Books: The duties of promiscuity

TEN MEN by Elisa Segrave Faber pounds 10.99
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Reading this book was not dissimilar to trying out one of those impossibly-named new restaurants where unsmiling proprietors deal up weird grub in acccordance with the theory of quantum mechanics. Tiny particles of lime, coriander and cod behaving badly, overturning the old laws of gravitas and certainty, nucleic tastes colliding. Not quite a meal, more a series of minute explosions.

The title, as bald as it is, suggests something slightly different than what the book serves up. Elisa Segrave is the author of Diary of a Breast, an account of her breast cancer, published to great acclaim in 1995. Ten Men is an account of a rich young woman's life, mostly concerned with becoming an adult in the late 1960s, but beginning with her childhood relationships with her eccentric father and two brothers, one of whom drowned when a little boy.

Is it a novel or a true account? Or a bit of both? The canny publishers give no clue and the definition barely matters, save - presumably - to those lovers of long ago, predatory or not-predatory-enough sexual donors, pitiless and ill-temperedly described in all their hairy, smelly, grasping, phoney and idle bathos.

For the narrator, even in those free-wheeling times, seems to have had execrable taste in blokes. There is Philippe the nudist on Crete who recommends The Idiot - "it makes you think" - and shags everything in sight. There is Harvey, the two- or three-timing journalist in Paris. There is weedy Dave the Edinburgh student. There is holier-than-thou Martin, who refuses to sleep with the narrator on their trip across America collecting information on the underground press. There is Peter the Communist doctor in Hackney whose friends are keen for the narrator to work:

"You'd be perfectly capable of sitting down from nine to five every day," she said sternly.

I thought this was probably true.

I went to an agency in Fleet Street. It was called the Arthur Carr agency and was supposed to be for those who didn't fit in.

The job interval doesn't last long and it is back to Ben and Patrick and wondering about Ian and Claude. The landscape of the time, the dutiful obligations of promiscuity, the heady class politics, the illusory little heavens found on Greek islands or Africa, the hermetically sealed world of well-to-do and irresponsible drop-outs are richly done, a grainy re-reeling of a short-lived period. Much of the narration, the non sequitur brought to a high art form, is extremely funny.

As we drank our coffee, my father remarked: "You should give away some of that money your grandmother left you. Give it to charity."

He then reminded me that I owed him two pounds I had borrowed from him the week before.

But the encounters with the men, the wry attempts at relationships, are narrated in a most peculiar tone. There is a disjointed quality to the book, which leaves the characters of all these men (apart from the father, whose oddities may not be followed through but who does have more bouncing life to him than the lovers), trapped in the single dimension of people who have been pinned in the author's unblinking gaze.