Tag Archives: British literature

“Clinging to the Wreckage” by John Mortimer

A short time ago, on March 20, 2016, I reviewed the novel Quite Honestly by John Mortimer. Mortimer’s autobiography Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life just turned up on my bookshelf unexpectedly. I didn’t know I owned it.

My initial reaction was that Mortimer came across better in fiction (particularly in his wonderful Rumpole of the Bailey stories and TV scripts) than in this autobiography. The chapters about his family growing up and his education in liberal British schools that we would call “private” were the best part of the book.

Readers who want to learn about England during and after World War II will especially enjoy Clinging to the Wreckage, as would those with an interest in modern British law and courts.

Clinging to the Wreckage was written when Mortimer was only 59. He lived to age 85, producing a second autobiographical volume in 1994 (Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life) and a third in in 2000 (The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully). Both are available from Amazon used or on cassette tape. Considering the life he led, I hope to read these additional autobiographies even though I found parts of Clinging to the Wreckage to be rambling and somewhat disorganized.

I realized, glancing at a Wikipedia article, that a few years ago I read another of Mortimer’s novels, Summer’s Lease. I liked it, too. (Too bad I read it before I started blogging. It’s probably written up in a journal – somewhere…)

If Horace Rumpole was Mortimer’s only creation, he would be an author of considerable note, but he wrote so much more that he must surely be recognized as one of modern England’s most important authors. So much the better for all of us that he took neither England nor himself all that seriously.


“After Alice – A Novel” by Gregory Maguire

I don’t quite know how to categorize this book. I’d be inclined to say “fan fiction” but I’m quite ignorant about that, and this book seems to be more highly regarded. A blurb on the back cover says it was reviewed in Kirkus Reviews. So I guess it is a “real novel”.

After Alice is a take on the Lewis Carroll classic – not the first I’ve read. It’s whimsical to the point of being bizarre, but so was the original.

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Ada, who barely shows up in the original book. It’s clever and amusing, and the “identity” of the Jabberwocky is a surprise. What I can’t quite figure out is how Maguire came up with Siam, a boy escaped from American slavery, now cared for by a visitor to England. Scarred and traumatized, Siam decides to stay in Wonderland when Alice and Ada go back to their “regular” lives. Are all the characters in Wonderland similar displaced persons?

Maguire also wrote Wicked, a modern version of The Wizard of Oz and source for the wildly popular Broadway musical of that name, which I have not yet seen. I’ll take a look at Wicked (the book) before I decide about Gregory Maguire.

“Quite Honestly” by John Mortimer

I listened to this book during a recent, daylong car trip. Nothing like a good novel to make the miles pass!

John Mortimer is listed in Wikipedia as “barrister, dramatist, screenwriter and author”. Quite Honestly is one of his last novels. In the first few chapters we meet the aristocratic young Lucy, who wants to “do good in the world” and ex-convict Terry. Lucy is supposed to help Terry “reintegrate” into society – find a job and, above all, avoid re-incarceration. The plot starts as a fairly standard rant against “doing good”, but becomes much more interesting when Lucy and Terry become a couple and Lucy takes to crime in order to “understand” Terry, who has told her that he was seeking thrills, not money, in his housebreaking ventures.

Eventually, Lucy is behind bars and Terry goes straight. The plot allows for lots of commentary on contemporary British culture. Most of it has to do with social class. Nothing is ever going to change the fact that Lucy (daughter of an Anglican bishop) and Terry (unknown father, alcoholic mother) come from different worlds.

I first encountered John Mortimer when his “Rumple of the Bailey” stories were televised on BBC. With Leo Kern as Horace Rumpole, the series ran to 44 episodes. British television humor at its best! If I am ever stuck in a body cast, I hope someone will show up with the whole Rumpole series to keep me entertained.

Both Mortimer and Kern are fine artists. Enjoy!

“Persuasion” by Jane Austen

I re-read Persuasion because it was selected by a book group. We were asked to read the first ten chapters (out of 24), but I couldn’t stop and finished the book. One of the major plot twists (a dire injury) comes after Chapter 10, so our discussion was somewhat limited. And confused, since we kept wandering past Chapter 10.

As a comedy of manners, this book rates 100%. Jane Austen is, as always, observant and very witty.

Thinking back to Mansfield Park (see blog entry May 25, 2013), I have asked myself whether this is also a book about morals. Yes, to some extent. The moral question being explored is the value of “constancy” or “firmness” in a person’s character. Austen’s characters seem to value it, but at a crucial moment in the plot (the “dire injury” referenced above), firmness becomes stubbornness, with a disastrous outcome. Austen makes note of this, but it is not analyzed in any depth.

Jane Austen will always be a “go to” author when I want to soothe myself by reading.