The Careless

My last read but one (I´m a bit late on the blogging at the moment) was Margaret Drabble´s "The Gates of Ivory" (= Sw. "Elfenbensporten") from 1991, which has just been re-published by Modernista, in a series of modern classics. It was very favourably reviewed in one of the newspapers I read, so I suggested to my reading friend that we go for it in tandem, as I have always wanted to read Drabble, if only for the quote about sandwiches, which I can not find in English, so I don´t know if she actually said it like this:
"Det finns ingen anledning, till varför man inte skulle kunna njuta av smörgåsar och kärlek i evighet.Till skillnad från vissa andra tycks dessa nöjen inte ha någon inbyggd förslitning." (= There is no reason why one couldn´t enjoy sandwiches and love for all eternity. Unlike some others, these pleasures seem to have no natural tendency to wear. - Ok, probably all wrong; it´s weird and dangerous to translate back and forth.)
Anyway! It turned out that "The Gates of Ivory" is the last in a series of three novels, the first being "The Radiant Way" and the second "A Natural Curiosity". Not that I think it matters very much. I have checked out the reviews of all the novels in the New York Times (where they still write excellent and learned reviews - Swedish critics are not as sharp as we think they used to be, and it has been up for debate in the newspapers all winter), and they only confirm my decision not to read the other two. Not that this - or the others, I imagine - is a bad novel, on the contrary. It is very well written, and I never once felt inclined to put it down (it is 400 pages) even though the characters are a bunch of ridiculous people.

From the terracotta army - the only vaguely fitting illustration
 I coulf find in my photo collection.
The person who is the engine of the story is Stephen Cox, a middle-aged author famous for a Booker Award-winning novel about the Paris Commune. He is estranged from his mother and his brothers, and lives a rather quite single life in a small flat in London. Now - in 1985, that is - he decides to go looking for Pol Pot, to write a book or a play about him. It seems he is also looking for some meaning of life other than hoarding money, luxury items, and praise, which was the way of the 80´s, if you remember. So, he leaves his friends behind and disappear in the Far East. A couple of years later, his friend Liz Headleand, a divorced psychiatrist, recieves a package containing some of his notebooks and other papers, along with a human finger.

Now, what would you do if one of your friends, of whom you have heard nothing for years, suddenly sent you a package like that? A human finger, for Pete´s sake! Well, Liz Headleand does... not much. She phones another one of Stephen´s friends, Hattie (who also lives in Stephen´s flat while he is away), they get together, and do... pretty much nothing.

There are others - most left-leaning intellectuals who passed Cambridge or Oxford, most of them in important jobs with the government or BBC or something like that, all high-status people - at the fringes of this story, some of whom were probably more prominent in the earlier novels. They go in and out of the different scenes Drabble sets up and what strikes me most about all of them are their... carelessness. I mean both that they are careless as in negligent and reckless, but also indifferent and unconcerned. Marilynne Robinson writes, in her critique of "The Radiant Way", the first book in this series, and I think it applies to this one, too:
"The emotional withdrawal proposed to us in ''The Radiant Way'' is truly radical. Cast off familial and social bonds and what is left? Liz Headleand doing lunch, being brilliant, though somehow never in our hearing. This novel is a valuable specimen of a new consciousness. It has no other claim on the reader's attention."
Linda Simon, who reviewed "The Gates of Ivory", goes a bit farther:
""The Gates of Ivory" is intellectually stimulating and, as we might expect from Ms. Drabble, very smart. But ideas do not make a novel. Characters do. And we need to care about them, deeply."
What is the point of all these secondary characters? asked my friend in our discussion. My guess is that Drabble wants to show us how important Stephen Cox is to Liz - or, how unimportant, rather - and how little his fate concerns those who call themselves his friends. They don´t care much. In the end, Liz goes looking for Stephen, not because she starts caring all of a sudden, but because it is the right thing to do. I get the feeling it´s about being seen to do the right thing.

The only person in this story that I like is Miss Porntip, a Thai former beauty queen, born in a mountain village, grown up in the massage parlours of Bangkok, now a wealthy entrepreneur who collects gems and interesting and useful boyfriends. She takes a liking to Stephen and tries to convince him that there is no simple paradise in communism, rather that the only way to happiness is through capitalism, fashion, medical care, refrigerators, maple syrup, et cetera. Stephen is not convinced and instead seeks the company of two like-minded photographers and lets them guide him on his journey into the Cambodian countryside. Miss Porntip also has a heart, and later gives much help to Liz in her search. (I would have given you a nice quote here, if I hadn´t read the Swedish translation.)

There are a couple of scenes that I really like, where I can relate all of a sudden. One is a lunch with Liz and her best friend Alix, where Drabble really nails how the balance in a friendship can shift when one of them does not do the required sharing but holds something back (in this case a very private matter concerning a husband´s health), and how icy it can become under the surface for reason that can hardly be acknowledged (being fundamentally unfair, after all).

My reading friend also pointed out how archetypal the characters all were (we both took part in a study circle on Jean Shinoda Bolen´s theories a few years ago), and we started discussing what archetypes - according to Bolen´s pantheon - fit whom - like how Stephen Cox is a Hades character, drawn to death; how one of the photographers he befriends is a Hermes archetype, a messenger who guides people back and forth from the Kingdom of Death (one of the refugee camps); how Miss Porntip is very Artemis-like, an independent force; and how some characters shift from one archetype to another, or inhabit several; for example, Liz, who is divorced, still carries the written offer of marriage that her ex-husband gave her, probably thirty years before, in a zipped-up compartment her handbag, which I think signals a Hera (wife) archetype in the past, no longer active, but not quite forgotten either. We agreed that the novel really is very suitable for this kind of discussion, and I suspect that it will linger in my mind for quite some time, and that we will perhaps discuss scenes later on.

Also, I googled "the ivory gates" and it seems this, originally from the Odyssey, refers to deceiving, false dreams. Which makes our discussion connecting the characters to the Greek pantheon even more relevant, I feel.

A week ago I thought it improbable that I would read anything more by Drabble, but now that some more time has passed, I think that with the kind of reading that my friend suggested, mythologically slanted, as it were, would be very rewarding. So, now I think it likely that I will pick up more Drabble in the future. She certainly is interesting.


  1. I haven't read anything by her, but I know a bit about her: that she's A.S. Byatt's sister and that they are estranged, that she claims an anti-Americanism based on her opposition to our post-9/11 foreign policy, and that she's won literary prizes (though isn't as acclaimed as Byatt). I don't think I've ever seen one of her books on a shelf in a bookstore, but maybe I've just never noticed her. I'll look specifically for her next time. Thanks!

    1. Yes, I am aware of this relation and the feud - although in a recent interview somewhere one of them (can´t remember which) said it was some kind of hoax, or a joke misinterpreted and getting spread that neither had bothered to deny. Perhaps feuding sisters are more memorable than happy friends, and they want to be noted and sell books, right? ;-)

      She does have a lot to say about politics; this book has lengthy (and interesting) passages about the wars in and around Cambodia. She was also married to, and has children with, Clive Swift, who plays Hyacinth Bucket´s long-suffering husband in "Keeping up appearances".

      She certainly is interesting.