Author Features / Features / Fiction

The Joyful Mystery of Barbara Trapido

By Sue Dickman

I’ve always had a soft spot for a series. It goes back, I’m sure, to a childhood of repeatedly reading Maud Hart Lovelace and Laura Ingalls Wilder and an adolescence spent inhaling detective novels by the dozen. In recent years, I’ve spent untold hours listening to the audio version of all twenty of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. It’s not that I have a particular interest in British naval history. But give me characters I like and I will keep going, book after book, just to see what happens to them; just to keep in touch.

Barbara Trapido’s books are not exactly a traditional series. Still, four of her seven novels share a common set of characters and, if read in order, offer some of the pleasure of a series—chiefly, the chance to return to a well-loved fictional universe and revisit its characters over time.

The irony for me is that when I first discovered Trapido, I had no idea that any of her books were connected. I started, in fact, with the last of the four, her 1998 novel The Travelling Hornplayer, which I enjoyed with no foreknowledge whatsoever. But it was only when I learned its connection to her three earlier novels—Brother of the More Famous Jack (1982), Temples of Delight (1990), and Juggling (1994)—and read the books in sequence that I could appreciate the full scope of Trapido’s creation, her unique genius. So, it should be no surprise that my first bit of advice is to read her books in order, or, at least the four linked books. Her three unlinked novels—Noah’s Ark (1984), Frankie and Stankie (2003), and Sex and Stravinsky (2010)—are all also wonderful and can be read in whatever order you’d like.

The mystery, at least in the U.S., is why no one knows who she is. In my experience, to read Trapido is to want to read more Trapido and also to wonder why it is so hard to find the Trapido you so want to read. When her name comes up in the press, it is usually a mention in a column on underappreciated writers or on a list of someone’s favorite books. Maria Semple, author of last year’s wildly popular Where’d You Go, Bernadette, recommended two of Trapido’s books this way, and her citation for The Travelling Hornplayer begins, “Why don’t people know about her?” I have the same question.

Trapido does not have the same issue in Britain, where she has lived since 1963 and where she has a devoted audience. Since the publication of Brother of the More Famous Jack when she was 41, Trapido’s books have stayed in print in Britain, while only four of the seven have been published in the U.S. According to Trapido in a 2003 interview, American publishers have rejected her books for being “too British,” a statement she found strange, given that she was born and raised in South Africa. “Can’t they tell that I’m really just an anthropological observer in England?” she asked.

Trapido was born in Cape Town in 1941 into an “ethnically muddled” family. Her German mother and Dutch father settled in Durban, where she grew up. She wrote movingly about her childhood in apartheid-era South Africa in her sixth book, Frankie and Stankie, which is really a memoir posing as fiction. At the end of that book, as in her life, Trapido and her new husband Stanley left South Africa, thinking they might never return. Politically, 1963 was a horrible year, she has said; Nelson Mandela had just been arrested, activist friends of theirs were being jailed, and it seemed that the best thing—perhaps the only thing—was to go. They settled eventually in Oxford, where Stanley taught African history at the university and Barbara taught school, raised their two children, and—for many years in her head and in the middle of the night—wrote a novel.

It starts with voices. Trapido calls her writing process “audial,” and it has been this way from the beginning. She hears it before she writes it. Years before her first novel was published, Trapido “invented the Goldman family and found them talking inside [her] head,” she told the British magazine Mslexia. But after having a baby, she put the work away for ten years. In her late 30s, with her children both at school, she showed it to a friend who loved it and asked Trapido to continue for her. And so she did. “I’d be pushing swings in some playground and just pattering out dialogue in my head, learning sequences off by heart. Sometimes it would make me laugh wildly to myself. Or I’d bike off to the post office and get some notion and bike all the way to the railway station. I found it made me rather inefficient.”

That novel was Brother of the More Famous Jack. It is the story of a brainy but naïve young woman, Katherine Brown, who falls in love with a family of left-wing intellectuals, the Goldmans. Katherine has an affair with one Goldman brother, Roger, and eventually, years later, marries another, Jonathan, but the book is a love story to the family: the German-Jewish philosophy professor patriarch, Jacob, his Anglo-Irish wife Jane, and their six children. When you hear the Goldman family’s dinner table conversation, you can understand why Trapido would crack herself up thinking of it. At Katherine’s first dinner with the Goldmans, Jacob and his son Roger are arguing over whether Roger plays the violin or the fiddle. Roger insists it’s a violin.

