“A father is a man who fails every day.” –Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs
In honour of Father’s Day, we thought we’d give you a 4×4 on the relationship between father and son portrayed in literature, touching on relationships that are tumultuous, dependent, damaging and strange, these four novels explore the complexities of paternal ties.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Broken-hearted Catholics, catastrophic marriages, and “grumpy” teddy bears named Aloysius are all brought to life beautifully in Evelyn Waugh’s equally charming and witty book, Brideshead Revisited, a novel about the fragility of the human soul in 1920s England. However, one man stands in the centre of the labyrinth of emotional damage that is Sebastian Flyte’s life. While his estranged father does not appear frequently in the book, his past decisions and his alcoholism send the Flyte family into havoc, pulling Sebastian along. Through the eyes of doubtful agnostic, Charles Ryder, we meet Lord Marchmain, a charming but ostentatious Catholic who has left his wife for a younger Italian woman. Marchmain is fascinating himself, but he also acts a direct foil to Charles’ own rather clumsy father, a man who fights boredom in his London home by, frankly, being bizarre. These two men are not exemplary fathers in any sense, and both seem to struggle to relate to their sons in any lasting positive way. However, after a long journey and a hard struggle, Charles finds himself – although in a way you may not expect.
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
“The shock of standing again under the wide pale sky, completely exposed. This must be what the oyster feels when the lemon juice falls.” Edward St. Aubyn’s writing drips of decadence, which is fitting in a series of books about the hideousness of the aristocracy. Starting in France when Patrick, the protagonist of the quintet, is five years old, and spanning several generations of his life, The Patrick Melrose Novels detail Melrose’s sexual abuse at the hands of his father, and Patrick’s subsequent drug addiction. Across the five books, we see a damaged but intellectual young man suffer outrageously at even the thought of his father, and we can see this still in At Last, when Patrick considers what it means to be a parent at his mother’s funeral. If that doesn’t sound morbid enough for you, St. Aubyn does not deny the similarities between his own life and Patrick’s. St. Aubyn’s sister, Alexandra, once even said “If anyone ever asks me about my childhood, I’ll just give them a copy of your book.”
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Finally, a happy book! Ish. East of Eden by John Steinbeck is a multi-generational novel following Adam Trask from Connecticut to Salinas, California, were he plans to escape from the legacy of his own soldier father to start his family. This makes Adam a seemingly happy man in his garden, until his wife Cathy shoots him and runs away to become a prostitute. Steinbeck called Eden “the first book,” and a heavy bible influence is apparent throughout the story (the Trask men are even called Adam, Cal, and Aaron.) The language is beautiful, and Steinbeck is a master of the craft, exploring timeless themes with the ease of day-to-day conversation. It is a story of adventure, hope, heart-breaking tragedy, and ultimately, the quest for a father’s love and forgiveness. Every word of East of Eden will tug at you, right to the last one.
& Sons by David Gilbert
It was a rather meta joke of David Gilbert to give his second novel the cut off title “& Sons.” By doing this, he is eluding to not only the title of the novel of fictional, Salinger-esque writer A.N Dryer (whose initials cunningly spell A.N.D), “Ampersand” but Gilbert also references Dryer’s separated and strained relationship with his own waspish three boys. The book is told, much like Brideshead, through the eyes of a school friend of one of Dryer’s sons, Philip Topping, who spends various segments of the novel considering his strange relationship with his own father. Through heavy use of metaphor and stunning intellectual language, Gilbert has created a modern novel that tells us so much about the importance of not only the relationship between fathers and sons, but also between brothers. It is a strange and complex book that will make you think deeply about what it means to be a family.
Words by Jack Williams
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