Sunday, September 04, 2011

Circle of Friends (1966) by Julian Mitchell

Circle of Friends

In Part One, the narrator, Martin, a young socially unadjusted Englishman, is knocking about New York, jobless and penniless, when through a chance invitation to a party he meets the rich Henrietta and her theatre director husband Freddy. Drawn into their circle of friends, Martin has a brief liberating experience, a sort of crash-course on being accepted and on relating to the people around him.

Part Two, narrated by Henrietta's son Lawrence, has the group of friends staying at Henrietta's country house in England and rehearsing a play, Fielding's Tom Thumb, for a village fête. All sorts of undercurrents are implied but not perceived by the 18-year-old Lawrence who is completely and hilariously involved in directing the play.

Part Three, with a confusion of narrating voices, finds Freddy suing Henrietta for divorce, citing Martin as co-respondent. Things get complicated as the novel's focus is intentionally blurred. Both Martin and Lawrence, whose individualities provided viewpoints and frames of reference for the earlier events, become sidelined, but so is everybody else. The author seems to contrast a personal and a general view of the situation, with objectivity equally elusive to both, and actual events meaningless or immaterial next to their varying interpretations which alone influence the outcome. Pynchon says somewhere that there is no hope of understanding a situation unless all the particulars of everybody involved are understood first. Julian Mitchell seems to imply that a situation dissolves in the influx of detail; analysis of the particulars uncovers chaos rather than produces order or understanding. In Part Four, the somewhat shell-shocked Martin tries to make some sense out of what happened and also dissolves into a new life of which nothing shall be known.

Both the structure of the novel, shifting viewpoints among multiple narrators, and its concern with a woman's place in society and her vulnerability to social prejudices, strongly and parodically echo Wilkie Collins, but the tone, especially in the first half, is closer to Woody Allen (a less frivolous, much more subtle Woody Allen). Aside from postmodernistic narrative tricks, Julian Mitchell is interested in the relation of theatre to life and America to England. The latter problem is ambiguously posited. On the face of it, there is much criticism of the class system and the strait-laced traditional English mentality. But at the same time the Americans are shown as unable to appreciate subtleties of character and complexities of a situation - especially as represented by Freddy, who is also seen to be a failure as an 'art' theatre director, but making an immediate hit with (presumably crass) commercial productions.


Anonymous said...

A fascinating account, thanks very much. I've had Mitchell's THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY on the shelf for a decade but am more familiar with his work for the stage, like ANOTHER COUNTRY, and for the screen, especially his fine scripts for the INSPECTOR MORSE series.

polecat said...

I knew Mitchell from his brilliant TV adaptation of The Good Soldier, one of my favourite books (which I would have said was unadaptable). But he also wrote Wilde, which I disliked. The book was very different from my expectations, and actually made me revise them several times during reading. Definitely one of the best I've read this year.