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Martin Boyd, A difficult young man

February 3, 2010
Martin Boyd's A difficult young man

Difficult but handsome (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

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.

Martin Boyd
A difficult young man
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781920898960

(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.)

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2010 12:44 pm

    Re. This novel though can clearly stand on its own …

    That’s good to know. I’ve had a copy of this for a while, along with the fourth book, When Blackbirds Sing, and never read either of them because I wasn’t sure how they would stand up without the rest.

    • February 4, 2010 4:06 pm

      Oh give them a go … I’d love to know what you think. I think Guy, the narrator, disappears from the fourth so it might be a bit different…but there’s certainly no sense in A difficult young man that you are missing some critical information.

  2. February 4, 2010 9:06 pm

    I’ve checked the local library system and they’ve got a copy of the first book in the quartet. I’ll ask if they can send me that, then move on to Difficult, then see if I have any luck locating number three.

    • February 4, 2010 9:59 pm

      Great … I look forward to your response. They really are a fascinating family…

      • February 14, 2010 10:53 am

        I’ve read the first two books now and I liked them so much I’m wondering if I can schedule a secondhand bookshop run to find a copy of the third. To answer something you wondered about in your post, I thought Crown was a better book. By ‘better’ here I mean more complex, more layered, more experimental, therefore deeper-seeming, and a bit more meditative and intelligent.

        In Crown the narrator is writing about his family as it was before he was born, which means that he has to borrow his information from his grandmother’s diary, and from discussions with his uncle, and so his uncertainty is greater, and his acknowledgement of that uncertainty is greater — he points out that his uncle’s stories are affected by the man’s opinions about women, and his personal likes and dislikes. When he describes his elders as they were when they were young, he reminds us that he’s still picturing them as they were when they were old, and that therefore he is trying to graft the behaviour of old-grandmother onto that of young-grandmother — and perhaps the result is skewed in ways that he can’t see — and so on. By the end the whole thing is a collage made up of quotes from the grandmother’s diary, pieces of reported speech from the uncle, letters from other characters here and there, and memories and guesswork from the narrator. Difficult Young Man is a simpler book because he doesn’t have to draw on so many scraps of information from people who are dead and unable to explain themselves. More often he can say, “I was there, I saw it happen,” or, “I heard about it the day after it happened, from people who were present,” or, “I saw the aftermath as it occurred.”

        I didn’t latch onto the similarities with Austen, but I think the debt he owes to Proust would be evident even if he didn’t acknowledge it by starting Crown with a sentence from The Captive. The idea that people at his level of society were more likely to become fishermen or newspaper-sellers than go into middle-class trade jobs is the kind of irony that P. would have picked up on: the idea that separate branches of humanity are like species of animal that have refined themselves so well with their evolutionary adaptations that they might not be able to function in ways that would seem natural to the majority of other people. Members of Guy’s class go into trade as readily as koalas drink from rivers.

        Branda Niall, who wrote an introduction to my library copy of Crown, says that when the books came out a British critic likened them to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, and I can see it. The moderate, questioning tone is very similar. They share the idea of a narrator who knows he doesn’t know everything.

  3. February 4, 2010 9:08 pm

    Boyd is one of my favourite authors, I love everything he wrote and am inclined to be indignant with readers who don’t like him because he’s too “English”.
    Brenda Niall has written a wonderful bio of the Boyds, which is well worth reading before you read The Cardboard Crown or any of the others. It’s rare for me to recommend doing something like this, but I found that the biography really did enhance my pleasure in TCC.

    • February 4, 2010 9:58 pm

      Thanks Lisa … I read some controversy re Niall’s bio and someone else who implied Martin committed suicide. Do you know anything about that? Anyhow, I also want to read Lucinda Brayford sometime…

  4. February 14, 2010 1:54 pm

    Thanks DKS for that extensive comment … you really have whetted my appetite to read crown which I have. I’m always torn between the books I “have” to read for my various groups and the books I’d like to read. Your last comment in particular re the narrator speaks to one of the things I loved about the book. I enjoy – if its well done – self-conscious narration and the “playing” with the reader that that implies. It is certainly not something Austen did (so no resonance there) – though she does in Northanger Abbey make the comment near the end to the effect that the reader knows all will resolve soon because there aren’t many more pages to read! I loved that!

    Shame on me but I haven’t read Proust – not great on the French classics – and so I wouldn’t pick up resonances with him. Just shows how much our interpretation of texts can be affected by our literary as well as “real” experiences doesn’t it? I have some sympathy for literary theories which accept that idea.

    • February 15, 2010 10:41 pm

      The way he kept the self-conscious narration flowing along evenly, in spite of all those different sources, was, I thought, one of the most impressive things about the book. The disparate parts of the collage have such individual tones (even though the same author is inventing all of them) that it would have been easy to let the whole Crown turn into a jerky stop-start stop-start piece of work: — now we’re going to have a bit of direct action from the diary, now we’re going to grind to a halt while the narrator thinks about the action we’ve just seen and wonders how accurate his memory is, now we jerk back into action again as the uncle comes along with some semi-racy tale about women wiggling their behinds — etc, etc. But it all moves along at the same quick pace.

      The interpretation of texts thing — yes. (There is a passage in Proust that smacks of David Copperfield. I recognised the connection when I came across it, and I’d be prepared to swear that he must have had Dickens somewhere in his mind while he was writing those few paragraphs, and yet I can’t see a resemblance to Ruskin anywhere, even though Lost Time must absolutely stink of Ruskin, Ruskin-enthusiast that P. was — why? — because I haven’t read Ruskin. But I have read Copperfield. So I see the minor resemblance but not the major one.) Re. Austen, there’s a certain way she uses little diminishing words like ‘nice’, and I think, ‘very’, that I sometimes come across echoes of here and there in the work of more modern British writers, particularly women, even though ‘nice’ no longer has the same meaning of ‘fastidious’ that it did for her. There’s a way to make innocuous words quite sharp, and she had it. Jane Gardam has a good ear for ‘very.’ I think it’s ‘very’. One of those words that English teachers tell you at school never to use, anyway.

      • February 15, 2010 11:06 pm

        Yes, we were taught that about “nice” too – and yet I like to use it sometimes in its finer though not quite Jane Austen era meaning of the word. I suspect most don’t get the nuance but I still like to do it anyhow. Of course, other times I use it loosely and lazily which rather spoils the effect when I use it, well, “nicely”!! I have read Jane Gardam – just one book and a long time ago. I have often thought I’d like to read it again.

  5. February 23, 2010 9:22 am

    Coincidence: I’ve been reading Northanger Abbey for the first time and came across this discussion of ‘nice’:


    “But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

    “The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

    “Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

    “I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

    “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

    “While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best.”

    • February 23, 2010 4:52 pm

      Oh, I should have remembered that. I am very fond of Henry…he can be a little pompous but he is such fun, and earnest about the important things like words and books! And he knows muslins as well! I reread this 2 or 3 years ago but must do it again. Now though, my Austen re-read is Mansfield Park – a very different kettle of fish. (And, btw, you haven’t told me which part of the US you are going to. I’d love to know).


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