Last night at The Crippled Bee conversation turned to the subject of Fjona Uu’s ever-dwindling Marxist sympathies.
‘Only a fool would be surprised,’ said the man with the moustache: ‘it’s quite clear that she always harboured a secret love for the bourgeoisie. Look at that man she married. Isn’t he an earl?’
No one quite knew for sure, though there has never been any doubt of James Lapperton’s elevated social status. One look at him is enough to know that he was Lord of Prefects at Harrowton on the Hill.
‘And don’t cough up any of that stuff about breaking down the system from within. Uu has always been a bona fide bourgeois. Even before she met the Lapperton fellow she was writing stories about romance in English public schools. Now tell me, is that a natural subject for an Icelandic Marxist?’
We all agreed that it was not – and the man with the moustache ordered another brandy.
The story he was referring to was, I think, Nothing Ness – a rather charming little tale about two rich and witless teenagers who decide to fall in love and live mildly happily ever after until the day they’re run over by a rogue tank on the high street of a minor Southern city. Here’s how it opens:
When asked what she was doing, or what she wanted to do, Vanessa as a child was accustomed to saying ‘nothing’, for which she soon earned herself the nickname ‘Nothing Ness’, which was to follow her, like some sad lamb, through three schools and beyond.
In order to spice up her soporific existence, ‘Nothing Ness’ engineers an infatuation with someone called Stuart, who pretends in turn to love her back. Both characters are presented throughout as spiritually empty; vapid and humourless. Despite this, it’s hard not to like them, in their way – wherein lies Uu’s problem. She lingers tenderly on details which, when she set out, were meant to bare teeth. Her humanity overtakes her. She falls into her own trap.
More could be said about this story. For now, however, I would like to draw your attention to another female European writer who has, for no good reason, developed an obsession with that peculiar institution they call the English public school. I refer, of course, to the brilliant Czech novelist Koira Jupczek, whose Death Charts, though set in Central Europe, clearly owes a lot to the tradition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the like. Again, not the most obvious path to amble down when you hail from the Czech Republic. And yet Death Charts channels the spirit of the bourgeois boarding school to great effect, allowing its much-derided charms to seep through the hard skin of the writer’s sharp satire.
As far as I know, Jupczek is not married to a polo-playing, pipe-smoking earl – nor has she ever professed herself a Marxist. This link between her work and Uu’s is, however, an intriguing one, which merits further investigation.