The painfully awkward Head Girl

Novelist Margaret Drabble's self-exposure in a new autobiography is both uncomfortable and illuminating

This year’s valedictory in the Eng. Lit. School of Life is given by the Head Girl, Margaret Drabble. She doesn’t seem very pleased to have been asked, pokes her pencil in the eyes of people she has not enjoyed, and—in saying too much about a number of topics of little interest and less importance to her audience—manages, alas, to give everyone present an all-too-informative insight into her own character.

It is immensely enjoyable.

The speech is called The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, which has recently been published by Atlantic Books. As you might expect from a work that isn’t really about the topic, there is here not a single mention of carpets or their patterns (a pity in a way, because the patterns of many carpets, particularly those from Asia Minor, are rich in symbolism and meaning) and only about a quarter of it is even tangentially about jigsaws.

This still adds up to rather more than a lot, as there isn’t much interesting to be said about jigsaws, and even Margaret Drabble can’t make them so by simply asserting it, or by transferring to her own style such information as she could dredge up from standard works of reference. Some of the rest of the book is about what one might call “resistance to everyday life.” These are the strategies that we adopt—time-wasting is what our parents used to call it—for work avoidance, the dispersal of anxiety, filling in time; ways of getting through the day, such as doing a jigsaw puzzle.

The book reminded me of recent comments about conceptual art being thin on concepts because artists, by and large, don’t read, and so are unaware of what philosophers or social analysts have already—and as often as not long, long ago—said about the concepts that the innocent artist imagines her or himself to be creating. The Head Girl, writing about hobbies and other forms of relatively innocuous time-wasting, is apparently unaware that the topic is already the subject of a fine book by Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor called Escape Attempts: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Everyday Life, which would have been a good place to start, and saved her a lot of trouble.

What we are left with, however, having eliminated carpets, jigsaws, and other stuff like tapestry weaving and marquetry, pietra dura work, and postcard collecting, is that half of a  subtitle—A Personal History. And this, as part of the run-up to 70 (Margaret Drabble’s birthday was in early June) is surely what the book is really for, and what we are meant to take from it.

Novelists of the first rank—and Drabble has been one in England for over 40 years—don’t often write their memoirs. And even when they do—Nabokov springs to mind—it is generally with a view to putting the biographer hound on the wrong scent with a string of inventions, occlusions and distortions that, through the amusement of diversion, foster obscurity. This Personal History, however, offers the opposite path, and by obscurity most skillfully affords insight into its author.

Drabble said, over 30 years ago in a famous interview in The Paris Review, that she didn’t believe that the events of a life, the apparent coincidences, the meetings and partings, the opportunities that come unasked, and the accidents and sorrows that mark us, were simply random. “A pattern will emerge,” she said. “. . . I suppose we just never know what the pattern is. I suppose it is perfectly possible that one will die without knowing what it was all about. But I have this deep faith that it all will be revealed to me one day.”

If this book is that revelation then it owes much to the skewed vision of a dangerously unusual mind, and the immense power of a vocabulary allied to a syntax of deviant precision. Out of these elements there emerges not a conventional personal history of any kind (not even one with jigsaws) and certainly not a narrative that might have, by its selections and its omissions, have suggested the pattern that appealed to her own self-conscious ego (what Saul Bellow called “the seat of boredom”) as explanation.

Instead, the book offers a painful, almost surgical exposure, of a wounded psyche, more conscious of its supposed causes than its effects, almost shocking in the clumsiness of its self-revelations, and certainly disquieting in the otherwise notable absence of the sort of self-awareness that is second nature to most highly educated intelligent people. Almost no one is spared the rods of her refracted perceptions, hurt pride, and self-justified resentment.

Mother (in particular), sisters (one in particular), grandparents (without exception), even Aunty Phyl—the mother substitute who is said to have provided happy childhood memories, and is one surface focus of the book—all are subjected to the clinical dissection via a syntax blooming with tart retorts and the sharpened flints of a vocabulary of resentment, and all in the interest of, well of what? In the end I was forced to the conclusion that it is in the interest of self-exposure, the quest to be understood, and the associated desire to be forgiven.

It would be hard to do. She is so full of complaint. Of course a lot of this is old hat. “My sister was not very nice to me . . . I always felt that I had been shut out, rejected by her”, is how she put it in 1978. One (as she would say) could be forgiven, I hope, for wondering whether, over the years, and taking stock occasionally of the wide experience of life which her success has certainly brought her, it had never occurred to her that perhaps there were reasons for this that might have been lodged in her own behaviour; that the causal element in human relations does not run in one direction only.

Head girls were, in my recollection, always a bit like this. Talented, successful, ready to lead on to the next stage. They were awarded the prizes, made the speeches, won the cups, and had their names set in gold leaf letters on the school hall as they set off for Cambridge. But there was always an uncanny edge of anxiety about them. Conscious of position, bossy to the lower school, concerned about reputation, competitive about recognition and worth, they ended up provoking a sort of sympathetic bewilderment rather than admiration. There were, it seemed to me, always signs of vertigo atop the winners’ dais.

The Pattern in the Carpet, a book which has no carpet and no pattern, is an excellent evocation of that vertigo. There is no jigsaw of interest, and the puzzle, which is of the writer’s mind, is located in the prose. I have never before felt so profoundly uncomfortable, or so brilliantly illuminated, by a novelist’s self-exposure.