Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Realms of Gold by Margaret Drabble

This is a very agreeable book, fun, instuctive, and pleasant to read.  It follows the life of a well-to-do (through a previous marriage), successful, and rather scattered archaeologist.  There is an overarching plot question whether she will get back together with her previous lover, but it concerns us only intermittently.  She has four children who play a surprisingly small role in her life, and Drabble gives considerable attention to her parents, her brother, his children, and other relatives on her father’s side.   One of them is a depressingly ordinary provincial housewife, not as interesting as Emma Bovary, who provides a kind of foil to the protagonist.  While Emma was going to the opera, cousin Janet is reading John Updike.  Drabble pays a lot of attention to her professional life and her archeology of Carthaginian-Meroetic trade routs is convincing and interesting, as her conferences are convincing and amusing. Drabble portrays the characters with witty and sometimes lighthearted realism.  Deeply influenced as we all are, willy-nilly, by psychodynamic theory, we tend to expect deep motivation in serious novels, and Drabble sketches in such motivation, but, like the tension of the protagonist's love affair, it is mostly in the background.  Her family evidently has a depressive gene, and her lover had terrible childhood in Central Europe, but, as in real life, what moves characters to action tends to be more momentary issues, what is going on scene-to-scene.  This day-to-day impetus seems to me realistic (Don't forget Drabble did her dissertation on Arnold Bennet) and even liberating, although some might call the book weak on motivation.  The writing is mostly good, often witty, and occasionally lovely.  The book has some very funny scenes, for example the provincial cousin's dinner party.  I laughed aloud several times, particularly scenes involving the lover's false teeth, which the protagonist carries as a keepsake.  The lover sometimes beats up his wife (who eventually leaves him for some one else), although in general he is an almost obsessively nice guy.  These fisticuffs certainly raise issues about Drabble’s standing as a feminist, which she is generally accounted, even considering the attitudes when it was written — the late 60's or early 70's.  The protagonist, certainly a very likable character, is sanguine about their scenes.  It is not quite clear how Drabble feels.  The protagonist also drinks too much; that’s just the way it is.  This novel combines a serious look at several slices of British society with a relaxing spirit of 'that’s just the way it is.'