There is a decidedly autumnal tone to Last Friends, the concluding novel in Jane Gardam’s magnificent trilogy (no hyperbole here, I assure you) about Sir Edward Feathers and the colourful cast – sometimes supporting, nearly as often taking the lead – that both enriches and envenoms his life. But let’s back up a bit, since you’ll need to know something about the first two books. (Those who have read them may skip ahead a few paragraphs.)
Old Filth begins the chronicle of the life and circle of Sir Edward Feathers. Moving seamlessly through novelistic time and space, Gardam gives us a man whose life seems to the lawyers of London’s Inner Temple an unbroken triumph, but who in fact, we learn, is as fragmented, uncertain and, finally, unknowable as any of us. He is an orphan of the Empire and a lonely peregrinator of the planet who is at home nowhere, and certainly not in England. Even his long and devoted (the devotion is largely his) marriage to Betty is not all that it seems. Old Filth is a marvellously compressed tragicomedy: subtle, layered, witty, inventive. A masterpiece.
Oh, and the name. Filth refers not to any hygienic or moral failing on Feathers’s part; rather, it is an acronym for the arc of his career: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.
The almost equally brilliant The Man in the Wooden Hat could have as easily been titled Scenes from a Marriage, or Betty’s Lovers. It is the story of an awkward, decades-long marriage told from the point of view of Betty Feathers, who, as the novel opens, is dead. This is giving nothing away. In Gardam’s light but profound and moving telling, it is the story of a marriage that somehow sustains itself, despite fundamental incompatibilities of character, despite Filth’s paralyzing fear that his wife might at any moment leave him, and despite Betty’s far greater attraction to Terry Veneering, Filth’s trilogy-long rival in law and love.
And now to Last Friends.
If Old Filth was Eddie Feathers’s book, and The Man in the Wooden Hat was Betty’s, Last Friends belongs largely to Terry Veneering, detailing, as much of it does, the mysteries of his origins and his name, their gradual uncovering being one of this book’s chief pleasures. Readers of Dickens will have noted the borrowing of the name and its implications from the comic parvenus of Our Mutual Friend. Neither liking nor understanding one another, Filth and Veneering have somehow found themselves richly retired to adjacent piles in rural Dorset, where neither is quite at home, and where neither will be permitted to die. As reluctant neighbours, they eventually discover an uneasy companionship, and solace, in chess. But be prepared for surprises – early and often.
The only one of these surprises I am prepared to reveal is the ascension – a necessary ascension, you will find – to central roles of two minor characters from the earlier novels. The flighty, forgetful and funny Dulcie, widow of a Hong Kong judge, is prone to confused, abrupt and haphazardly delightful conversations. The egregious tightwad Fred Fiscal-Smith, another lawyer, is unloved and usually unwelcome, “a little enigmatic scarecrow … born to be a background figure.” Yet he is very much foregrounded here, particularly in a funny early scene in which he and Dulcie find themselves locked inside an unheated church in the cold of winter, and vexed by age and its accompanying incompetencies. So skilled is Gardam that she can paint what feel like intimate portraits of even minor characters in single sentences, overheard conversations and apparently throwaway lines.
Among the marvels of the Filth trilogy is the implied contrast between the often repressed romantic intensity of the characters – Filth in particular – and the very prosaic nature of the international lawyering in engineering and construction that have made both Feathers and Veneering very rich men.
If Last Friends is a (slightly) lesser novel than its predecessors, it’s only because some readers may find the abrupt shifts in time and tone disorienting, though I might argue they’re an objective correlative for the state of mind of the characters, all of them expatriates, and all of them coming of age during the Second World War and thus nonagenarians, or nearly so. The idea of old friends cuts several ways.
The overall tone is, as is befitting of the wryly octogenarian author, autumnal, but certainly not elegiac. Gardam is far too wedded to her darkly comic fun to indulge. Yet this is certainly a novel about aging and death, and not just the deaths – occurring and impending – of its dramatis personae, but the death of an age, of an Empire that has formed almost everyone in Filth’s world, of a way of English being. It is also Gardam’s grappling with mortality. For her readers, mortality loses.
Finally, a word of advice. Last Friends can, I suppose, be read on its own, but by far the richest and most rewarding path is to begin with Old Filth and read the trilogy in order. It seems to me a surpassingly luminous literary achievement and deserves to be experienced as it was written.
Martin Levin is the former Books editor of The Globe and Mail.