THE PUMPKIN EATER by Penelope Mortimer (1962)
Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Obnoxious serial shagger and screenwriter mucks his relentlessly fecund and bored wife about and builds a big tower in the middle of the countryside as a kind of monument to himself while she goes off her head.
When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
About two years ago I was collecting up all the Penguins I could find, when we had a week’s trip to the Lake District. I realized how many post-war novels I knew by title I hadn’t actually read.
Why is it something you stashed away and hoarded?
I think, having bought it, I decided it looked a bit glum.
What year or edition?
It’s a mid-60s edition with Anne Bancroft on the cover, in a still from the movie with a script by Harold Pinter. (Actually, it’d be interesting to see what the film’s like, with so much of the novel being interiorized and so visceral. Oh hang on. Maybe he just has lots of pregnant pauses.)
What’s your verdict?
I loathed the characters at first. What a dreary, privileged, terrible bunch! The narrator is undergoing therapy for depression and she looks back on a married life of endless children and a philandering husband. The husband is unspeakably revolting.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I came close to being exasperated by the whole lot of them. But, a bit like reading Elizabeth Taylor the other week, I thought the writing was ravishing. Her dialogue is wonderful, and when the narrator starts going off her head towards the end, the prose becomes luminous and almost surreal. I ended up loving it. Also, it’s short. I love shorter novels these days.
What genre would you say it is?
This is Domestic Gothic. It also feels a little like roman-a-clef.
What surprises did it hold – if any?
Lots of surprises here, in terms of looking back on a different era of sexual and marital mores. The things that the husband Jake thinks he can get away with are astonishing. The emotional violence between husband and wife is quite shocking, too. (Spoilers) The abortion and hysterectomy that Jake more or less forces her to undergo is a very shocking, alarming bit – as are the revelations to do with what Jake’s been up to in the meantime.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
An early flashback, when obnoxious school friend Ireen comes to visit the narrator’s family and (presumably) seduces her father, is very memorable, and quite funny. There aren’t that many funny scenes in this, on the whole. It takes itself very seriously.
What will you do with this copy now?
I think it’s one to pass on to someone else. I’m wondering who might like it. It’s one of those books I’m glad I’ve read, but it’s not one I’ll return to for fun.
Is it available today?
It seems that the New York Review Classics series has brought it back into print in the past couple of years. (That’s a very good and cleverly-chosen reprint list. Also, the similarly canny Persephone has republished at least one other P. Mortimer novel.)
Give me a good quote:
“’…I was just saying the other night, how fond he was of you, Jake. He was very proud of you, too, you know. Only last week, I can’t believe it now, but only last week he said, ‘Mame, we must go and see that film of Jake’s at the Odeon.’ Of course he hadn’t been out for three months, but that seemed such a sign of hope. And now…’
‘Is there a drink?’ Jake asked, not looking at me.”