THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT
By Jane Gardam
Europa Editions, 232 pp., paperback, $15
“The Man in the Wooden Hat,’’ a sequel - or a fraternal twin - to Jane Gardam’s acclaimed “Old Filth,’’ fills out the story of the enigmatic and peripatetic British barrister Sir Edward Feathers, the earlier novel’s eponymous hero (“Filth’’ being a sardonic acronym: “Failed in London Try Hong Kong’’).
This half of the story belongs to Betty, the vibrant young Englishwoman whom Edward marries on minimal acquaintance while working on a case in Hong Kong not long after the end of World War II. Like Edward, Betty is a “Raj orphan,’’ and both are recklessly, heart-rendingly eager to put behind them the hardships suffered during the war. Betty, we learn, was interned in a Japanese prison camp and in childhood sacrificed to empire and to England, touchingly capitalized as “Home’’ in the words and thoughts of the novel’s imperial expatriates. Gardam, a novelist of sublime subtlety and quirkiness, alludes to those hardships with an artful obliquity more devastating than any piling on of documentary detail.
Companionable but passionless, this very British marriage is a study in repression: the stiff-upper-lip suppression of wartime memories and of more private secrets both spouses will go to their graves fondly, foolishly thinking they have kept from each other.
The Biography of a Painting
By Erica E. Hirshler
MFA, 256 pp., $29.95
It has survived a century of controversy to become one of the most beloved of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ masterpieces - John Singer Sargent’s haunting 1882 canvas “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit’’ - greeted skeptically in its day and subjected to critical psychoanalysis ever since.
Given the painting’s spare but clearly luxurious Parisian interior setting (its minimalist décor more congenial to modern sensibilities than to those of its Victorian contemporaries), and the four little girls starkly posed in their pinafores, overshadowed by the space, one thing seems clear. It is a portrait not so much of Boit’s daughters as of his fashion-forward taste: for Oriental possessions - those vases, fit for an emperor - and especially for the unique genius of Sargent himself.
Ned and Isa Boit were, like Sargent, well-born and well-connected American aesthetes who preferred to live abroad. Throughout the Gilded Age they constantly uprooted and transplanted their large household - children, servants, Japanese vases, and all - back and forth across the Atlantic and around Europe. Erica Hirshler, a curator at the MFA, offers a meticulously researched account of their milieu, their eccentric lifestyle, its unintended effects on their daughters, and of the creation of the enchanting masterwork that whets our appetite for all she has to tell us.
By Lore Segal
Melville House, 160 pp., paperback, $13
Once upon a time the empire of literature mattered, at least to those who lived in it, and its Emerald City was New York. Lore Segal takes us back to those bygone days in this whimsical 1976 work, reissued among heavier fare in a series titled “The Contemporary Art of the Novella.’’
Segal chronicles the adventures of madcap poet Lucinella, first as she basks in the proximity of rusticating literary deities at the Olympus known as Yaddo, then back in New York, where her life puzzlingly consists of endless rounds of parties with people who insist that they never go to parties (“What has changed my living room into this New Yorker cartoon full of chinless showoffs?’’ she wonders). Here a cutting word from a literary eminence is enough to extinguish a lesser light utterly.
Lucinella seems caught in a seriocomic chaos of insecurity, unable to settle on the right man, the right furniture, the right filing system, anything that will reassure her that she is who she hopes to be. Charming and imaginative, this period piece is timeless in evoking the anxiety of aspiration compounded by the anxiety of changing times.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.