For months, despite nearly everyone telling me otherwise, I was certain that publishing my first book would be fine, painless even, with little real day-to-day consequences. I presumed I would be strong and capable – two traits I’d never demonstrated before in my life. Of course, I was wrong. And because I’d been wrong or, more precisely, I’d been arrogant, I suffered. I had it coming. This year I lost all interest in reading. I couldn’t read. I didn’t want to encounter anything hotly-tipped, anything that spoke to the current political mood, anything with lazy ideas dressed up in elegant language. I didn’t want to read novels because I hadn’t written one, and I didn’t want to read story collections because I had written one. It took me so long to finish writing a piece of criticism that, one Sunday, I considered going to Mass. I experienced everything I’d been warned about – envy, inertia, extreme narcissism, usually within the same hour. I decided finally that what I wanted to read was a book I felt someone would have died if they couldn’t have written. I wanted, not to sound cruel, to feel the desperation. Everything else was a nuisance. A friend recommended Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater to me.
The Pumpkin Eater is a story of marriage discord and upheaval that would give even Noah Baumbach uneasy dreams on his high thread-count sheets. Written quickly by Penelope Mortimer in the spring of 1961, it documents the strange reality of Mrs Armitage, a woman with three past marriages, numerous children and a current, philandering husband in the form of the slithery, irrepressible Jake. Across this slim novel there are devastating arguments, countless affairs, a soundless crying jag in Harrods, all documented under Mortimer’s merciless gaze. It is largely, and sadly, autobiographical. Somewhere in there, in case you forget, there are also many children. If you ever wondered about love, then The Pumpkin Eater is the right book for you. If you ever wondered about infidelity – not just the drama of it, but also the stupidity, the banality – The Pumpkin Eater is the right book for you. ‘But you say it’s nothing,’ Mrs Armitage repeats in one of her confrontations with Jake, ‘You keep saying it’s nothing. Why bother, then? Why hurt people so much, for what you say is nothing?’ In book conversation, the word ‘intimate’ is dully overused but The Pumpkin Eater is intimate in the best way – like being trapped in an apartment with your most romantic and deranged friend. They are exhausting, but they are also very, very funny.
Despite the blankness, the damage and the misery, The Pumpkin Eater is still a spirited novel. Even in her description of Philpot, her sexual rival, the narrator demonstrates her commitment to living: ‘I liked her because she was lonely and eccentric and kept making little rushes at life which were, as she had always known, doomed to failure.’ In an exchange with her ex-husband Giles, the narrator announces, ‘I have arguments with myself . . . between the part of myself that believes in things, and the part that doesn’t.’ This is what The Pumpkin Eater essentially is: an astonishingly raw argument with the part of yourself that believes, and the part that doesn’t. As I neared the end of the book, I knew I was going to have to find out what happened to Penelope. I was fully prepared to weep. I’m familiar with the fates of sixties women writers whose work was about the institutions of marriage and the annihilation of childbirth. I could also tell from her author photo that she must have belonged to that slim section of writers for whom being too attractive was a strain. Not good. To my surprise, she gardened until the jolly age of eighty-one.
If there’s not a sense of optimism in Mortimer’s work, there is passion, energy and openness. By writing The Pumpkin Eater she announced the amazing fact of her survival. Never mistake Mrs Armitage’s vulnerability for weakness. As she muses at one point, ‘You learn nothing from hurting others; you only learn from being hurt.’ By the time I put down this novel I was no longer tired. I was upset, but I wasn’t tired. It has the most emotionally clarifying final lines of anything I’ve ever read: ‘Some of these things happened, and some were dreams. They are all true, as I understood truth. They are all real, as I understood reality.’
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