Feeling down? Then frock up
The Clothes on Their Backs By Linda Grant Virago, 293pp, $ 32.99
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.