South African writer Barbara Trapido’s relationship to reading was changed forever when a favourite high school teacher, who read aloud to her class each day, just happened to choose Pride and Prejudice. The memory is immortalised in Trapido’s sixth novel, Frankie and Stankie (2003), her only strictly autobiographical book: ‘It’s like nothing she’s ever come across before. The language is like watching a flying kite. It’s like being lifted off the ground.’
Until then, the teenage Trapido’s literary diet had been strictly segregated between ‘cultured’ reading on the school syllabus (the Arabian Nights, The Brothers Grimm, William Blake) and her own ‘easy-option reading for pleasure’: a ‘steady diet’ of Enid Blyton school stories, The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, punctuated by ‘occasional accidental highs’ such as Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and Ballet Shoes.
Not one of the books quite throws at [her], like Pride and Prejudice does, how dialogue can lift and dance on points, how sentences can shine and crackle with a concentrated energy and a sharp crystal intelligence. So listening to [her teacher] read it is like falling in love.
Trapido’s seven novels are all characterised by this alchemy – a lightness of touch underpinned by a canny intellectual architecture. The books are classic page-turners, literary romps. And clearly they are created with not just love, but delight.
The essential stylistic elements of a Barbara Trapido novel are things Trapido herself is passionate about: food, clothes, literature, music. They are deeply felt: brilliantly funny, deliciously warm, achingly sad. And, best of all, each book is populated by a richly imagined cast of intertwined characters, brought to life by authentic – and entertaining – dialogue. ‘The dialogue is where the characters are,’ observed Trapido’s stand-in, Dinah, in Frankie and Stankie, ‘and it’s the characters who become your special friends.’
Barbara Trapido was born in Cape Town and raised in Durban, where she completed her degree in English literature (her second choice, after being told ‘girls don’t do architecture’). Here she also met her husband-to-be, Stan, a fellow student and a political activist. In
1963, when Trapido was twenty-one, the pair left for England, fearing for their safety – as did many of their friends. As Trapido told The Independent, ‘The police would ring your doorbell in the middle of the night and more and more of Stan’s friends were being thrown in prison.’ Frankie and Stankie is the closest possible thing to a memoir without actually being one. Trapido once commented that, although she didn’t want to produce a traditional memoir, her aim in writing it was to use only ‘real stories’ about her time growing up in South Africa. And while the book displays the trademark Trapido obsessions, as well as her seemingly effortless blend of dark and light, character and culture, it’s more grounded in tone than her other novels. Her customary breezily sophisticated humour changes, too; it is replaced with deadpan wit laced with irony. (‘In Dinah’s childhood, a liberal is a person who doesn’t recoil at the thought of a black person drinking out of his teacups.’) This is in keeping with the subject matter – apartheid-era South Africa is hardly the setting for an arch romp, though it lends itself beautifully to observational dark humour.
Frankie and Stankie’s high drama is found mostly in the background, rather than manifesting in the lives of the characters. It’s located in the changing politics of South Africa: the coming of apartheid, the intensifying of the regime as ‘the system moves from imperial-racist to criminal-lunatic’, and the inevitable growing unrest among the black population. In the foreground, lanky, arty Dinah and her robust, practical sister Lisa climb trees and play dolls, have their bananas stolen by monkeys and ponder questions put to them in the schoolyard like, ‘Would you rather have a native girl or a koelie make your sandwiches?’ Dinah falls into a series of passionate best-friendships as she grows up and moves through school, and under the tutelage of one mischievous early friend she transforms from ‘weed cry-baby and shrinking violet into swanky slouch with street-cred’. With another, she spends ‘several hours at a stretch doing literary criticism on a single month’s issue of Vogue magazine’ and creating glamorous outfits on their sewing machines. Intense female friendships recur throughout Trapido’s novels.
Boys and romance don’t appear until Dinah’s university days. At high school, ‘Dinah’s teenage love affair with clothes is far more necessary to her and far more sensually rewarding than anything she might hope, right then, to get going with a boy.’ It’s not just boys and sex that belatedly break onto the scene in the university chapters, though – thanks to her romance with political activist Sam, the fraught politics of the apartheid state move into the forefront of her life, eventually propelling the pair to flee for England.
Trapido has said, ‘What I was trying to put across was that people just get on with their ordinary little lives, and often that’s ignored in literature about places that are living through bad times.’ By focusing on the particulars of her experience, and that of her family and friends during those years, layering the significant moments in her life with those of the nation as a whole, Trapido succeeds in showing what it was like to live through those years in South Africa as an ordinary middleclass white person.
