Delderfield - Give us this Day

December 20, 2004

R. F. (Ronald Frederick) Delderfield
Give us this day
New York, Simon and Schuster [1973]

Delderfield reminds me of Wagner sometimes.

This is not a good thing.

Both produced vast stretches of material that makes you wonder why you are sitting through it, broken by occasional moments of sublimity or bathos, or in Delderfield's case a sort of prosaic sublime bathos, if that makes any sense.

Delderfield wrote a lot about 19th and early 20th century England. Some of it is good. Most of it is long. Much of it is too long for the material.

One of his opuses (opi?) is the story of Swann, a cavalryman who returns from putting down the Sepoy Mutiny in India with a fortune in rubies hidden in his belt, and uses that fortune to set up a business using horses and wagons to "fill in the gaps" between the railroad spurs in the second half of the nineteenth century. The book is long, and has two sequals each even longer than the one before. This is the final sequal, and I could not finish it.

I got a good 500 pages into the book before I finally convinced myself that I was turning the pages just to get to the end so I could say I had read it. That is not really reading a book, so I sent it back without turning the last 200 pages.

The problem is simply that the vast stretches of tedium were not worth the few transcendent moments. He has some good moments - when George Swann (son and business heir of old Adam) uses two early model trucks and a modified horse wagon to lug a six ton battleship turret some hundred-odd miles across England, well, that chapter works. At his best Delderfield is capable of taking the prosaic events of daily life and the large events that punctuate a business or career and turning them into sublime or transcendent moments, paens to the human spirit, and powerful invocations of English nationalism. He does this best of all in his two-volume bit about "The Suburb" but parts of Swann's world also do it.

At his worst, you get bored out of your gourd watching the culture hero wander through life, with adoring wife behind him and large troupe of thinly fleshed out, largely neglected children scattering around them. That is a little unfair - Delderfield does try to give the second generation real personalities in this volume where he had not done so in A Horseman Riding By, but the marriage is the same and the patriarch raising his huge brood through benign neglect and good luck, that is the same. I think that one reason why To Serve Them All my Days works as well as it does is that he manages to limit the offspring to a manageable number, although even there the kids are raised off stage and you get the sense that dad is vaguely aware of some short people living in the house while mom knows all the details. And the book is about dad.

I think I am Delderfielded out. I read too many of his novels in a few months' span.

Posted by Red Ted at December 20, 2004 09:16 PM | TrackBack

I have read the first two of this trilogy. The power of the writer, for me, is expressed in that I remember my Father discussing these books over tea, with friends, when I was 5 or 6.

Thirty years later, reading these books for the first time, I can remember what Dad thought and liked. I can even remember what was to happen before I read it. Delderfield's writing has that impact. He was trying to express the quintessential English character. His Swann creation was a Victorian industrialist. The children were expressions of English success, from Hugo and sports, through George and technology and Giles and Philosophy. Ethnic differences are covered by a foster daughter, farming interests by the eldest daughter and the growth of liesure time romance by the middle daughters.

Delderfield plays a 'tape' ro reinforce character values. This literary device is not interesting, but essential for the lead in to his tales. Characters only die when he has used them up. But then his intention in the Swann dynasty trilogy is different from "To serve them all my Days." In the latter, he was reinvestigating the wound of his life, explored so painfully (and beautifully) in Diana.

Posted by: David Daniel Ball at January 19, 2005 07:03 PM
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