The sins of the father are revisited by the son

<i>Father and I: a memoir </i>by Carlo G&Atilde;&copy;bler (Little, Brown, &pound;16.99)
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The Independent Culture

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad," goes the opening line of Larkin's famous "This Be the Verse", with its cheerfully lugubrious acceptance of the way things are and always have been: "But they were fucked up in their turn,/ By fools in old-style hats and coats." A similar understanding, if not cheerfulness, is reached by Carlo Gébler toward the end of his searing memoir of his father, Ernest Gébler, an abysmal curmudgeon of a parent if ever there was one.

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad," goes the opening line of Larkin's famous "This Be the Verse", with its cheerfully lugubrious acceptance of the way things are and always have been: "But they were fucked up in their turn,/ By fools in old-style hats and coats." A similar understanding, if not cheerfulness, is reached by Carlo Gébler toward the end of his searing memoir of his father, Ernest Gébler, an abysmal curmudgeon of a parent if ever there was one.

Indeed, to cite Gébler senior's sufferings at the hands of his father seems the only charitable way of explaining his wretched performance as a parent. This book is possibly the bleakest account of father-son relations since Samuel Butler's novel The Way of All Flesh or since Edmund Gosse sat down to dissect his Plymouth Brethren upbringing in the classic memoir Father and Son.

Carlo Gébler was born in Dublin in 1954: you can find a fictionalised version of how his parents got together in the novel The Lonely Girl by his mother, Edna O'Brien. Four years later, with the family expanded to include Sasha, born 1956, the Géblers moved to Morden, in south London, and Ernest promptly set about leaching all the fun and happiness from his children's lives.

This is a father who forbids the eating of sweets and the watching of television, who crushes every childish impulse toward frivolity, who has nothing for his sons but sarcasm and hard words, who has cast himself as the old-fashioned disciplinarian. Then he has the nerve to feel sorry for himself, lumbered with a couple of selfish and misbegotten boys who refuse to wash up their teacups. "Dung beetles" he calls them, "miserable sneak thief sons".

It is not long before the ill-matched parents have gone their separate ways, with the children, for a time, shunted between the two. It is fortunate that the boys have Putney and their mother's house as an antidote to the desolations of Morden - and absolutely understandable that both should opt to live permanently with their one kind parent.

There were two Gébler boys, but Sasha is not enlisted here to endorse his brother's version of family events (though we may infer that he does not dissent from it). The central conflict is between the author and his father, and other players in the drama are kept very much in the background. This is not a book about Carlo Gébler's mother, for example (though its dedication to her tells us as much as we need to know). We do learn, however, that Ernest Gébler is in a tradition of mean writing husbands of more successful wives, from Willy and Colette on. They put it about that their wives' best work is written by them, and that the rest is rubbish.

It is hard to know whether to take Father and I as an act of purgation, a subtle revenge, a sustained rebuke or a display of almost superhuman forbearance. Whatever, it makes painful reading. Like his harrowing novel set in 19th-century Ireland, How to Murder a Man, Carlo Gébler's new book is uncompromising in its depiction of cruelties and adversities. After all the tortures and woes inflicted on the characters of that novel, you cannot believe that something won't come out right in the end. But it doesn't. So with the memoir: Carlo never does win Ernie's approval or achieve anything approaching comradeship with his father.

It's a frightful relationship, evoked with admirable impassivity. At the time, the son was protected, to an extent, by his knack of detaching himself from the strictures and sneers of his unspeakable progenitor. (You wish he would occasionally lose his head and let fly at the old devil with a few home truths.) And it's as well to remember that this is not the whole of a childhood - only the bitter parts. It adds up to a lethal portrayal, with unemphasised ironies. For example, Ernest Gébler's most successful work during the 1960s, for which he won an Academy award, was a television play entitled Call Me Daddy. He then turned the play into a novel with the possibly more appropriate title Shall I Eat You Now?

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