John Lanchester Family Romance

ISBN 13: 9780571234431

Family Romance

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9780571234431: Family Romance

A memoir by the acclaimed novelist The Wall Street Journal called "blessed with a sense of history, a feeling for place, an observant eye for detail, and an elegant no-frills style."

In their particulars, the Lanchesters were not Every Family. The father was an international banker, the mother a former nun. Yet in the dynamic of family life, their patterns are instantly recognizable. The heart of that dynamic is a built-in tug-of-war: to a young child, a sense of loving protection becomes, as he matures, a set of barriers to be overcome. In his richly told story, John Lanchester brings this dynamic to life, and in the process makes us think about our own family story and about the legacy-emotional, social, intellectual-our parents pass on to us, generation to generation, the bitter with the best.

It was only when his mother died that Lanchester realized how little he really knew his parents. That, too, is in the nature of families: parents keep secrets from their children, and children are happy to acquiesce, not wanting to disturb their universe. But with Julie Lanchester's death-and the cache of papers and letters she left behind-Lanchester set out to reconstruct just who his parents had been. In doing so, he gained extraordinary insight into his own nature, and a deeper understanding of theirs. And because he has the wisdom to see the universal aspects of his story, Family Romance resonates for anyone who has ever felt the push-pull of family love.

Part detective work, part remarkable evocation of character, Family Romance is, above all, compelling storytelling.

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About the Author:

John Lanchester is the prizewinning author of The Debt to Pleasure, Mr Phillips, and Fragrant Harbor. His writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review.

From The Washington Post:

Reviewed by Francine du Plessix Gray

Mourning the death of a loved one, Sigmund Freud once argued, must be looked on as a hard, slow process that demands far more time and effort than contemporary society allots to any ritualized grief. Family Romance, an often engaging new memoir by John Lanchester, is an elegy for his utterly extraordinary, pathologically secretive mother, who died eight years ago. In Freud's terms, Lanchester, a gifted British novelist particularly known for his novel The Debt to Pleasure, is an A-plus mourner, the opposite of a Hamlet-style griever who lives in a folly of denial.

His subject is irresistible: His mother, née Julia Gunnigan, was a brilliant, eccentric former nun who defected from the monastic life not once but twice and often suffered from the psychic disarray that such patterns of desertion can cause. In view of Lanchester's narrative accomplishments and his deep, obsessive love for his mother, it is striking that this new book does not communicate his grief with any great artistry. His habitually nimble prose has turned sodden, and he too readily indulges in annoyingly simplistic pop psychology. My hunch is that the author has not yet gone far enough into what Freud called the "slow, long drawn-out, and gradual work of severance" that mourning entails: He seems not to have metabolized his grief enough to share it eloquently with the world.

If Lanchester rushed into this memoir too hastily, it may be because much of his youth was tainted with the sense that both his parents tended to shy away from the truth and that his mother in particular was an inveterate liar. This is a realization that might propel many of us to the analyst's couch, where the author eventually ended up, suffering from severe panic attacks and near breakdowns. In his family, the author tells us, "The things that were felt most strongly are precisely the things that were never said." His mother "was very, very, very good -- a genius -- at not bringing things up." "Her psychic territory was marked with 'Keep Out' signs."

Lanchester traces his mother's furtiveness to three basic sources: The oldest of eight children, she hated her own harsh, prying mother and knew no love as a child; her 14 years of convent life were "a training in lying" that would force anyone "to have secrets and privacies of your own"; and the treacherous conformism of the lower-middle-class Irish society she was born into placed an exalted premium on religious respectability -- the author compares it to "Afghanistan under the Taliban."

Upon joining the first of her orders, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, whose harshness came to public attention in the movie "The Magdalene Sisters," Julia, for the first time, enjoyed her parents' love and attention and was treated like a star. But after two years as a postulant, she left the order, became instead the disgrace of her family and was forced to leave home for Coventry, the nearest city. There she became a nurse, worked in a TB ward, contracted the disease and met her first great love, a handsome patient from a well-to-do Protestant family. But Mr. Dreamboy died of the ailment, and what was Julia's reaction to her life's central sorrow? She became a nun again, joining this time the Presentation Sisters, which sent her to teach in one of the order's schools in Madras, India. There Sister Eucharia (the name she took in her second monastic incarnation) soon became the head of her institution, teaching English, earning awards and medals for her good works and even getting a master's degree by correspondence from the University of London.

If Lanchester's chapters about Madras are his finest, it's perhaps because the exotic liveliness of the site offers welcome relief from the repetitive monotony of the author's principal narrative tool -- Julia/Eucharia's numerous letters to her younger sister Peggie. Unduly burdening the chronicle, they gain emotional impact only when the incomparably complex Eucharia, chafing all the more at the restrictions of her religious order as she rises in its hierarchy, decides to defect a second time. At the age of 38, confiding her decision solely to Peggie, a former nun who was happily married in Tipperary, she takes a plane to London, finds employment as a teacher and even writes two essays that are accepted by the BBC.

Lanchester's narrative falls into roughly four parts, concentrating on Julia's life as a nun; on the origins of his father, Bill Lanchester, a sympathetic but colorless man who will become a mid-management official with the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp.; on the nomadic couple's "family romance" as spouses and parents as they are assigned by Bill's bank to various locations in the Far East; and on the author's struggle to come to terms with his mother's stealth.

As Bill courted Julia, the author will learn after his parents' death, he often expressed his desire for a large family, which led Julia to engage in her biggest lie to date. In order to have Bill believe she was a fertile 31, she pretended she was nine years younger than she really was; she indulged in an outrageous act of identity theft, getting a passport under the name of her younger sister Dilly, who had never traveled beyond her hometown. Already pregnant when she married Bill, she engaged in another major lie, hiding from the world the birth of her child -- the author -- for three months and pretending he was born nine months after her wedding. (She had four later pregnancies and miscarriages, never apprising her husband of any of them.) This profusion of deceits leaves the author with only one consolation: If his mother had not lied, he might never have been born.

Bill Lanchester died at the age of 57, having spent 30 years working at a job he loathed. If we use her real birth date, Julia lived on until she was 77, still consternating her author son with her propensity for evasion and deceit and leading him to believe that "one of the main reasons I am a writer is that she couldn't be one. And the reason she couldn't be one is that she couldn't tell the truth." But these phrases about writing-as-truth-telling present another hurried, annoyingly simplistic view that is at the heart of this book's failings: Literature, to the contrary, succeeds as a subtle network of lies that creates a higher reality than the one presented by the world as we know it. Surely a novelist as fine as Lanchester knows that better than the average person and could have infused his knowledge into this occasionally, but only occasionally, winsome memoir.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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