“It beats me,’ said my Aussie, as we watched the oncoming drizzle, “why nobody thought of turning this place into a penal colony and exporting the British populace en masse to Australia.”
Barbara Trapido’s novel Brother of the More Famous Jack, originally published in 1982 has recently been reissued. I’ve seen the book described as a coming-of-age novel, and that’s a good description, but at the same time, if it fits, then the ‘coming-of-age’ is a long slow process for the main character as she moves through three major love affairs from age 18 to her 30s. Life is seen through the eyes of a very impressionable young woman from a modest background who’s propelled forward by education into the exotic, eccentric and chaotic world of the Goldmans–a large, sprawling family headed by Professor Jacob Goldman. Eighteen year-old Katherine first meets Professor Goldman when he conducts an interview with her for a University place. Katherine’s deceased father was “a modestly comfortable local greengrocer” and her narrow-minded mother insists on a “genteel North London day school” in order to “acquire the right accent and be fit to mix in the right circles.” Goldman, an outspoken, confident, and bombastic intellectual isn’t what Katherine’s mother had in mind as the sort of person to help shape her daughter. “An impressive and powerful left-wing philosopher up from the East End,” Goldman is an overpowering individual who shows kindness to Katherine, and over time she becomes a part of the Goldman extended family.
You never know when you first meet someone what sort of role he or she is going to play in your life. In Katherine’s case, when she meets the Goldmans and falls in love with the entire family, she has no idea that she’s taken a very specific life course, one that will have profound impact on her choices.
It was a marriage characterized among other things by the fact that Jacob was alternately infuriated and enchanted by Jane’s resolutely playing the country wife. There is no doubt that it influenced the paths that I chose to tread.
Shortly after meeting Goldman for the interview, Katherine finds herself at his home, as the guest of a mutual friend, architect John Millet, a man who plays a strange game with the Goldmans–flirting outrageously with Goldman’s heavily pregnant wife Jane, a “neglected Burne-Jones in Wellingtons” while planning to seduce Katherine under their roof. Katherine suspects, and she’s spot on, that she’s being used as some sort of jealousy tool by Millet. While Goldman dominates the family and rules the roost, Jane, who shares the same opinions with Katherine about Austen’s Emma, is quietly fascinating:
I find her wonderfully gossipy and conspiring. We are drawn together into an intimacy not only by the melodrama in the onion patch, not only by a happy accidental affinity of mind, but because I believe that I answer a need. As women do, she has sacrificed distant female friendships on the altar of a contented marriage. She has been assimilated into her husband’s tribe of male academics, male bohemians, male politicos, and predominantly male children. She makes rapid commitments with the logical clarity of hallucination. She tells me at once that she jacked in Oxford after knowing Jacob for three days and went to live with him instead.
The weekend at the Goldman’s Sussex countryside home seals Katherine’s fate. As an only child from a sterile, confining social-climbing home, she’s entranced by the Goldmans and their boisterous, argumentative and disinhibited children. Professor Goldman’s unabashedly gropes his wife in front of everyone, and his continual references to sex rubs off on the entire family in one way or another. Unlike his father Jacob, the eldest son, Roger, conventional and never comfortable with sex, is destined to become a pillar of the establishment. In another scene Jacob’s small daughter has decided suddenly to inform guest John Millet about physiology:
“Jane’s baby is going to get born through a very stretchy hole,” she says. “And only girls have them. If you’re a boy or a girl you stay a boy or a girl, you know.’ There is more sex education about than I have encountered in my whole life.
That short quote says a lot about the Goldmans’ family dynamic: the children refer to their parents by their first names, and no subject is taboo. Katherine, whose home life is restrictive and conservative, doesn’t see the pathological implications under the surface of the Goldman family and instead she’s entranced by the foreign experience of candid behaviour which we can see borders on rude and abusive at times.
This simple weekend sets Katherine on a course that defines her life well into adulthood–through three major love affairs–all influenced by the Goldmans. It’s not until Katherine is in her 30s that she has occasion to re-evaluate her impressions of the family.
When I picked up Brother of the More Famous Jack, I thought I was going to read a book set in Academia. Although Jacob is a professor, there’s very little here about academic life, and instead the novel is much more about Katherine’s three major loves affairs (which include one disastrous relationship with a very macho, fascistic and bombastic Italian–and am I the only one who thinks that he shares some characteristics with Jacob?). Like most coming-of-age stories, this is a bittersweet tale, and yet also at times quite funny. There’s one wonderful scene when Jane Goldman wants to persuade her son, Jonathan, the “flower child” to take the Oxford Entrance Exam and she’s not getting much help from her husband. Here’s a scene between Katherine, Jane and Jonathan:
‘Katherine is going abroad,’ she said. ‘She’s got herself a very nice job. There’s a moral in that, somewhere, which you might pick up.’
‘Piss off,’ Jonathan said to her. ‘Where are you going, Katherine?’
‘Rome,’ I said. ‘I got some Italian money today. Can I show you my Monopoly money?’ I pulled out of my purse my wad of wonderful lire. We gazed at them, the three of us. Jane started suddenly with new inspiration.
‘You wouldn’t stoop to bribery, would you, Jontikins?’ she said.
Jonathan, who had relaxed over the banknotes, returned to his hostile stare.
‘It’ll take you a lot of fucking Smarties to get me to write that exam, lady,’ he said.
‘I was thinking more of something like six hundred pounds,’ she said. ‘Stay and write the exam and I will give you six hundred pounds. You could have a better time in Europe with the money, you know.’ Jonathan left the room, but suddenly he was there again.
‘You haven’t got it,’ he said.
Although never overplayed, there’s a subtle thread of feminism in this tale–mostly seen through the strong connection between Jane and Katherine and the choices & sacrifices they make in their lives. Katherine’s quiet, steady narrative voice is one of the book’s stronger attractions as she wades through identity, love, rejection and loss in a life full of characters whose dominant personalities vie with her meeker ways. Author Barbara Trapido was born in 1941 in South Africa but now lives in the U.K. I’d never heard the name before seeing this book which, incidentally comes with a glowing review from author Maria Semple. While I didn’t love the book, I liked it a lot and would definitely try another book from this author. Loving the book may hinge on whether or not the readers are as beguiled by the Goldmans as our heroine, Katherine.