Thursday 19 May 2011

Penguin no. 1731: A Shot in the Dark
by David Garnett

I think each of us should choose out of the available possibilities those things in life which matter most to each of us individually. Some of our choices are thousands of years old, others are the most recent discoveries...What seems to me tragic is that while so much beauty from the past is preserved in all your lives, the things that you have chosen from the modern world are noisy, ugly, trivial, and vulgar. The world of tradition is represented by peasants ploughing with yokes of white oxen between lines of grapes growing uneconomically but prettily on fruit trees - the new world by hideous advertisements every hundred metres along the highway, and motor-scooters that make fifty times as much noise as an American car.

I picked up this book certain I would love it. It was probably that wonderful David Gentleman cover that fed my expectations, or perhaps knowing that the story was set in a small town in Italy in the late 1950s. And so I was disappointed to find that the plot was weak and the narration confusing, and that I didn't really feel much interest in the characters or their story. And that there was a preoccupation with sex, perhaps because the author was keen to make this a modern novel. It was all described with unnecessary and perplexing detail, quite irrelevant to the story. I felt like someone I barely knew was telling me intimate details I simply didn't want to know. At times it felt like the author was bragging.

However, I did take something away from reading this book. The parts dealing with Italy and the problems it faced in the aftermath of the war were interesting. The story is told by Robert who is an outsider, an American who has lived most of his life in Europe, and he brings a critical eye to all that he observes. The Italy he describes faces many problems: corrupt politicians willing to go to any lengths to secure power, conflict between the Catholic Church and the Communists, and the need to find a way to protect its culture and traditional values against the corrupting influence of the modern world. The author offers no solutions, but his book is a kind of warning about the threats posed by Communism and terrorism, and by the person who wants to dominate, whether at the political or the personal level.

But all this is in the background. The actual plot of the book is less interesting, and while easy enough to follow, it is difficult to comprehend. The characters behave in perplexing ways, seemingly ambivalent about something one moment and enthusiastic the next. This lack of consistency makes it difficult to understand why they behave, feel and act the way they do. Nothing about the story seems real.

Robert is middle-aged. It is not clear what he has done with his life, but he has reached a crisis, and travels to San Frediano in Italy in search of a haven: he will eschew company, write a book, and attempt to recover from a failed romance with a dominating bisexual woman named Caroline, although it is Caroline who has chosen his retreat and he is not free of her for long. Gemma is a young woman, the daughter of San Frediano's mayor. She plays the violin and is a passionate adherent of the ancient Italian religion of the cult of Diana. As a young child she had watched as her mother was shot dead by the Fascists, and walked alone through the countryside to find her father, a partisan hiding in a cave in the hills.

As soon as Robert meets Gemma he forgets about Caroline; his broken heart seemingly instantly healed. Despite the difference in their ages they embark on a passionate romance. The implications of the age difference are never addressed, never even mentioned again: I couldn't help wondering why it was introduced at all. Eventually Caroline arrives on the scene intent on wooing Gemma, and the three embark on a kind of hostile triangle, with Robert and Caroline as enemies who are both sleeping with Gemma. It is impossible not to notice that this story seems to echo elements of the author's own life. David Garnett was a member of the Bloomsbury Set, and the male lover of Duncan Grant, who was also in a relationship with Vanessa Bell at the time. He married Grant and Bell's daughter Angelica when she was in her early 20s and he in his late 40s.

And so this is a book which is interesting to read only in that it offers a view of Italy in the 1950s, and fills in a little of the history; wonderful to own on account of that beautiful cover; but disappointing nonetheless because I had hoped for something better.


  1. I've only just come to your blog from the Guardian Flickr group about how people organise their bookcases, and thought you might like to see this, if you've not already. It's a project we did for a couple who had a lot of penguins, the collection of one of their grandfathers I believe: I just love the colours!

  2. It is a shame you didn't enjoy it. I was interested as soon as I saw it was by David Garnett - I love anything to do with Bloomsbury. Perhaps I'll give this a miss though!

  3. Sarah - I loved your photo; a bookcase staircase is a fascinating idea. And I can see it is popular because I posted it on twitter and saw it re-tweeted.

    Joanne - It was perplexing: the book had many, many flaws, and yet it gave me a lot to think about after I had finished it. I simply wish it had been better.

  4. This sounds like the response I had to Aspects of Love by Garnett. I loved Lady Into Fox, but found Aspects of Love tedious and implausible - lots on sex, and confused relationships, and all very dreary to read... but I have a few others of his, and am hoping that there might be other gems amidst dross...!

  5. I saw that his Lady Into Fox was on the list of books you recommend, and I've noticed on other blogs that it has been enthusiastically reviewed. It seemed to me that A Shot in the Dark had potential that simply wasn't realised, and I was hoping that it was an aberration. So I appreciate the warning about Aspects of Love; I'll leave that one for a while.

  6. I just finished this. God-awful, it was. Oy! I couldn't believe he just married the girl at the end. Pure male fantasy. But as you say, not unlike his life. Privileged shmuck. I enjoyed the Dianic cult subplot though.

  7. Love the idea and execution of this blog. I think Garnett's best fiction probably is Lady into Fox although I have a real fondness for his autobiographical novel Beany-Eye about an incident in his childhood. His three volumes of memoirs are also excellent reads.

  8. One book of Garnett's is really worth reading, it's called "Go! She Must!" I'm sure it was released as a Penguin.

    1. Go She Must is certainly one of Garnett's best books.
      It was released in Penguin, the book deserves to be reprinted.



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