Trapido was forty years old when her first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack (1982), was published. This literary romp, with distinct echoes of Brideshead Revisited, was to set her tone (except in Frankie and Stankie). It follows the romantic misadventures of a brainy, mouthy, middle-class girl who becomes besotted with a sprawling bohemian family, falling in love with the brothers, finding a father figure in the blustering, kindly patriarch, Jacob (also her philosophy professor) and forming a sisterly bond with his wife, Jane, a full-time mother of six.
Trapido wastes no time gently scene-setting – she plunges straight into the guts of the novel, instantly buttonholing the reader with a preface borrowed from Jacob that provides a flavour of his and Jane’s relationship, and flags their importance to the narrator:
I cannot in good conscience give the statutory thanks to my wife […] for helpful comments on the manuscript, patient reading of drafts or correction to proofs, because Jane did none of these things. She seldom reads and when she does it is never a thing of mine. Going by the lavish thanks to wives which I find in the prefaces to other men’s books, I deem myself uniquely injudicious in having married a woman who refuses to double as a high-grade editorial assistant.
At this point, we don’t know Jacob and Jane, nor do we know anything about the narrator. But we’re instantly hooked by the wit and both charmed and mildly confronted by Jacob. Within a page, we’re sitting in Katherine’s first meeting with Jacob, as he interviews her for a position in his course. He tells her: ‘your Head’s report on you is so unfavourable, it leads me to suspect that you may be somewhat brighter than the Head’ and she wins him over with a pithy response to his claim there’s no sex in Emma. (‘Of course there’s sex in Emma. Mrs Weston has a baby… You don’t get babies without sex, do you?’) And it gallops along at this warm, wisecracking pace, over ten years and 200-odd pages, all manner of chemistry crackling between its eccentric characters – platonic, familial and romantic.
But Jack is not simply a frothy comedy of manners, or a literary romance. Trapido makes her characters suffer heartbreak, depression, loss and loneliness along the way. Part of what distinguishes Trapido as a writer is that she inspires the full gamut of emotional response to her books. They are joyful (rather than simply ‘fun’) because the moments of triumph and light are balanced by the dark. Without the contrast, neither side of the spectrum is as vivid.
Brother of the More Famous Jack – and Trapido’s writing career – began as an impulse rather than a planned project. Trapido called it ‘playing hooky’ from the thesis she was completing (on the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti) at the time, as ‘the voices of my wholly imagined Goldman family kept talking inside my head and I couldn’t stop myself from listening’. She said, ‘It was only when a friend showed me a short story she’d written that I realised that what I had was a book.’ After these modest beginnings, Jack was published to rapturous reviews, from The New York Times to The Spectator, and won a Whitbread Special Prize for Fiction. ‘More Mrs Trapido, rapido,’ quipped one reviewer.
Trapido’s follow-up, Noah’s Ark (1984), has at its heart a marriage with a similar dynamic to Jacob and Jane’s. Scatty artist Ali is a contented earth mother; happily, lustily married to a lovable chauvinist academic, her third husband – a man who says things like, ‘You may be full of tremulous quim introspection…but baby, you fuck like the emperor’s whore.’ This thoroughly engaging domestic comedy is, despite its bohemian leanings, a romance of the ordinary. It ultimately celebrates the joys of congenial long-term partnerships – the way fantasies can disappoint, and how even the staunchest of idealists can learn to accommodate those they love. It’s warm, funny, sexy and romantic – and, again, great fun to read.
The next three novels – Temples of Delight (1990), Juggling (1994) and The Travelling Hornplayer (1998) – are interlinked. The first two follow each other in sequence, and the third, The Travelling Hornplayer, is both the final in the trilogy and also a sequel to Jack, bringing the two casts of characters together in the one novel. It all sounds difficult and contrived, but incredibly it works. While each of these novels can be read as stand-alone books (in fact, my out-of-sequence discovery of The Travelling Hornplayer introduced me to Trapido), they’re also immensely satisfying read together.
Temples of Delight introduces us to Alice Pilling – small, blonde, prone to stuttering – and her new best friend. Jem McCrail is ‘a joyful mystery’, recently expelled from her convent school and fortuitously seated next to Alice during Silent Reading. Jem instantly bewitches her with lavish tales: unlikely anecdotes about her eccentric family (‘like people in story books’) and gushing romance stories written in a scrappy pile of exercise books.
In aligning herself with this bright, eccentric outsider, much to her parents’ dismay, Alice is ‘separating herself from the cosiness of that dominant consenting world to which she had always, more or less, belonged’. Then one day Jem vanishes, leaving Alice bereft. Though she seems to return to that ‘dominant consenting world’ in Jem’s absence, she retains a thinly veiled, rebellious core. When she finally finds Jem again, several years later, nothing is as she expected.
