The Books That Built Me is delighted to publish a piece on Elizabeth Day’s Books That Built Me last week by Megan Hardy, one of the guests at the salon.
Maison Assouline warmly welcomed our guest, Elizabeth Day, to discuss her latest novel ‘The Party’. The book tells of the introverted protagonist, Martin, becoming infatuated with the enigmatic yet dazzling existence of Ben, an aristocratic socialite. Martin operates in a rather Machiavellian manner, befriending Ben to become part of his extravagant lifestyle.
Elizabeth and Helen’s colloquy opened up for the audience an insight into the mind of Martin, and Elizabeth’s inspiration for the character’s and novel’s development alike.
Elizabeth remarked that, having previously worked in journalism, “as an introvert, being a diarist taught me I had to acquire a sheen of sociability to survive”. Elizabeth shared that she had contemplated this need for extroversion, the need to be active in social situations, and wanted to explore to greater depths what it was like to instead be an observer, utilising her novel to pose the question: Is a quest to belong self destructive? I nodded yes, as the more we begin to fit in with our desired social crowd, the more we tend to hate them, and ourselves in turn as we perhaps regret altering our personalities for a careless group of people when we were in a position of vulnerability and insecurity.
A portion of Elizabeth’s joy in writing ‘The Party’ stemmed from her ability to concentrate on the flaws of certain social classes; “It was a fun mouthpiece to use to point a finger at the arrogant entitlement of some sectors of British class.”
The themes of the carelessness of the aristocrats and the vulnerability and desire to fit in possessed by the lower classes continued into the books that built Elizabeth. Via both the exquisite ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, and my personal favourite ‘The Go Between’, Elizabeth provided a window through which we observed the themes, and in broad daylight shined a light on how they informed and shaped her character Martin.
Patricia Highsmith, author of Mr Ripley, constructed perfectly the character of Tom Ripley, a middle class man who inveigles his way into aristocracy.
Ripley is a man in love with a gilded way of being, and he kills for it, wishing to embody Dickie Greenleaf. The links between Martin and Tom became increasingly evident; both were subject to difficult childhoods with the death of Tom’s parents and Martin’s mother being far from enamoured of him, in a rather ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ manner, alongside their repressed sexuality, as the two are in love with the idea of their antagonist however neither can separate the social status from the men themselves. In addition, the character of Leo Colston from L P Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’ exquisitely illustrates the vulnerability of an outsider and the self-regarding nature of the upper class that is only fed by Leo’s love and infatuation of the Maudsley’s, which is why they adore Leo all the same – he fuels their egocentric vanity. The duality in the novel between belonging and not belonging ties harmoniously with Martin, as he is still content with his outsider/observer position despite wishing to delve into the pools of upper-class-ism. The tragedy of these novels is that characters like Leo and Martin are there to cater to the vanity of the upper class family, and characters such as Martin and Tom adore the pedestalled lifestyle that they allow themselves to be used in order to become part of it, when in reality, the families care not for the lower class members that they believe to have adopted.
Helen noted that we have all experienced friendships in which we believed the other party to have cared for us much more than they did, and our moment of anagnorisis leaves us feeling hollow.
Despite the rather depressing tone of the previous sentence, the evening was cheerful and warm. Helen’s insightful interview technique enabled Elizabeth to enthrall and entertain the audience with her wonderful sense of humour and brought to me personally a wave of inspiration, reminding me why I have fallen in love with literature. It was an honour to be in the presence of other book lovers alike and we all, I believe, felt the effect of Elizabeth’s youthful charm.
All of us will experience moments of inspiration, moments that we cherish and conjure up from memory when we feel low or a little lacklustre. Inspiration, for us bookworms, surfaces in the pages of our favourite books and if we are lucky, from the bodies of great authors.
Megan Hardy, 26th July 2017.