Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Old Filth
Jane Gardam
Europa Editions, 2006
U.S. trade paper, reprint
ISBN 1-933372-13-3
256 pages; $14.95

When I picked up Old Filth, I expected a book full of Sir Edward Feathers’s reminiscences about a life at the bar in Imperial England – specifically, in the Hong Kong referred to in the title. (“Filth” means, for a British solicitor or barrister, “Failed in London – Try Hongkong.”) After all, this book was about the life of a solicitor who ultimately became a judge, reaching the pinnacle of achievement in his profession, and in a foreign culture at that. And what is life about, for a lawyer, but his triumphs and his wretchedly unfair defeats?

But this book isn’t about a life at the bar. It is about the life of Sir Edward, from his earliest days on earth to his last. It is about an adult life full of wealth and regard, yet one that was not truly happy; professionally fulfilling, certainly, but with unhappiness lurking in every corner. It’s a remarkable character study, skillfully written so that the reader makes discoveries from inferences while enjoying language so lovely that it sinks into the brain like a song.

Old Filth skips about in time, rather like an old man’s reminiscences – an odd and sometimes confusing structure, but one that works. One moment the elderly Sir Edward is in a hotel recovering from a sprain, and the next the child Eddie is suffering at the hands of a vituperative caregiver. Sir Edward’s memories range from his birth in Malay (as Malaysia was then known), to a bitterly unhappy childhood in Wales, through prep school, World War II, Oxford and to the Orient. The memories are fully lived, almost surprises to the man. They are interwoven with his discoveries of truths he deliberately avoided or literally never knew, because he buried himself in work and in the rhythms of a staid, formal and out-moded Victorian colonialism. Old Filth’s declining years are full of renewed acquaintances with old enemies, distant cousins, and former lovers, who inspire new memories that come unbidden. The sturdy old man he has become gradually makes peace with his life – and, ultimately, his death.

I don’t wish to say too much more about this book here, because it is so full of unexpected buried pearls, hidden amethysts and sudden kindnesses. And it surprises, too, with the occasional bright happiness of a friendship of old age or the dark despair of childhood secrets. Rather, I’d prefer just to urge you to go, find it, read it, and let’s discuss it. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years, beautifully written and extraordinarily well-plotted, and I give it my highest recommendation.