Last time I went to the library, this book was one of the spoils that I carried off: in retrospect, it’s odd that I hadn’t read it before. Perhaps it’s simply that I wasn’t familiar with Alderman’s writing. Her first novel Disobedience had very good reviews but I’ve never got round to reading it; and I remember having picked up The Lessons somewhere before, but only for long enough to read the prologue, which didn’t do much for me. I wish I’d persevered.
It turns out that the book is the spiritual love-child of The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited, which are two of my favourite novels and, moreover, most of it is set in Oxford. Such a combination would be bound to appeal even if Alderman’s writing wasn’t as beautifully languid and elegiac as it is. Her style is slightly richer than many modern novels, with the occasional rhythmic, almost poetic turn of phrase. It works perfectly with the subject matter, conjuring up the nostalgia of long-lost golden summers; even though Alderman is also very good at showing the seams of stress which run through the Oxford experience.
For me, it began with a fall. Not, as Mark might have said, a fall from grace. Nor was it the hopeless, headlong capitulation of love. That came later. It began simply with a tumble on an icy path. I stumbled, I tottered, I teetered, I fell. There’s no disgrace in falling. Everyone falls. But I have found that getting up has proved more difficult than I could have anticipated on that icy path in Oxford long ago.
The plot owes a great deal to Waugh, but Alderman manages to give it a strength and integrity of its own. James, the isolated, agnostic narrator, arrives in Oxford weighed down by advice from his family about which societies to join, how to meet the right people and how to make the most of his time at university. But a running accident in his first term sets James back in his work and, instead of academic achievement, he soon finds himself dreaming of love, of somehow making the connections with other people that his peers seem to manage so easily but from which he subconsciously seems to keep his distance.
A chance meeting with the friendly, wholesome Jess brings this dream into the realm of the possible; moreover, it brings James into the orbit of Mark Winters. Beautiful, fabulously rich and self-consciously dissolute, Mark holds court at a crumbling manor house in north Oxford. He swiftly becomes an object of fascination and obsession for James: a creature from a foreign world, with his distant family, his globetrotting, elegant, manipulative mother, the hinted shadow of a nervous breakdown, his drugs and dependence, his Catholicism, and the looming presence of the priest Father Hugh from St Benet’s Hall. James is far from the only friend that Mark has, but he’s one of the few who really cares about the man behind the glittering facade; and perhaps the only one willing to stick with Mark in the faith that there is something worth saving at the heart of it all.
Alderman is very good at creating the particularly intense atmosphere of university friendship: living in each other’s pockets, the central characters are temporarily bound by their mutual orbit of Mark’s dizzying star. They are drawn by his extravagance and his disdain for his wealth, without really understanding that in doing so they are also exploiting him. James is a predominantly sympathetic narrator, although he is certainly no angel: he does try to bring Mark out of his turbulent cascade into self-destruction but, like his friends, he is initially perfectly happy to be swept along on the tide of Mark’s money. He marvels at ‘what money can provide: a waterproof imperviousness to the demands of others’, little realising that one day this shield can be turned against them, Mark’s friends, as easily as it is deployed against the wider world.
And yet, all along, James has a gnawing sense of inadequacy, a feeling of being a child playing at being grown-up, that I think most of us can probably relate to. One moment which particularly struck me was James’s reaction to the pressures of university and his sense that he was losing control. I have exactly the same feeling in stressful circumstances: a longing to have the mask taken away; to have it acknowledged that actually we are still children; to have other people there to take over and to make it all all right again:
I wanted… I wanted… But I did not know what to want. I wanted to be a child again, for my own desires to be unimportant, to be taken up into greater arms than mine and not need to think.
While I felt that James was quite a likeable character overall, Mark, like Waugh’s Sebastian, is a strange blend of helplessness and calculation. He does seem to be more openly manipulative and less childlike than Sebastian, and it’s difficult to decide which of his actions are prompted by a genuine desire for a ‘normal’ life, and which are undertaken as whims, with the knowledge that his money can protect him from any consequences. As the friends leave Oxford and enter on their various paths in the world, Mark is always there, the one member of the group who doesn’t need to grow up and get a job, haunting them like an indecorous Peter Pan. Like all of us, Mark longs to recapture the close bonds of university friendship, unable to accept the sad truth that such things are the stuff of a season, and then they change or fade. The richest and least materially needy one of them all, he is also the most isolated and the most emotionally raw, which launches him on his ultimately tragic path. (As in Brideshead, the story is not about the narrator at all, but about the wealthy, lonely and damaged young man with whom he makes friends.)
I must declare a bias: my engagement with this book was a good deal more personal than usual. My time at Oxford was a formative part of my life, even though it lasted only three years – the first and perhaps the last time that I felt I genuinely belonged somewhere. Of course, my experience at university was very different from James’s (considerably more work; considerably less dissolution alas), but even so there were many sections in the early part of the book where I was startled by some description that perfectly matched the feelings I’d had throughout my time there. Alderman evokes the daunting beauty of the city and the heartbreaking sense that this endures, while we do not; and she’s just as good at describing the emotional pressure that I think we all felt: the panic and dislocation of the first term: the conviction that despite having been so good at school, you are now desperately unfit; that everyone is cleverer than you; that everyone else understands something that you don’t…
This has been done before, of course, but The Lessons‘ appeal lies not in the originality of the material but in the elegant sensitivity of the way that material is handled. If you’ve read this and enjoyed it, you might also want to try The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, which I read earlier this year. Having said that, I enjoyed The Lessons more: it presented a richer, more complex emotional world. So I’m now tempted to try Disobedience. Has anyone else read it and, if so, would you recommend it?