Excellent read. Though a lot of the characters are mean, nasty, or downright terrifying.
Book I: Never Mind
There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intention, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks.
He always gave larger tips to people who called him ‘Guv’. He knew it, and they knew it, it was what was called a ‘civilized arrangement’.
At the piano he could sometimes abandon the ironic tactics which saturated his speech, and visitors whom he had bullied and teased to the point of exasperation found themselves moved by the piercing sadness of the music in the library. On the other hand, he could turn the piano on them like a machine gun and concentrate a hostility into his music that made them long for the more conventional unkindness of his conversation. Even then, his playing would haunt the people who most wanted to resist his influence.
‘I’m afraid I don’t approve of memorial services,’ said David, taking another puff on his cigar. ‘Not merely because I cannot imagine anything in most men’s lives that deserves to be celebrated, but also because the delay between the funeral and the memorial service is usually so long that, far from rekindling the spirit of a lost friend, it only shows how easily one can live without him.’
‘I don’t despise people from the middle classes, on the contrary, the further from them, the better,’ said Nicholas, shooting one of his cuffs. ‘It’s people in the middle classes that disgust me.’ ‘Nicholas, of course, is an expert,’ David intervened, ‘having personally raised several women from the gutter.’ ‘At considerable expense,’ Nicholas agreed.
Book II: Bad News
‘When I was young,’ he said, ‘my father used to take us to restaurants. I say “restaurants” in the plural, because we never stormed in and out of less than three. Either the menu took too long to arrive, or a waiter struck my father as intolerably stupid, or the wine list disappointed him. I remember he once held a bottle of red wine upside down while the contents gurgled out onto the carpet. “How dare you bring me this filth?” he shouted. The waiter was so frightened that instead of throwing him out, he brought more wine.’
Sometimes, driven on by horror at his own ignorance and a determination to conquer a difficult book, or even a seminal text, he would take a copy of something like Seven Types of Ambiguity or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire out of his bookshelves only to find that its opening pages were already covered in spidery and obscure annotations in his own handwriting. These traces of an earlier civilization would have reassured him if he had any recollection at all of the things he had obviously once read, but this forgetfulness made him panic instead. What was the point of an experience if it eluded him so thoroughly? His past seemed to turn to water in his cupped hands and to slip irretrievably through his nervous fingers.
There was only about twenty seconds before the blood coagulated and then he would be shooting a heart-arresting clot into his bloodstream. But if he didn’t shoot it up the fix would be ruined.
Book III: Some Hope
‘We’ve got some like that. One lot have been with us for twenty generations.’ ‘Shows an amazing lack of initiative when you think of the conditions we keep them in,’ said Peter mischievously. Both men guffawed, and agreed that that was just the sort of thing one shouldn’t say during one’s famous television appearances.
The second speaker identified one hundred per cent with what Angie had said about her veins being ‘the envy of Kilburn’, because his veins had been the envy of Wimbledon. There was general merriment.
He regretted agreeing to have dinner alone with Patrick, whose corrosive criticism and drug nostalgia and stylized despair often left Johnny feeling agitated and confused.
Diplomats, thought Nicholas, long made redundant by telephones, still preserved the mannerisms of men who were dealing with great matters of state. He had once seen Jacques d’Alantour fold his overcoat on a banister and declare with all the emphasis of a man refusing to compromise over the Spanish Succession, ‘I shall put my coat here.’ He had then placed his hat on a nearby chair and added with an air of infinite subtlety, ‘But my hat I shall put here. Otherwise it may fall!’ as if he were hinting that on the other hand some arrangement could be reached over the exact terms of the marriage.
Scanning the shelves, his eye fell on a volume called The Journal of a Disappointed Man, and next to it a second volume called More Journals of a Disappointed Man, and finally, by the same author, a third volume entitled Enjoying Life.
She reminds me of a story about Henry Miller visiting his dying mother with a pilot friend of his called Vincent. The old woman looked at her son and then at Vincent and said, “If only I could have a son like you, Vincent.”’
Bridget’s friend advised her to ‘go on the warpath’, thinking this was the policy likely to yield the largest number of amusing anecdotes.
Book IV: Mother’s Milk
JOSH PACKER WAS A boy in Robert’s class at school. He had decided (all on his own) that they were best friends. Nobody else could understand why they were inseparable, least of all Robert.
You’re bored and lonely; I’m bored and lonely.’ ‘God,’ said Patrick, ‘if we got together, there would be a terrifying amount of boredom and loneliness in the room.’ ‘Or maybe they have opposite electrical charges and they’d cancel each other out.’ ‘Are you positively or negatively bored?’ ‘Positively,’ said Julia. ‘And I’m absolutely and positively lonely.’
‘are you your own worst enemy?’ ‘I certainly hope so,’ said Patrick. ‘I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.’
Do you think Drumbeat of my Heart or Heartbeat of my Drum is better?
The climate here is impossible: we’re up to our waists in snow until the middle of May, and two weeks later we’re living in Vietnam.’
Book V: At Last
An American called Gary kicked off the sharing with the words, ‘Let me give you a scenario: suppose you were sent to Germany for work, and suppose a friend you hadn’t heard from in a long time called you up and came to visit with you from the States…’ After a tale of shocking exploitation and ingratitude, he asked the group what he should say to this friend. ‘Cut them out of your life,’ said the bitter and abrasive Terry, ‘with friends like that, who needs enemies?’ ‘Okay,’ said Gary, relishing his moment, ‘and suppose I told you that this “friend” was my mother, what would you say then? Why would that be so different?’ Consternation raced through the Group.
‘But you can’t pretend that your mother was a fan of the common man. Didn’t she buy the entire village street that ran along the boundary wall of the Pavillon Colombe, in order to demolish it and expand the garden? How many houses was that?’ ‘Twenty-seven,’ said Nancy, cheering up.
It was true that Daddy had the bad habit of buying Mummy extremely expensive presents, which she had to pay for. When she said, ‘Oh, darling, you shouldn’t have,’ she really meant it.
As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.
At the time, she had said that he was too cowardly to apply, but on holiday with the Melroses she admitted the truth, ‘I only wanted to move to London so I could complain about the air quality and the schools.’
‘A celebrity these days is somebody you’ve never heard of,’ Nicholas boomed, ‘just as “j’arrive” is what a French waiter says as he hurries away from you in a Paris cafe.
She had a few little pockets of friendship, each assuming that there was something more central, but in fact there was nothing in the middle.