Novel Thoughts: Brother of the More Famous Jack (Victor Gollanz, 1982)
Updated: Sep 21
Barbara Trapido’s 1982 debut is a dazzling bridge between the romantic dramas and comedies of Somerset Maugham, (or EM Forster), and Helen Fielding. Specifically those novels, like Brideshead Revisited,or Room with A View, dealing in emotional and sexual maturation.
If Bridget Jones was the feminist New Labour deserved, Trapido’s narrator and heroine might be the most memorable feminist character of Thatcher’s dawn. She is fond of Austen and, Dear Reader, I might not be able to marry her, but I did love her.
For insight into technique, I should rescue the idea of ‘romantic comedy’ from its Hollywood formula (although this novel has many of its plot points). Brother of the More Famous Jack is romantic and a comedy in the broadest sense, because it is concerned with the romantic and sexual life of Katherine, who tells her story at a pace suited to punchlines that are redolent with the erudite wit of her occupation as a scholarly student.
For the comedy, Trapido relies heavily on dialogue of a specific kind, (Nora Ephron, and Amy Sherman-Palladino must surely be fans). The characters ‘Katherine’ describes, are never more than a breath away from an articulate zinger, a sardonic put-down, or withering, psychological insight. This has less to do with naturalism than the stage traditions of Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde, both writers for whom the observation of middle and upper-class hypocrisies could only be taken with a good dollop of wit and farce. After all, these are characters who exist in a world of relative privilege.
How do you achieve techniques more readily associated with screen and stage, in a novel? We take it for granted that novels can do this, but the art actually requires some structural conceits to achieve. As ever, form needs to make sense of style.
Trapido’s technique seduces the reader away from anxiety laden realism and into the comic spirit by presenting itself as a first-person memoir. In a memoir, we take it for granted that dialogue will not be presented verbatim, (posing as a documentary record of history), but through the filter of the narrator’s story-telling memory. Brother of the More Famous Jack is mostly composed of conversations as Katherine wants to remember them - heightened, like the stories we tell each other. In the space between imagination and memory, the characters she describes can be larger than life.
It is also life as Katherine wants to remember it. Anyone who has ever started a recollection with ‘it wasn’t funny at the time, but…’ , understands why Katherine tells her story this way. In memory, tragedy can be softened with comedy; a technique that makes the shocking tragedy at the heart of Katherine's story bearable to read but poignant to reflect upon. When this tragedy comes, we are made almost guiltily aware of why Katherine needs to keep turning to the jokes. In other words, we perceive the tragedy from the perspective of a narrator who shows us her fortitude in coping with it. It is a tactic that encourages our sympathies because readers need characters who not only struggle but have the will to live.
And because this is the story Katherine wants to remember, Trapido is also excused from the exposition of autobiography - those details we might expect from a longer novel seeking to suspend our disbelief about a ‘fully-realised’ fictional character. Without this kind of dramatic exposition, the chapters form blissfully short scenes. Note how little we know about Katherine’s life before, and outside of, the events related. The few facts we are given about Katherine's life beyond the events related, are simply convenient to political satire and social observation. Like Margaret Thatcher, Katherine is descended from a family of greengrocers, making her a social climber in an age that would prove one of the greatest for social mobility. Her mother makes a brief appearance, but has no real dramatic function other than to explain why Katherine finds the bohemian socialism of the Goldman family so alluring. Beyond this, we are always in the immediate 'present' of an event somehow related to the Goldman family, the catalyst for Katherine's sexual and intellectual growth.
Katherine also follows a long tradition of first-person narrators whose function is not, foremost, to reveal their own interiority, but to act as an ironizing eye for the society their story disrupts and reveals. If the novel really were a memoir, it might be titled: “My life with the Goldman’s: how I learned to become the woman I want to be”, a horribly reductive and patronizing title, and one which the form of the novel is able to shrug off precisely because the technique of any good novel resists reductive closure.
To this end, one of the notable achievements of Trapido’s technique is how we sense Katherine’s own agency, her feeling of control over her life, changing. We sense it not because she tells us it is happening, or experiences a trite epiphany, (as a bad memoirist might reach for), but because of the way her narrative style develops.
In the first act of the novel, Katherine’s direct thoughts are rarely on the page. Little of cause and consequence is explained. Her mother has sent her to a day-school and we don’t really know why. She meets a bi-sexual man in a bookshop and takes up with him for reasons we don’t fully understand. She is sucked into the life of the Goldman’s with little explanation. She is a rabbit in the headlights of her own life. She is young and naïve.
As life begins to take its toll, Katherine’s thoughts begin to fill more of the novel’s sentences, we hear less of the voices around her, and the heroine becomes more the centre of her own story. Katherine makes no conclusion about the choices she has made, or how life will continue beyond the pages of her memoir. In this way, the novel transcends the worst tendency of memoir: the self-justification of teleological thinking. The technique of the novel has given us ironic distance, an ability to perceive more of Katherine than she can herself. This is not just life as Katherine wants it to be, it is life as Katherine needs it to be, and the reader is touched by the distance between the two.