“Save your Oxford style till you get to Christ Church, sonny,” Jacob says, with terrible put-down. “And in the meantime remember that to pick nits at my table with my guests is a form of bad manners.” Jonathan, promptly and hair-raisingly, throws a large chunk of garlic bread at Jacob’s head. It misses him and hits the wall behind.

“Fiddle schmiddle,” Jonathan says. “What’s all this ‘my table’ crap, Aged Parent? Ma bought this table from the shop that closed down. What makes it yours? You really like to make a big patriarchal spiel over grub, don’t you, you big Jewish yobbo.”

Nobody requires him to remember either his manners or the starving. Jacob merely instructs Sam in the subversive art of throwing the bread back. They appear to get on extremely well, do Jacob and Jonathan. Jacob is sufficiently opinionated to appreciate in Jonathan so much of himself.

“Make us some coffee, Flower,” he says benignly.
“Make it your bloody self, you schmuck,” Jonathan says.

Trapido first sent the book to Jonathan Cape, which rejected it. Six months later, she sent it to Victor Gollancz, Ltd., which accepted it immediately. Brother of the More Famous Jack was awarded a special fiction prize from the Whitbread committee and garnered the kind of reviews first novelists usually only dream of. The Times of London deemed it “the most sprightly, mucky, moving and downright funny novel . . . in decades.” A.N. Wilson, in the Spectator, called it “technically very accomplished and witty, but it achieves the casual intimacy of confidences shared over the washing-up. . . . It is really the story, like Mansfield Park, of falling in love with a whole family; a sort of left-wing Brideshead Revisited.”

Trapido’s second book, Noah’s Ark, is a dense, domestic portrait of an unlikely marriage, and it is the first of her novels to be partly set in South Africa. (Her last two are as well.) It was followed, six years later, by Temples of Delight, the second in Trapido’s four linked novels. Temples of Delight is, among other things, a paean to female friendships. Alice Pilling, Temples’ main character, is a shy, stammering teenager in a stuffy girls’ school whose life is changed irrevocably by the arrival of Jem McCrail, who turns up one day during silent reading hour and is placed beside her. Jem, a “joyful mystery” to Alice, is only present in the first third of the book—two years after her arrival, she vanishes after her scholarship is given to someone else, leaving Alice bereft—and yet her spirit is constant in the book and in Alice’s life. Alice does not take Jem’s disappearance well; her heart, it could be said, is broken. She goes on to Oxford and into other relationships, but the loss of Jem continues to affect her deeply. It is only four years later, when a letter from Jem arrives, that Alice is shaken back into life and the second half of the book gallops forward. There are elements of melodrama throughout—a stolen manuscript, a forged letter, an orphaned child, the arrival of a mysterious stranger named Giovanni Angeletti in a “voluminous black gabardine coat”—but even as the plot twists and turns, the emotional honesty beneath keeps the novel grounded. In his Guardian review of its sequel, Juggling, Philip Hensher writes: “A novel like Temples of Delight is so readable, so full of incidental pleasures and curiosities, that one could easily overlook its terrifying honesty. . . . In her readability, her richness, her plain, clear style, Trapido is quite like what Iris Murdoch is supposed to be, and once almost was.”

Trapido has said that she hadn’t intended to write a sequel to Temples of Delight, except that she found herself still brooding over Alice. In a long interview at The Literateur, Trapido says,

I hadn’t reintroduced characters until I wrote Juggling . . . I think the book’s motivation had to do with the fact that Temples of Delight . . . was such a troubling one for me that I was still . . . worrying about Alice . . . I’d been thinking, “Why is it that she’s only dragged out of her trance by these bright, charismatic but slightly unbalanced people like Jem, and then Giovanni?” . . . So I used Alice and her husband as a kind of backdrop to the story about Christina and her sister Pam, which meant I could unravel the mysteries of Alice’s head along the way.

While Mozart’s The Magic Flute serves as a backdrop for Temples of Delight, in Juggling the inspiration is Shakespeare, particularly his comedies. Alice and Giovanni are present, but their daughters, Christina and Pamina, take center stage, along with an expanding cast of characters and shifting points of view.

