By Paula Fox
A children’s author and novelist since the 1960’s, Paula Fox experienced a bit of a resurgence several years ago when a few of her key novels were republished by WW Norton after being out of print for over a decade. Writers such as Jonathan Franzen, Andrea Barrett and Jonathan Lethem praised her as a profound influence on their work.
Her adult fiction tends to be realistically bleak portraits of personal and social malaise. Not usually the kind of literature I seek out. Although Poor George was indeed bleak, it was also quite beautifully written and even funny at times.
The setting is very similar to the Highsmith novel I just read, A Suspension of Mercy: seeking a change of pace and to save some money, a young husband and wife leave Manhattan to live in a small house in the country. The isolation and close quarters exaggerate whatever inherent personal and marital issues they have, and then well, things gradually implode. Similar premise I suppose, but different vibe -- main differences being the degree of tragedy and suspense, and lack of police involvement and body count!
Fox is an elegant writer and she makes a compelling story about a rather unremarkable English school teacher George Mecklin. As soon as I read this passage, I knew that I was going to like the novel:
His hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched over, George pressed his forehead against window. Why was everything so shabby? … Suddenly he pictured himself throwing out everything they possessed, sweeping out every corner of the little house, leaving only the washed, sweet air of the country in their four rooms. Then, frightened at the prospect of such nakedness – what would they be without their little wretched accretion of objects? – he ran upstairs.
Poor George, so miserably sympathetic, and yet Fox doesn’t let you take her principal character too seriously. The funniest parts tend to take place at the private school where George works. I’m sure some of the 50-bookin’ teachers here can relate to George as he’s caught in the middle of trivial infighting among the teachers or trying to find some motivation marking papers at home:
Tonight he must start reports; some would make him writhe with impatience. The school never gave up. Students who failed seemed to be its raison d’etre; hysterical parents had to be cozened into a patience they could only simulate. “He needs more confidence…” How many times would he have to write that before the day was out?
Good stuff. I’m definitely keen on reading her other novels now, even her recent memoir Borrowed Finery.
Interesting factoid: not too long ago, Fox discovered she was the biological grandmother of Courtenay Love after being reunited with the daughter she had given up for adoption when she was 20. Fox and her notorious granddaughter apparently “do not get on”!