Juggling takes as its focus Alice’s two very different daughters, Pam and Christina – dark and light; hourglass and slight; mild and mouthy – and intersperses their misadventures and romantic yearnings with those of Alice’s long-ago jilted beau and his children.
The Travelling Hornplayer revisits Katherine and her husband, who met a ‘happily ever after’ newlywed end in Jack, and looks at what happened next – combining their fate with that of some of the characters from Juggling and its predecessor. It’s a brave and wickedly creative step for a writer to mess with the much-praised (and much-loved) happy ending of her celebrated first novel, over a decade later. In Juggling, Christina writes, in an essay on Shakespeare’s Comedies:
The Comedies send us home feeling happy, because we believe that we have witnessed happy endings. What we have really witnessed are sexy endings; visionary endings; endings frozen in a moment of precarious, brilliant symmetry […] The Comedies climax at a moment of upbeat that is suspended between all time and no time.
It’s a brilliant observation about the conventions of storytelling in general – particularly romantic comedies, which most of Barbara Trapido’s books are at heart. (Of course, they are impeccably constructed, decidedly literary romantic comedies – more Pride and Prejudice than Bridget Jones’s Diary.) In revisiting the long-resolved happy ending of Brother of the More Famous Jack, Trapido disturbs that precarious artificial balance. But she also makes a subtle point about true love in real life – that it’s complicated, distinguished not by some final absence of obstacles but by a continued commitment to keep on hurdling them, unpleasant and challenging as it sometimes may be.
Several of Trapido’s novels are closely linked to canonical texts – though readers in no way need to be familiar with them to fully enjoy her books. It’s simply an added layer, which will appeal to the dedicated cultural sleuth, or add extra frisson. Temples of Delight takes its themes and loose structure from Mozart’s The Magic Flute – and the title is also an allusion to the opera. Juggling similarly draws on Shakespeare’s comedies, and The Travelling Hornplayer is structured around Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin. The books have an ironic relation to their exemplar texts – the melodramatic conventions of these modes of storytelling allow Trapido to stretch the credulity of the reader further than the writer of a traditional realist novel could afford. Chance encounters are often heavy with meaning; far-flung characters are occasionally brought together by amazing coincidences; twins or pairs and discovered adoptions are frequent. But it’s all quite knowing, part of the contract between writer and reader. We forgive Trapido because she’s aware of what she’s doing; we trust her to toe the tightrope line between fancy and realism.
Sex and Stravinsky (2010), her first novel since Frankie and Stankie, returns to the characteristic Trapido style of storytelling, setting its wry, airily observant tone from the opening sentences: ‘Josh meets Caroline in a shared student house in London. The time is late 1970s so everyone in the house looks hideous. That’s everyone except for Caroline, but she doesn’t live there. Not yet.’
Trapido also returns to her habit of marrying stories and plotlines with canonical texts: this time drawing on Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella. Interestingly, while she returns to her standard English setting and trademark style, she also returns to the South Africa of Frankie and Stankie. Sex and Stravinsky is set between Oxford, where arty Josh and ‘beautiful, judgemental’ Wonder Woman Caroline are living in a converted bus with their daughter Zoe; and Johannesburg, where Josh’s childhood sweetheart Hattie, a dainty retired ballet teacher, lives with her dominating architect husband and their ‘crosspatch’ daughter Cat. The novel teases out, as Trapido has before, the nature and psychology of attraction out in the various pairings and re-pairings in the book.
It also explores the influence of family, in sometimes surprising and counter-intuitive ways, and contrasts the power of upbringing and genetics – with upbringing emerging as the more affecting. This is perhaps most interesting in the character of Jack, the son of Josh’s childhood housekeeper. Growing up as the child of a servant in a liberal household, with a distant mother (‘a firm upholder of caste barriers’) and a warm bond with Josh, who supplies him with storybooks, scissors and friendship, Jack is shocked and dislocated when sent to live in a ‘native reserve’ with his grandmother – ‘years that taught him the ugliness of want and the indignity of ever disclosing emotional need’. Thanks to his unusual early experience, he longs for the time he will become ‘a white person’. Though he grows up to realise that’s impossible, he does forge a ‘newly made plural identity’ and gets the kind of life he dreamed of, through determination and luck.
‘I don’t plot these plots,’ says Trapido. ‘I make a secret theatre in which inanimate creatures get up and dance for me in the dark. It’s the best fun, and the best torment, I know.’ It may seem cruel, but I do hope that Barbara Trapido continues to torment herself for our benefit.