And that might have been the end of it, except that Trapido’s friend Michael Dibdin, the late author of the Aurelio Zen mysteries, told her that since she’d written two linked novels, she had to write three. In The Travelling Hornplayer, Trapido took the opportunity to revisit not just characters from Juggling and Temples of Delight but the Goldman family from Brother of the More Famous Jack, particularly Jonathan, Katherine, and their daughter Stella, a tiny baby at the end of the first book and a stunning, redheaded dyslexic cellist in the fourth. For Trapido, going back to her earlier work “was such a pleasure, because one gets so involved with one’s characters, and it’s a kind of bereavement when you have to bury them and make new friends.”

For the reader, the linked books allow us to see characters, both major and minor, in a new light. Roland Dent, for example, first appears in Temples of Delight as Alice’s would-be schoolmaster lover. Roland is upstanding and kind, the sort of man who “would have constructed an emergency survival shelter for her in the tundra if ever that had become necessary,” but Alice does not, cannot, love him as he wishes her to, and drives his car off of a bridge to avoid having to sleep with him. In Juggling, though, once he is no longer wooing Alice, Roland appears in a much friendlier light, avuncular, honest, stouthearted and steady. In the eyes of Alice’s spunky daughter Christina, “it was as if he had come trailing a bag of blessings from a calmer, kinder world.” Roland appears once more in The Travelling Hornplayer, a grieving father this time, and his pain is all the more difficult to bear for readers who have watched him evolve from earlier books. Trapido, clearly fond of Roland, says that she was even tempted to bring him back in her most recent novel, Sex and Stravinsky; one of the South African characters, Hattie, goes to visit her schoolmaster uncle in England. “As I wrote that,” Trapido says, “I thought, ‘I wonder if her uncle is Roland Dent?’”

There are many reasons why Trapido is not just critically praised but held so dearly by her many loyal readers. She’s a whiz at dialogue and detail. She’s laugh-out-loud funny. Her books are unexpected, heart-filled, buoyant. At the same time, Trapido is both a generous writer and a restrained one. I believe that it’s that combination of emotional restraint and generosity of spirit that makes her books so satisfying to read. Perhaps this comes from Trapido’s particular history, leaving her home country at a young age and making a life elsewhere, causing her to feel “inside-outside.” Perhaps it comes from her grounding in a family where “everyone . . . has always sort of left behind the houses and jewels and property and run from A to B with one small suitcase which they’ve usually dumped in a ditch on the way.” But it also might come from being a writer who came to writing late, whose life intruded for more than 20 years between the schoolgirl who loved to write stories and the mother of small children who took to waking in the middle of the night to write when she was closer to her dreams. Trapido’s work has been compared to any number of writers (Iris Murdoch, Ann Tyler, Flann O’Brien, to name just a few), but it is very distinctly her own. When she started to write seriously, she not only had the wisdom to know her own voice but the patience to figure out her own process (the 4 a.m. wakeups, writing longhand, reciting the book aloud before committing it to paper once again). Trapido is not a quick writer, but she doesn’t have to be. Having come to it in her own time, she now has the right to take her own time, and her devoted readers will be happy to wait for whatever might come next.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read a Q&A with Barbara Trapido.

Sue Dickman’s essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. She lives in Western Massachusetts and blogs at A Life Divided.

Homepage photo credit: mharrsch via photopin cc

6 thoughts on “The Joyful Mystery of Barbara Trapido

  1. Wow! I’d love that! And fabulous news about the reissued backlist. I’d be delighted to keep writing about her and spreading the word.

  2. I just came across this article because I was recommending Noah’s Ark to a friend and googled to check a detail. It was a great read for me, as an ardent fan of Trapido’s, and I hope that anyone in the enviable position of having all her books waiting to be discovered enjoys it too.
    I think she may be my favourite author; the combination of wit and emotional intelligence, the subtlety, and the ‘terrible put-downs’ have always enchanted me. As a Brit, the best example of her seductive power as an author is that I came very close indeed to naming my daughter Camilla, despite the more obvious connotations.

  3. Pingback: Go On, I Dare You! (Sound Familiar?)

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