I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the delightful sly wit I found in Martin Boyd’s A difficult young man, which, I understand, is the second book in the “Langton Quartet”. This novel though can clearly stand on its own – otherwise, why would Sydney University Press publish it alone as part of its Australian Classics Library? Is it the best written of the four? The most readable? The one most commonly studied (which goes back to the original question anyhow)? Or was it simple a case of eeny-meeny-miny-moe? (Even “eeny meeny miny moe” has a Wikipedia article – how great is that?) Whatever the reason, my appetite has been whetted, and the first book, A cardboard crown, will now be promoted in my TBR pile.
Anyhow, back to the serious stuff. I know it was written in a completely different place and oh, nearly a sesquicentenary later, but there’s more than a whisper of Jane Austen about Boyd’s book. Superficially, this book and Austen’s works are very different: this is not a romance – but then neither is that Jane Austen’s focus either; its main characters are male rather than female; it has an autobiographical thread which none of Austen’s novels do; and it uses first person rather than Austen’s omniscient third person narrator. The similarities are, rather, in language (their wit and irony) and form (both write what can be described as social satire). I may be the first person to have put these two authors in the same sentence, but, well, that’s the fun of being a blogger: you can say it as you see it! And what I see is that both writers make me chuckle with their observations on human nature.
So what is the plot? The story is narrated by Guy Langton (a veiled Martin), who is the fourth son of Steven and Laura Langton. He focuses on the late adolescence-early adulthood of the eldest living son, Dominic (inspired by – but not – Merric), the “difficult young man” of the title, who, as the story progresses, manages to fail in, or otherwise mess up, pretty well everything he does. Through the course of the book the family moves from Australia (Melbourne and environs) to the family seat in England and back to Australia again. The book chronicles a number of domestic crises, at the root of which is usually Dominic who somehow undermines “the various attempts to fit him into some place in the world”. In many ways though, the book is just as much about Guy who, through the process of narration, works to find a balance between “the unaltered impression” of “my childish mind” and “the glaze of adult knowledge”. This is a clever book which reads like, but is not, an autobiography.
It’s an engaging story – not so much for its rather episodic plot as for its array of wonderful and mostly eccentric characters, from the social-climbing arriviste Aunt Baba (who thinks anyone who does “a kindness from which they received no benefit” is silly) to the gentle, wise but somewhat ingenuous father, Steven. My favourite aspect of the book though is its style. I usually enjoy self-conscious narrators, and Guy is definitely that. He regularly addresses the reader directly, reminding us that he can use “the mask of a character in the story” and advising us of which “glaze” he is applying at the time. In this way he lets us know which parts might be more suspect than others in terms of the “facts”, which he recognises as being different from the “truth”:
..but the reader must take certain wild statements as intended for fun, though they contain an element of truth too subtle to be confined within the limits of accurate definition. One can make exact statements of fact, but not of truth, which is why the scientist is forever inferior to the artist.
And this brings us to another concern of the novel and that is the importance of the imagination. In many ways the book is a hymn to the creative life, a statement of the Boyds’ belief that a life lived without imagination is probably a life not worth living. It also makes a plea for humane values, for peace not war, for gentle not brutal discipline of children, for education that is not conformist. The book is set in the years leading up to World War 1 and the point is made that life before the war – the “secure civilisation” – was to change irrevocably after.
In addition to irony, Boyd uses a wide range of literary techniques rather effectively, such as foreshadowing which teases us while at the same time directing our understanding, analogies, contradiction, and allusions (particularly to art and literature). All of these imbue the book with a reflectiveness that undermines a focus on plot.
There are so many strands to this novel – its style, diverse subject matter, and characterisation – that would be fun to explore, but that would leave nothing for the rest of you to talk about, so I will finish with a statement made by the narrator towards the end of the novel:
This is really what I am seeking for throughout this novel, the Memlinc in the cellar, the beautiful portrait of the human face, lost in the dissolution of our family and our religion.
I am doubtless romanticising the Bynghams [maternal ancestors], but there is an element of truth in what I write, which is all I ever claim. Also everyone romanticises what interests him.
As he does so often in the novel, he says one thing here and then undermines it immediately after. But it works, and it works because life is messy and contradictory and yet out of this mess and contradiction comes a vision of something that is real and enduring – and that is the transcendence of family, and the importance of imagination.
A difficult young man
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009
(Review copy supplied by Sydney University Press. This is the last of 12 books that my friend Lisa (aka ANZLitLovers) and I received to review. We believe more will be published in this series: if these 12 are anything to go by we are in for a real treat – and the cause of Australian literature can only profit from that.)