It is very difficult to write even a small masterpiece. But there is something harder still: writing a sequel to a masterpiece.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Proust, in his cork-lined solitude, topped himself with each successive installment of “In Search of Lost Time,” and more recently, Marilynne Robinson followed “Gilead” with the equally stellar “Home.”
Still, most novelists avoid this cul-de-sac by starting each time with a clean slate.
So Jane Gardam, whose works of fiction culminated with the glories of “Old Filth,” deserves our praise for even attempting to produce a companion work, “The Man in the Wooden Hat.”
From a chronological point-of-view, this is not strictly a sequel. “Old Filth” sketched out, in a style of marvelous lightness and rightness, the life of its protagonist, Edward Feathers. There was a traumatic childhood in colonial Malaysia, the mixed bag of an English education and a long and distinguished career in the law.
From time to time the perspective would shift to one of the secondary characters, including his wife, Betty. There were glimmers of her complexities and checkered emotional résumé.
But the book belonged to Filth -- not a hygienic judgment but an allusion to the character’s career path: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.
Now it is Betty’s turn. The setting is Hong Kong, around 1950. After a brief preamble (in which Gardam makes a valiant stab at boiling down the previous novel to half a dozen pages), “The Man in the Wooden Hat” commences with Filth’s proposal of marriage.
Filth being Filth, this proposal arrives in the form of a heartfelt but rather correct letter. And Betty, a “bright-eyed girl” whose earlier tenure in a Shanghai detention camp has made her eager for a dose of stability, agrees to marry a man she hardly knows.
Just minutes after accepting his proposal, reservations start to surface. “Well, now I know,” she tells herself. “It won’t be romantic but who wants that? It won’t be passion, but better without, probably. And there will be children. And he’s remarkable and I’ll grow to love him very much. There’s nothing about him that’s unlovable.”
Betty wants the moon and stars but is willing to settle for “a forty-watt light bulb.” There is even another suitor on hand, a married attorney named Terry Veneering, who manages to claim her heart and her virginity (not quite in that order) just days before the wedding. Yet Betty sticks with Filth.
In the conventional calculus of fiction, this would count as a tragic mistake. Gardam, though, is a great realist about the marathon event of marriage, with its deep comforts, its compromises and calculations. Being not-unlovable is not the same thing as being lovable -- but in the long run, it may serve the same purpose.
So they marry and return to England, where Betty is hit hard by a late miscarriage, followed by ovarian cancer and a hysterectomy. She goes through these trials alone, not only because Filth is consumed by work but also because she has never relinquished what she calls “an unassailable privacy within my own life equal to his.” It’s tempting to call this a feminist note, an unwillingness to be submerged by the alpha male in one’s life. I’m not sure Gardam means it that way: She might insist that men too require such a pocket of privacy.
In any case, the most moving chapter finds Betty in a room of her own -- an entire rustic cabin, actually, lent her by a friend after her operation.
The terrain is magical, conjuring both a non-domesticated past and (for the attentive reader) a specific future.
“The stretch of grass that led to more faraway trees was not so much lawn as meadow,” we read, “where vanished trees were waiting somewhere to reclaim their home. She felt the stirring of life under the grass and saw spirals of bindweed standing several feet high seeking some remembered support. They swayed as if they were growing under water.”
In this weirdly fecund landscape, Betty is healed. She also decides, if such a thing can be decided, that she loves Filth. The rest of their lives is conveyed in vignettes, some comical, others quasi-visionary.
There are scenes of exquisite power, including a couple of encounters with the slippery Veneering (perfect name, by the way). So why does Betty’s story pale next to that of her husband?
In the end, perhaps, there is something inchoate about Betty, who calls herself a “post-war invertebrate.” She is, for all her proto-feminist impulses, defined by her relationship with Filth, while he -- not in fact a 40-watt bulb but a stranger, much more incandescent creature -- is self-propelled.
So “The Man in the Wooden Hat” retains the feeling of a subsidiary work. And yet without it, these scenes from a marriage would be woefully incomplete. It turns out that even a (relatively) silent partner has something important to say.
Marcus is the author of “Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut” and an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. He blogs at House of Mirth (housemirth.blogspot.com).