Marrying Out by Harold Carlton

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

I am an enormous fan of Slightly Foxed Editions, which are reprints of memoirs published in beautiful little hardbacks, complete with their own bookmark-ribbons. Obviously the books are beautiful objects, but more than that, the contents are extraordinary. The series seems to curate the best memoirs of the 20th century. So I was quite surprised to see that their latest title Marrying Out (originally published as The Most Handsome Sons in the World!) was only published in 2001. Would something so recent fit well in the SF canon? Well, I needn’t have worried. Carlton’s memoir is every bit as beautiful, moving, memorable, and well-written as the others in the Slightly Foxed stable.

As I say, all the books are memoirs – that is, they deal with a certain portion of the author’s life, rather than a full-scale autobiography. Carlton’s goes a step further, in that he only really concentrates on certain elements of a portion of his life – in this case, his childhood. There is barely a mention of school, nor do we get much of a sense of his neighbours or home. What takes centre stage is his mother’s family, in all its eccentricities, and his own nuclear family.

Carlton starts off by saying that:

at the age of 12 I believed that everyone’s family was exactly like mine. I thought every boy had a beautiful mother who adored him and a bad-tempered father who frightened him. I thought that all children loved their mothers and hated their fathers. 

And he says something rather moving about what it is like to be a confused child in these circumstances: ‘I knew that my mother adored me. She assured me that my father did too. But when my father loved someone it was a secret; someone else had to tell you.’

The violent father and the oppressed mother are, sadly, not unusual features in fact or fiction of the 20th century (or, indeed, any time). But Marrying Out is not really a memoir about suffering from a volatile father or witnessing a mother who realised that her life was being sucked out of her. These are ‘givens’, accepted by the boy Howard (the author, known as Howard at this point) as part of his life, and not really interrogated by the adult Harold. This was the state of affairs; it was bad, but it was not mystifying.

What was more mystifying was his mother’s family – her parents and brothers – and they occupy the bulk of the memoir, and its most fascinating section. The brothers are the ‘handsome sons’ of the memoir’s original title, and the younger (Jack) is also the one who is ‘marrying out’ in its new title.

Jack, who is only eight years older than his nephew Howard, has fallen in love with Christine – a beautiful, thin, blonde woman – and wishes to embark on a relationship with her. This is forbidden by his mother (Howard’s grandmother), on the grounds that Christine is a ‘shiksa’ (a derogatory word used often in the book by his grandmother); that is, she is not Jewish.

Although the family are only observant occasionally – chiefly bah mitzvahs – and have no faith, this is an enormous issue for Howard’s grandmother, and causes lasting damage to many different people. For she is not a woman to keep her opinions to herself; indeed, she is a fascinating character, depicted with detailed fascination by her grandson.

It would be impossible to convey what a vivid character she is without typing out the whole book. The word ‘character’ feels curiously appropriate, despite her being a real person – everything she does seems overdramatic, from her pale mourning when a son takes a flight (lest he die en route) to her hysterics at her son’s engagement. Even her dropped ‘h’s, her emotional greetings, and her rich, elaborate meals are evidence of a personality bursting at the seams. In another sort of book, she would be an eccentric heroine. In this memoir – while much of it is still extremely funny, and it is impossible really to dislike her – it is clear that Grandma is also a tragic figure, her hubris being a family-centric sense of tradition that ultimately tears the family apart. (That, and two diverging restaurant ventures…)

There is actually surprisingly little about Howard himself. The only personal trait that is given much examination is Howard’s love for art. His one ambition is to go to art school and become an artist, and thereby avoid having to enter his father’s factory (which makes leather handbags, and which his father seems to hate).  He is an observer, and – perhaps because he is surrounded by so many strong, vibrant, or domineering people – we only see his personality reflected in his assessments of others.

As Carlton writes at the end of the memoir, ‘the events of my adolescence are etched upon my unwanted photographic plate of a memory, as if part of my consciousness is stuck there.’ He demonstrates an astonishing recollection of details – not just of dialogue and actions (some of which, presumably, are embroidered a little), but of emotions. Marrying Out is such a vivid book, and a great addition to the Slightly Foxed Editions series.

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Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and barely remembers what he did yesterday, let alone decades ago. 

Howard Carlton, Marrying Out (Slightly Foxed, London, 2001 repr.2014), 978-1906562670 hardback, 285pp.