In 1974 the Booker Prize was shared between Nadine Gordimer for The Conservationist (still on my tbr after several years) and Stanley Middleton for Holiday. I hadn’t read any Middleton before and really didn’t know what to expect. It would seem that Windmill Books re-issued a number of Middleton books last year – which is great, I was surprised at just how many novels Middleton wrote, there’s a very long list of them inside my copy.
Not knowing a thing about Middleton, I had to look him up to find out more. Stanley Middleton was born in Nottinghamshire in 1919, as well as a prolific writer he was an English teacher at a grammar school. His first novel was published in 1958 his final novel published posthumously. Having won the Booker Prize with Gordimer in 1974, in 1979 Middleton turned down an OBE. He died in a nursing home in 2009 just before his ninetieth birthday.
I very much enjoyed reading Holiday, although I don’t think it could be described as easy, I settled in to Middleton’s prose quickly enough, but the overall book makes for a degree of fairly slow reading. Middleton’s world is a very recognisable one, his observations spot on.
Having recently separated from his wife Meg, school master Edwin Fisher decides to spend a week in an English seaside holiday resort. Bealthorp is a place Edwin knows well, a place he holidayed with his parents when he was a child. Now, in his thirties, his marriage in trouble, following the devastating loss of their son, Fisher has a lot to come to terms with. Fisher’s thoughts frequently return to the past, to the holidays of his childhood, and his relationship with Meg. Through his reminiscences we gradually come to understand the intricacies of the Fisher’s marriage and the trauma they suffered when their son died. Fisher spends the first couple of days of his holiday indulging in old routines. Walks along the sea front the purchase of a newspaper and back to the hotel for a meal, Edwin seems to be merely killing time.
In the dining-room this evening, silence blossomed once the families began to eat. Fisher enjoyed the activity, the tucking of bibs, the wiping of mouths, the tipping of plates for the last spoonful, the pause between courses where one put on a small show for the other tables or angled for the correct snippet of conversation which would set the rest to chatter or laughing. These people worked hard, holding their fingers correctly, not marking the tablecloths and this ceremony pleased him. In this room decorated with dolls and paper flowers it was proper to act the gentleman, ape the lady. When the standard was judged, by Monday evening at the latest, there’d be a relaxation, a few aitches would topple, salacious asides allowed, confidences would be exchanged, but at this the first dinner after a complete day’s holiday matters were formal.
The Vernons; Fisher’s in-laws, are also staying in Bealthorpe, although at a different hotel, and they waste little time in interfering. The Vernons want Meg to reconcile with her husband, and Fisher is subjected to marital advice from David Vernon. A meal is arranged, David Vernon has arranged for his daughter to come to the hotel to see Edwin. The appointed time comes and goes but Meg never appears.
During the week at Bealthorpe Fisher begins to socialise with his fellow holiday makers, particularly the Smiths and the Hollies. Edwin indulges in a little flirtation, pleased to find himself desirable in the eyes of another woman, even if it is just a mad holiday moment.
As anyone who has holidayed by the seaside in England will know, holiday weeks run Saturday to Saturday, and by the Thursday of your week away, you always feel rather on borrowed time. Edwin feels this too.
“Thursday, now he strolled towards the Methodist church where the iron gates were padlocked, and posters of scrag-ribbed refugees faded in the sunshine. Thursday.
When he was on holiday as a boy the first three days had passed slowly, but by Thursday time flew. Friday flashed a nothing. One bought presents; one ventured into the sea, but home, wash-day, errands re-established themselves in the mind”
With the holiday finally over, Fisher heads back to the flat he shares with a colleague and sets about (following the necessary interference from the in-laws) re-establishing communication with Meg.
The Wikipedia page for Stanley Middleton tells of a journalistic stunt a few years ago; where someone sent the opening chapter of Holiday to a number of publishers and literary agents – and all but one rejected it. If that is true, I’m not certain what if anything that proves, or what the journalist was trying to prove. Tastes and fashions in literature change I suppose, but I can’t help but see it as a little bit spiteful, Middleton was still alive at the time.
I liked the way Middleton writes, his vision of the world and his eye for detail is sharp, very precise and beautifully rendered. Middleton gets underneath the skin of his characters in a very quiet but very real way, their hopes, fears and all that they are trying to escape are laid bare. Here Edwin is a man still grieving for his child, his emotions are numbed. Holiday is an excellent novel, a worthy Booker winner.
I think I began to see Middleton as a kind of male Brookner – one novel probably not enough to make that judgement, but I definitely want to read more.