By Laura Kalpakian
I often think of the novel, any novel, really, as a small boat, initially moored to a certain well known shore, an incident, say, the writer’s own experience. As the writing process continues, that boat slips its leash and ventures out to a much broader sea, bobs there, without direction, perhaps for years, until suddenly the wind picks up, the sails fill, and it finds a new port, one that surprises the writer. Three Strange Angels was certainly that experience for me. It began nearly thirty years ago, a bit of convivial literary conversation in a Mayfair restaurant.
My first London agents were a venerable firm, founded in about 1919 and boasting a list of esteemed authors dazzling to any English major in an American university (which I had been). I lived in England, off and on throughout the 80’s, and the first time I found my way to their Mayfair offices, I was honored to think of my work amid the galaxy of author photos across the high wall. To be in that office was like stepping back in time. Even then, when typewriters still clacked away and the air hung heavy with cigarette smoke. My own agent in this firm was a young woman, my age, and we became (and remain) fast friends. The head of the firm was a man of my parents’ generation, dapper, convivial, charming, and lively.
One summer afternoon, he took the two of us out to lunch at a posh restaurant where he was treated like royalty, and the drinks kept coming. He was a fine raconteur, and among many lively tales, told us a story of one of their clients, Dylan Thomas (no less!) and his sad demise at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. At the time, 1953, the now white-haired gent was a young man, a lowly junior partner. The firm sent him as the emissary, on behalf of the family, to New York to escort the poet’s body home on the Queen Mary. On that voyage, on learning that the young literary agent was associated with much-mourned poet, other travelers feted him, fed him, bought him drinks to salute the sadness they felt for the late, lamented Dylan Thomas. That’s all I remember of the story (as I said, the drinks kept coming), but I never forgot it.
In the intervening years my agent left that firm, set up independently and of course, I went with her. The dapper head of the firm died, and his successors gave up the picturesque Mayfair address which now existed only in memory. Perhaps it was that memory that made me revisit his story: a young man charged with escorting the remains of a lamented literary figure, and how that experience might change his life. From there, the small boat that became Three Strange Angels drifted out into uncharted waters. It became a novel of love and death: one’s guaranteed, the other you must risk.
I changed the poet to a fictional novelist, Francis Carson—renowned for his lyrical prose, his drinking, and his womanizing—found dead in the Garden of Allah swimming pool in the winter of 1950. I gave my fictional young agent, Quentin Castle, a carping father, a jealous colleague, and a perfectly conventional wife. His father tasks him with conveying the news of Francis’s death to the new widow, Mrs. Claire Carson, who lives in a Jacobean dump, broke, and with her three young children. Her plight, her tears, her hard-won dignity, her untempered desolation, her deep blue eyes awaken in Quentin emotions wholly new to him. In a spasm of gallantry, he promises Mrs Carson that he, personally, will go to California, and escort Francis’s body home to England. And despite his father’s objections, Quentin keeps this vow.
In the four or five years that I worked on the novel intermittently, I read and researched postwar Britain. I watched British films from the Fifties. I spent long hours in the library listening to the whirr of the microfilm machine, reading the London Times for 1949 and 1950. Quentin Castle’s England was victorious, but pinched and austere. The War, though ended, was everywhere apparent in still-uncleared rubble. Incalculable losses hung over everyone, as his brother Robert’s death remains a vivid loss for Quentin. Rationing didn’t end till 1954; winters were bitter and coal shortages kept people hunkered in their overcoats. Americans, who did not live with the War on their soil, nor with daily privations, had no understanding of England’s postwar suffering. And frankly (as the novel makes clear) wanted none.
For the American section on the novel I watched and re-watched Sunset Boulevard. I read about the famous Garden of Allah where writers, actors, directors and musicians romped and drank heavily. My youngest son even drove me up Sunset Boulevard to where the Garden of Allah once stood. Now, a strip mall with not so much as a plaque testifying to all that seedy grandeur. We almost drove right past it.
As the wind picked up and filled the sails of this novel, I went through several different titles, coming finally, fittingly, on the lines from the D. H. Lawrence poem, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.” Of his strange angels, Louisa Partridge, the formidable cookery writer would offer Quentin bits of bohemian wisdom and a few fine, fat figs. Gigi Fischer, the sassy, shallow American, offered to teach him to drive, and a weekend in Mexico. Claire Carson offered him the great love of his life, and greater risks.
The novel is rooted in the winter of 1950, but then moves beyond the grim Fifties and into the new decade when the Beatles emerged. Boyish, cheeky, energetic, incredibly talented, tons of fun (as anyone who’s seen A Hard Day’s Night knows) the Beatles and the rock scene they inspired in the early Sixties seemed to wake Britain up! The old postwar pall lifted, and England was suddenly chic, Mod, even enviable. Three Strange Angels ends at this bright moment, June, 1965, when Quentin, at age forty, prosperous, professionally acclaimed as a literary agent, sits at his desk, and once again, risks everything for love.
Read the Shiny review of Laura’s novel in our Fiction section here.
Laura Kalpakian, Three Strange Angels (Buried River Press: London, 2015) 978-1910208120, 384 pp., paperback.
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