A Curious Earth
(Norton)Aldous is an amiable old sot who lives in London. His wife has died, his children scattered: one in the Amazon River basin, another in Ostend, yet another in the ground: dead of drink.
Aldous taught painting in a local school for forty years, and now, retired, has turned to boozing, growing scruffy, sitting next to the gas burner in his dirty house, drifting off. He is quite fond of Shakespeare, Rembrandt's Hendrickje, opera ... and a potato growing in his now unused dresser-drawer.
I stopped reading A Curious Earth on page 249 (out of 290). This is fairly unusual, for it is rare for me to give up on a book when I get that close to the end. But I was tired of Woodward pummeling poor Aldous.
It's beyond me why an author would want to torture such a benign old drunk. He's a widower, suffers from anemia, depression, fainting spells, has this problem with whiskey, hides the bottles under the cushions, in the corners. He falls down helplessly from time to time. He is beset by a nagging daughter.
His dentures disappear (in the wind, on the upper deck of the Ostend ferry). Once in Belgium, he is bewitched by Agnès (turns out she's married), then, back in London, finds Maria, who, we learn later, has cancer of the ovary (or maybe not --- neither Aldous nor the reader can be exactly sure, because she doesn't want to talk about it).
Maria is a bit dotty, thinks that Aldous is a better painter than Cézanne, because the latter "just seems to get it wrong all the time --- he'll draw a table all wonky, or the rim of a bowl all out of shape."
Woodward just won't stop worrying his hero to death, and I can't think of an author who puts his lead character through such pain, who is so hellbent on destroying him, unless it's that vile Jim Crace, who has this thing about bodily juices (and decay) ... whereas A Curious Earth is but an old man plunged into his own frailties and loneliness. It also reminds me of sitting through one of those long, bleating plays by Eugene O'Neill, or three hours of family decay, as dragged around the stage by Tennessee Williams.
Aldous does have his quirks. He and his wife Colette named their children Janus, James, Julian and Juliette. After she dies, he sits there, next to the burner, doesn't bathe, drinks, has visions of cats --- Janus had a cat named Scipio who comes back to visit, long after they buried him.
Aldous becomes obsessed with Rembrandt's love life, especially his life with Hendrickje, sees him as another toper, just like himself: "Look at that porous, shiny, bloated, red hooter of his, a drinker's nose if ever there was one."
"I think he got sadder as he got older," he says to Maria; "That's what the self-portraits seem to show. Though sadness is really too simple a word for it."
Not sadness, but a mixture of things --- fear, loneliness, and the gradually dawning realization that one is alone in the world and that in a fairly short time one will be dead and will never be allowed to see a beautiful woman or a sunny day again for eternity ever --- for which there isn't a word, there should be.
Woodward's early shots of Aldous are not without compassion. He can come up with some excellent conceits. When son James returns from the Amazon for a visit, he brings his wife and child, so Aldous' life "now was connected to the South American rainforest. He was, technically, father-in-law to one of their children, and grandfather to one of their sons, an affiliation brought about by no actions of his own."
That was the oddest thing about having children, they took the train of cause and effect into their own hands and you became a kind of passenger in the drama of their lives.
Woodward also has a wonderful ability to call up a new character in the middle of everything, weave that character into the drama of the old man's life, make Maria or Agnès or Mashami --- James' wife --- spring up and draw our fascinated attention, if not our affection.Maybe it's just that the novel goes on too long. Woodward could have killed off the old boozer somewhere around page 250, given him a final blow --- for instance, the author is quite good at senile madness --- then a quick passing.
But no, he has to do a job, I should say a Job on him --- the biblical Job --- then turn him into a boorish old lush, pickled, falling down in front of his house, eventually driving away lovable dotty Maria, "You've told me many times about the despair you felt, you described it all so vividly, the agonies you went through, the waking up in the middle of the night to salty howling, as you called it. The way you turned to drink ... And you still drink, Aldous, I know. I can smell it on you now."
It is authorial elder abuse. A wretched old painter, in his cold house, now being trashed beyond endurance by this wretched writer.--- Lolita Lark