- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 16, 2003

AUTO DA FAY: A MEMOIR

By Fay Weldon

Grove, $25, 367 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN



Fay Weldon has written two dozen novels, many of them highly diverting, but all too often madly — and maddeningly — over the top. Yet in her public life as an author, for example her staunch support for the hapless Salman Rushdie battling the murderous fatwa, she is a model of judiciousness and forthright common sense. And I have to say that on the two occasions in the late 1980s when I was able to spend some hours talking with her, she was not only charming but eminently sensible and markedly intelligent. So how to explain this puzzling dichotomy?

Among the many virtues of her delightful memoir, “Auto Da Fay,” (and the title itself tells you something of her mischievous pleasure in the apt bending of words), is the appearance of at least some answer to this conundrum. For this memoir leaves us in no doubt that if Mrs. Weldon is a clever and educated woman (she has a degree in Economics from St. Andrews University in Scotland), she has led a disorderly life which has contained more than her fair share of — not to mince words — foolishness.

But it has provided her with a great deal of rather sensational grist for her fictional mill and, as she says in the last sentence of the book, which concludes with her becoming Fay Weldon upon her second marriage at age 32: “What I do from now on, all that early stuff digested and out of the way, is write, and let living take a minor role.”

And what a life she has lived. Parents who split up when she was quite young. A much-admired older sister who sank into suicidal insanity. A penurious childhood in New Zealand followed by an equally parlous existence from age 15 in the austerity of postwar London. Generations of family who exemplify advanced ideas and leave in their wake the chaos that such ways produce in an overwhelmingly conventional world.

Her own single motherhood, followed by a mariage blanc to a creepy headmaster two decades her senior, who at times seems to act as a combination of pimp and voyeur to his attractive but foolish young wife. (At this point in her story, Mrs. Weldon is so appalled at the tawdry life led by her younger self that she is forced to lapse into the third person.) Employment as a waitress is followed by being a cake-shop proprietor, a factory worker, a nightclub hostess in London’s seedy Soho district, and finally, a highly successful advertising copywriter.

Those of us who lived in London in the early 1960s will remember such celebrated Weldonisms as “Unzip a Banana” and “Go to Work on an Egg,” but not one that (unsurprisingly) never saw the light of day, “Vodka Makes You Drunker Quicker!” London may have been gearing itself up to swing through the Sixties, but it wasn’t ready for that one. And Mrs. Weldon’s inability to see that it was far too outrageous to make it into the public domain gives the reader a foretaste of that lack of critical judgement regarding her own fiction which would finally prevent her from making a serious contribution to the postwar English novel.

But “Auto Da Fay” itself is consistently a pleasure to read. Witty, tart-tongued, even aphoristic at times, Mrs. Weldon can at her best sound almost like Rebecca West (of whom she wrote a most insightful short biography in the 1980s). When it comes to her cutting-edge forebears and their cavalier attitudes towards custom, she can be wise as well as funny:

“Free Love, the creed by which the redheaded uncles also lived, is fine in principle but can be tragic in its consequences. The ‘Life Force’, invented as a concept by Shaw, taken up by Wells and all the other freethinkers of the day, the better to justify their often-ignoble sexual adventures, was a force indeed.”

Or on the difference between herself and her literary mother:

“But I was rooted in the carnal and instinctive world: my mother in the ascetic. If we had been male priests I would have been one of the fat jovial kind who drink too much communion wine and sleep with their housekeepers: she would have been of the lean, celibate, refined tendency. Both get to heaven, in the end, I dare say.”

Or, again, as an acute observer of social tragicomedy:

“There is a certain kind of professor, often in the sciences, who seems to keep a wife only to insult her. It’s a notch up from the artist, whose ambition it is to destroy the spouse… . The phenomenon has little to do with gender, more with the scientific view of the universe, which must be so rigidly preserved in the face of what is seen as creative whimsy: I daresay a female Professor of Physics, married to a poet, would be equally dismissive. How would have Ted Hughes have survived, married to Marie Curie?”

And Mrs. Weldon is someone who can make use of her education as an economist and apply it to her avocation as a writer:

“There is always someone else around the corner doing it better, charging less, and cornering the market. (One would like to think this law would not apply to writing too, but I’m afraid it does.)”

Another of this book’s virtues is its eminently sensible attitude towards matters political. Neither dedicatedly left wing nor right wing, Mrs. Weldon has an eagle eye for spotting the flaws — and the merits — of each side. She can be trenchantly critical of such liberal panaceas as progressive education: “They [the pupils] were perfectly amiable, but had torn up most of the books in the library, and when I locked myself in a classroom with a Latin grammar they broke down the door to take it away. They did it, they said, for my sake. Learning by rote was bad for you and led to repression and war. Their teachers, who were a sensitive and idle lot, by and large agreed with this view. If the children managed to get themselves to a classroom on time the teacher seldom did.”

Her experience in a workshop folding cards, however, convinced her of the value of organized labor: “Some of the cards were much easier than others, and were quickly done, but then the rate [of pay] would be changed, so management always won. Management usually does, changing the goalposts the minute the workers begin to score. Workers need unions: it was borne in on me in the course of that job.”

But Mrs. Weldon can on occasion be terribly credulous. Of two Jewish friends from London’s East End, she writes:

“They had been brutally evacuated when the war began: their mother had turned up as usual to collect them from the school gate and had found the school empty and closed. The caretaker refused to tell the mothers where the children had been taken, in case Hitler found out, and though the mothers stormed the Town Hall, the authorities did the same.

“Some said this was rather less to do with fear of Hitler’s bombs and the expected German invasion, than part of a social experiment — if you took the children out of the slums, separated them from their parents, and put them in the healthy English countryside they would pick up honest rural virtues and values… .It didn’t work, of course. The parents could not find out where their children were, but the children knew where their parents were… .Those who couldn’t, or didn’t, escape, for the most part had a hard time of it.”

One can well believe that her friends told her the story. What is entirely lacking is any indication that, then or now, Mrs. Weldon entertained even the possibility that it might not be completely true. And when she says that she put their experiences into her third novel, “Female Friends,” one begins to understand why so much of her fiction strains credulity.

But on the whole, “Auto Da Fay” contains more gold than dross. It is enormous fun to read: a smart book about a woman who was often foolish, but is decidedly no fool.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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