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Kavenna has the potential to write beautiful text. From the opening descriptions of the novel's anti-hero, Rosa Lane, whose story Inglorious encapsulates, to the mid-point crisis where Rosa, penniless and unhinged, struggles with the guilt of asking for money from her father, to the dinner party in the farm house on the edge of the Lake district with the hostess from hell and the dark realization of her mother's death (which took place before the novel began), Joanna Kavenna's portraits are astute and intelligent; perfect observances on the narrow minded indulgences of friendship, disloyalty and class.
Inglorious begins with Rosa Lane, 35, a successful journalist, resigning from her job. She is, 'at Dante's mid-point, the centre of life, when she was supposed to garner knowledge and become wise.' She feels 'dislocated …and at night is troubled by bad dreams, grief sweats, fear of the void' (3). Unfortunately for her reader, Lane's dislocation is overshadowed by a hoard of dramatic events (unfaithful partner, rubbish best friend, misunderstanding dad, and a group of disloyal friends) and ever increasing descriptions of Rosa's emotional state which rarely tally with the unfolding narrative. Whilst it is fine to repeat that Rosa 'lacked a doctrine' and continued to suffer from 'intellectual meltdown', the only illustration of this is an affair with a man 10 years her junior.
And here lies the major problem with the novel. Told from the perspective of Rosa Lane -- every description is Lane's opinion -- she is simply not a sympathetic character. What makes her unsympathetic is complex because clearly terribly things happen to her. The fault seems to lie in the novel's own schizophrenia as to what route it's decided to follow. On one hand the narrative offers numerous psychological ramblings of a personality thrown into a world of absurdity (a descent into nowhere?) -- on the other, it supplies us with too much information; too many reasons for Rosa to suffer an emotional turmoil that never quite ties in with her experience. For whatever befalls Rosa, she never changes. Pick up the book on page 48 or page 214 and you will be faced with the same "to do" list: 'Read the Golden Bough, the Nag Hammadi Gospels, the Upanishads, the Koran, the Bible, the Tao, the complete works of E.A. Wallis Budge'. By the time the metaphor has been repeated two dozen times the irony has worn thin. If Kavenna did not continuously remind us that Rosa is dysfunctional we might otherwise be forgiven in thinking she is merely self-centred, indulgent, and, at 35, pretty clueless about the ways of the world. For aside from remaining ignorant as to why Rosa has given up her job, we never learn why she, rather than her faithless boyfriend Liam, has had to move out of their flat; nor do we ever discover why it is that all of her friends should take Liam's side in thinking that having an affair with Rosa's best friend (Grace) and deciding to marry within the course of several months should be deemed acceptable and somehow Rosa's fault. Whatever happened to love, loyalty, feminism?
It is not that bad things happen to good people (Rosa is far too spoilt to be branded "good" by even the most enlightened thinker), it is the passive inevitability in which Rosa (and Kavenna) believe that individuals are responsible for the actions and opinions of others (e.g. being lied to, cheated upon, treated horribly by so-called friends). This fault line creates a total lack of empathy, exaggerated with erroneous information that does not help. London is not, as Kavenna claims at one point, full of armed police; banks do not cash checks on the spot, not least when the account holder is thousands of pounds in debt.
Frustratingly, one can't help feeling that without all the superfluous external events unfurling around Lane's saddened life, Kavenna could so easily have offered an insight into why someone trips and fails to gets up. But Rosa Lane doesn't trip. She dives, quite voluntarily, head first. She scrounges instead of asking for help, she gets drunk rather than argue, and yet other people exist only to serve her, and when they don't, when they become downright brutal and cruel, Lane internalizes their reaction as legitimate responses to her own pathetic state. There is no reason, however, why the reader should be forced to do the same. For always the question returns: how can a woman of Rosa Lane's intelligence and age (35), by experience alone, quiver so helplessly like a spoilt child? It would only make sense if it were to pan out that Miss Lane was in fact a member of that class of spoilt super rich: the aristocracy. (It doesn't. She isn't But she should be)
If Inglorious were a coming of age novel Lane's character would at least make sense. Attempting to make our mark in the world, it is easy to imagine a young person's desire to read Sartre or Plato, to jack in a job without reason, to feel disillusioned about relationships, to freeload on friends floors, to lack loyalties and to be seen to suffer a million injustices in a veined attempt to make sense of life; or as the cliché goes, to 'find our feet' in the process of becoming that demands of each of us that we grapple with life.
Transferred to a character in her mid-30's, such desires become self-indulgent inconveniences, where the real frustration is held more by the listening friend (in this case, the reader) than the character supposedly suffering the nightmares of the damned.
It is simply unfortunate that Kavenna never once allows Lane to react against her oppressors instead of continuously reeling off doubts inside her own head. So when , in a final fleet of fancy Rosa blows the little money she has gained on a Eurostar ticket to France, the reader can only hope she finds some kind of solace, and that Inglorious doesn't, as by now one has strongly suspected, turn out to be a bitter memoir of the author's life.
© 2008 Eccy de Jonge
Eccy de Jonge is the author of Spinoza and Deep Ecology, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.