Kathryn Gray reviews Advantages of the Older Man by Gwyneth Lewis.
Gwyneth Lewis’s latest fiction offering from Seren, Advantages of the Older Man, is a breezy and engaging novella – and also something of a curiosity.
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Lewis’s heroine, Jennie, is a Bridget Jones-cum-Georgy Girl, returned to the family home in Swansea following a failed venture to carve out a meaningful life for herself in London. Her post-university career has come to nought; her romantic life has barely progressed to the point of sharing the occasional post-coital breakfast. Lost, friendless and parentally oppressed, and despite an avowed dislike of poetry (‘[i]t seems to me to have something essentially shaming about it, like acne’) and a humiliating childhood memory of performing Mrs Ogmore Pritchard in Under Milk Wood, she lands a job at the Dylan Thomas Art Gallery. But the position indirectly leads to the tantalising possibility of love in the shape of Peter, a Moleskine-toting poet she meets on her lunch break, while exploring the nearby Dylan Thomas Centre. Smitten and determined to secure her man, she feigns a passion for poetry and helps him to run his open-mic nights. When the open-mic collective is invited to enter a float in the Swansea carnival parade, Jennie resolves to make quite the impression as an ample muse swathed in ‘subtly revealing Grecian robes’ and ‘performing an Isadora Duncan dance with all the sexual wiles I could muster’ – before a collision with another float sends her landing in the road.
As Jennie struggles to reconnect with Peter in the aftermath, a somewhat convoluted plot development follows – involving Dylan Thomas’s death mask, 3-D animation, and a cameo by the Swansea photographer Bernard Mitchell – which results in Jennie being haunted by the great poet himself. Thomas apparently wants a second shot at artistic life; Jennie’s desperate for union with Peter. And so a deal is struck between the two. She will set down the words of Dylan redux; he will find a way to secure her Peter’s love. It makes for a less than harmonious partnership, as the odd couple bicker incessantly – teasing out, in the process, some serious ideas surrounding literary celebrity, poetic pecking orders, the anxiety of artistic endeavor, and the agonies of the unlived life. And it’s at this point in the narrative that Lewis’s play-it-lite mode, entertaining though that is, gives way to something altogether more satisfying.
The figure Lewis summons from the grave may be sharply Thomas in some of his less appealing aspects – boisterous, self-obsessed, sentimental and sometimes crude – but he’s also sympathetically drawn. A vulnerable depressive, he questions the value of his legacy, is fearful of self-repetition, beset with writer’s block, and emotionally and psychologically scarred from an afterlife which has seen him perpetually bullied by his fellow Greats – with Wordsworth, wryly, the ringleader. Thomas even plans to defect to the athletes squad in heaven, if he can just get in shape. Meanwhile, Jennie, until now a figure of comedy for the reader, becomes rather more poignant and complex, frustrated with Thomas even as he acquaints her with meaningful human connection, adventure, transatlantic travel (literary tourism, anyone?) – and Edgar Allan Poe.
Along the way, Lewis, with her trademark wit, has a lot of fun puncturing poetic pretension (‘I’ve been reading the Imagists […] I’m horrified by how under-rated HD is. That crystalline talent, her pursuit of the pre-feminist orgasm of the mind and soul. She’s much better than Pound’) and competitiveness (‘it’s no accident that the collective noun for a group of poets is a paranoia’), even as she unobtrusively demonstrates her own elegant lyric talent:
It was as if the distance between me and the world had slightly altered. I was a match for the raw wind which had brought out early snowdrops. My stride lengthened with joy, and I felt myself to be a fitting frame through which to watch the Uplands gardens.
Surreal, amusing, and with two significant twists in the tale, Advantages of the Older Man is a welcome antidote to the largely uncritical and one-note Dylan centenary year. And I suspect Thomas, for all his perturbation, would have rather approved of that.