Wednesday, 26 September 2012

A difficult young man, by Martin Boyd

Courtesy Sydney University Press
It was a rather unruly discussion when Minervans met this month to discuss the Australian classic, A difficult young man by Martin Boyd. A difficult young man is the second of what is now known as the Langton tetralogy and has an autobiographical element but, as the narrator tells us:
... the reader must take certain wild statements as intended for fun, though they contain an element of truth too subtle to be confined within the limits of accurate definition. One can make exact statements of fact, but not of truth, which is why the scientist is forever inferior to the artist.
Ha, there's a lot packed in there but the main point is that the book contains, we thought, a lot of truths about the Boyd family while the facts of their lives diverge.

Our discussion started with two members talking about their close encounters with the Boyds. One member's father knew Arthur Boyd, Martin's nephew, and could have had a Boyd portrait of her father in the family if only her father had foreseen the future! The other member lived near the Boyds in Melbourne. She was friendly with Martin Boyd's great niece and visited their home. How many degrees of separation do the rest of us get from these!

Most finished the book, and most liked it, but a couple found the style hard-going. We discussed the long rambling sentences and suggested that in some ways the style is "old-fashioned". Yet, many of us also felt the self-analytical, self-deprecating tone had a modern feel. One member liked the fact that the characters felt like real rather than fictional people - they'd come and go in the story like real people she said. Another member felt that the wit, irony and satire reminded her of Jane Austen, even though his narrative voice (first person) and plot (more family saga than romance) are not at all like Austen. Several members spoke of the great descriptions in the novel, such as this description of a young woman:
She spoiled her appearance by a peevish manner, and her exquisite fragility had little correspondence with her inner nature, which was as hard as the enamel on a snuff box.
We liked the satire and Boyd's astute observations about people.

The plot focuses on the eldest brother (well, promoted to eldest after the tragic death of his older brother), Dominic, and is about Guy's attempts to understand him. We felt that while the story is ostensibly about Dominic (loosely based on Merric Boyd), the novel is in many ways about Guy himself. Guy describes a well-to-do family, pre-world war 1, in which paid employment has not been the expected thing. The result is some level of class snobbery, but one borne of their family circumstances than of any active desire to denigrate others. In fact, the family finds itself at the wrong end of snobbery when they spend time in England where they are seen rather as New World upstarts. It was suggested that these books would make a great miniseries, à la Downton Abbey or The Forsyte Saga.

While we didn't spend a lot of time discussing theme (or what the book is about), we did discuss it a little. We felt that one theme was to explain why his family was the way it was. Other themes we noticed included promoting a humane way of viewing the world (one that abhors cruelty like war), and the value of living a creative life. The Boyds have certainly emulated the latter through several generations now. There is also, in the book, a sense of the end of an era - particularly for the leisured class - something that the father, Steven in the book, sees coming but which they are not necessarily well prepared for.

There was much more discussed and quotes shared but the conversation was so animated that I didn't manage to capture anywhere near all the points raised and talked about - so I hope members whose points have not been properly represented here will add them in the comments!

Near the end of the discussion, one member bemoaned the fact that she hadn't heard of this novel before and wondered why, suggesting that Martin Boyd had been overlooked by the Australian literary establishment because of his "English-ness". Others weren't so sure of her thesis, particularly those who had heard of Boyd and his novels. There are so many novels out there, it's not surprising we haven't all heard of them all, even the significant ones! We appreciate the work of publishers like Text bringing these books to the fore again.

And now I will close on a mundane point. Two members read the book in e-versions (one on a Kindle and one using the Book-ish service). Both complained that their books were presented with a skewed chronology: their books went something like chs. 1, 2, 3, 9, 5, 6, 7 ... to the "real" last chapter, followed by ch. 4. How disconcerting. These were not free versions ... seems like rather sloppy quality control to us!

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