ex­pands her med­i­ta­tion on style to en­com­pass Ko­vacs’s lover Eu­nice, a black wo­man whose ex­pe­ri­ence of racism has led her to a pitch of per­fect groom­ing ( a touch con­trived), to Na­tional Front hor­rors and to Claude, a feral punk from the Isle of Shep­pey who makes the sim­ple­minded, fa­tal mis­take of think­ing the swastika is trendy.

Is there an undis­guised per­sonal bias in Grant’s tale? She is the child of Rus­sian and Pol­ish Jewish im­mi­grants, so so­cial iso­la­tion and malaise may be familiar. She stud­ied English at York; more dig­ging about in Grant’s bi­og­ra­phy would un­doubt­edly raise fur­ther par­al­lels. Yet it is more mean­ing­ful to see Grant as a writer who works hard to place private lives in the con­text of big­ger cul­tural mo­ments.

Her at­tempt to put a high- toned philo­soph­i­cal spin on self- adornment that does not merely rain con­tempt on those ob­sessed with its par­tic­u­lars has a vin­tage lit­er­ary her­itage. It harks back to that scene in Shake­speare’s King Lear , where the en­raged old man fights his daugh­ter for the trap­pings of roy­alty, O, rea­son not the need: our basest beg­gars Are in the poor­est thing su­per­flu­ous: Al­low not na­ture more than na­ture needs, Man’s life is cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady; If only to go warm were gor­geous, Why, na­ture needs not what though gor­geous wear’st, Which scarcely keeps thee warm.

If it’s worth do­ing, it’s worth do­ing stylishly. As­sert your­self. Get thee to a David Jones, strut your stuff. Be­yond all this scant­ily clad polemic in­tent, how­ever, what I most en­joyed about this book was its vivid ur­ban trawl, how Vivien tem­po­rar­ily dwells in Lon­don’s seedy shad­ow­lands, the cru­cible of Na­tional Front stu­pid­ity and punk at­ti­tude.

Vivien’s search for her self is con­ducted through a city of ‘‘ chip pa­pers, as­phalt bus shel­ters, old age, queues for ev­ery­thing’’. Her punk lover, Claude, is a per­versely se­duc­tive, skit­tish, es­tu­ar­ine crea­ture. He is all pose and dan­ger­ous in­tel­lec­tual vacu­ity; ‘‘ the marshy damp­ness of the Isle of Shep­pey ran through his veins, and the sharp- eyed in­stincts of his tin­ker fore­bears’’.

Claude works on the soot- black­ened Tube that worms un­der Lon­don. There are haunt­ing pas­sages where Vivien plumbs the depths with Claude; there is an oddly quiet, ghoul­ish, pillpop­ping party cruise on the Thames at night, and a fierce cou­pling in the small hours at the end of the metropoli­tan line.

Claude and Un­cle San­dor pos­sess a men­ac­ing vi­tal­ity; they are hard to for­get. Vivien’s par­ents, on the other hand, ex­hibit a stoic, cring­ing sta­sis that is equally mem­o­rable.

Grant is a tal­ented sto­ry­teller who has some­thing se­ri­ous to say, and that’s a pretty exclusive com­mod­ity in a year when the hand­bag will hit $ 100,000. Stella Clarke is a Melbourne lit­er­ary critic, has a PhD from War­wick Univer­sity and has taught ex­ten­sively in Bri­tain and Aus­tralia.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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