Layers of depth in paternal portraits
‘ THERE is no more sombre enemy of good art,’’ wrote Cyril Connolly, ‘‘ than the pram in the hall.’’ Ironic, then, that so many good writers, especially 20th-century writers, should choose to explore the theme of fatherhood. For even as he shields his ears against the baby’s piercing cries, the chances are that the writer next door is trying to come to terms with the fact that his father seemed a distant figure.
Nor should we begrudge him this indulgence. After all, many exceptional works of 20thcentury literature — from Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son to Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Martin Amis’s Experience — have centred on the theme of fatherhood, or dealt with it substantially.
When John Mortimer died last month, it was to his play A Voyage Round My Father that many friends and commentators pointed as one of his most touching works. Even the new incumbent at the White House manages to get in on the act: his first book was titled Dreams From My Father . Whence comes this modern obsession with fathers? Perhaps part of the answer has to do with our increasing tendency towards introspection. During the past 100 years or so, the general thrust of literature has been towards the psychological, and engagement with family allows writers to explore their past and isolate the influences that went into forming their personalities.
The focus is rather neatly summarised in Alexander Waugh’s engaging memoir cum family history, Fathers and Sons ( 2004), the title of which is almost certainly an allusion to Gosse’s 1907 classic: Samuel Butler believed that every son is given a new lease of life on the death of his father. This might well be true. In my
That someone with the surname Waugh should find such feelings disconcerting is not perhaps to be wondered at. ( Alexander’s father, Auberon, would sometimes berate him for indulging in ‘‘ self-think’’.) But concerted or not, the author has identified what seems to me an increasing tendency: the tendency on the part of the modern writer to mine the subject of their paternity with a view to extracting the diamond of self-knowledge.
The latest issue of Granta magazine, the first with Alex Clark at the helm, collects together short stories, nonfiction, graphic art and poetry on or around the subject of fatherhood. It also contains a number of small essays in which writers attempt to give a sense of their fathers’ personalities by commenting on a photograph printed on the opposite page.
One of these photographs — of Reina James and her father, the Carry On actor Sid James — also serves as the book’s front cover and is, I think, particularly striking, if only because this tender scene ( Reina is feeding Sid a chip) is so far away from James’s on-screen persona. Certainly it gives an excellent sense of the kinds of emotional excavation undertaken by the various contributors.
The different pieces orbit the theme of fatherhood at radically different distances. Some, indeed, are so far out that one wonders what they are doing here at all, though in the case of Will Self’s riff on pipe-smoking and Emma Donoghue’s dramatic monologue Man and Boy , I’m glad that they have been included.
Others are up close and ( very) personal. Ruchir Joshi’s Tracing Puppa is a wonderful tribute to his father, Shivkumar, a minor Gujarati writer and a man of adamantine integrity, while David Goldblatt’s Doing the Paperwork is a deeply moving reminiscence that brings together two kinds of paperwork: the kind his father never did ( the tax returns and other necessaries that go along with running a business — in his case a business specialising in spanking) and the kind the author himself must