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The Lessons, By Naomi Alderman
'Brideshead' is revisited in this novel about a gay Oxford undergrad and his ambivalent acolyte
Sunday 11 April 2010
Oxford is a city of ghosts. Not the jump-in-front-of-you Ghost Tour variety, but the ever-present yet almost-never-seen sort. From Jude the Obscure to Inspector Morse, countless spirits drift across quads. Looming over all is Lord Sebastian Flyte.
Naomi Alderman is, evidently, not afraid of ghosts. She courts them and flirts with them and defies them in her darkly seductive second novel, The Lessons, which is set in the last days of yuppie Oxford, and ruled over by Mark Winters. Fantastically rich, flamboyantly Catholic and painfully handsome, Winters could easily – like so many freshers – be a studied pastiche of Sebastian. Just add Aloysius. Here is our first encounter: "A man was leaning in the doorway, with blond hair that flopped into his eyes, wearing a pair of low-slung jeans with a loose banker's shirt: blue stripes, with white collar and cuffs. The outfit, and his demeanour, half-amused half-wary, made him ageless: he could have been a boyish don or a precocious 12-year-old." (Here, Charles Ryder meets Sebastian: "He was entrancing, with that epicene beauty which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.")
At first, Charles dislikes Sebastian, as James, the narrator of The Lessons, does Mark. Of course, for both young men, it's the start of a life-long obsession. Whereas Will Self's Dorien is a straight-up retelling, Alderman's book goes far beyond the Brideshead she carefully evokes. For a start, her Mark is ferally and unashamedly gay – lustily cruising fellow students and fusty academics. Alderman writes very hot and very convincing gay sex. Only a good Jewish girl could get bacon in there, as she does. Would a contemporary Sebastian overcome his Catholic abjection sufficiently to get on his knees to do something other than pray? Even if he did, he certainly wouldn't tell all of Oxford, as Mark does.
Whereas Brideshead is basically the story of Charles and Sebastian, The Lessons deals with the complex web of relationships spun between all the people under Mark's influence. As a child lines up insects for a battle, so Mark toys with the emotions and affections of his erstwhile tenants and friends. Here, James discovers Mark's house: "It was enormous – the main section was three storeys tall, with seven windows along each floor, and its façade had faded into mottled beauty." James doesn't understand how such grandeur can hide in the city. "Oxford's full of secrets. It's tradition," replies Jess, his other love match.
Also under Mark's spell are glamorous, Spanish Emmanuelle and her interchangeable Nordic boyfriends; cynical, studious Jewish Franny; and broad-shouldered Simon. Between them, they create and keep countless secrets. Oxford does not prepare them for life outside Mark's house, and none of them ever quite escapes Mark's orbit. Where Charles is a spectator in the tragedy of Sebastian, James is a participant.
In both books, the story is told in flashback from a distant, troubled future. For both narrators, Oxford is not so much the past as the inescapable past-present directing their future. Neither man belongs to the class he finds himself never quite in. Oxford is the biggest character in The Lessons, and the city, so inextricably bound with the university, is the harshest teacher.
James fantasises about his first term: "Oxford was a tree decked with presents; all I had to do was reach out my hand and pluck them. I would achieve a first, I would gain a blue, I would make rich, influential, powerful friends. Oxford would paint me with a thin layer of gold." Actually, he will do only one of these things, and it will be both his making and undoing.
Alderman is a virtuoso on Oxford: "It is a magician dazzling viewers with bustle and glitter, misdirecting our attention... It is old and it is beautiful and it is grand. And it is unfair and it is narrow and it is cold." A perfect city for ghosts. Which Alderman, with great skill and style, finally lays to rest.
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