- Theo Richmond
Lee Langley was born in Calcutta, India.
She is the author of several novels, including Changes of Address (1987), a largely autobiographical account of her childhood in India and the first in a loose trilogy of novels set in India. It was followed by Persistent Rumours (1992), which won the Writers' Guild Award (Best Fiction) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book), and A House in Pondicherry (1995). Her novel, Distant Music (2001), spans six centuries in a narrative that begins on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the fifteenth century and ends in London in the year 2000.
She has also written several film scripts and screenplays, including television adaptations of Graham Greene's The Tenth Man; several stories by Rumer Godden; and Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance; as well as a play, Baggage.
Her novel A Conversation on the Quai Voltaire (2006), which is set in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Paris, Venice and Egypt, recreates the life of Dominique Vivant Denon, one of the most significant figures in French art history, and creator of the Louvre. Her latest novel is Butterfly's Shadow (2010).
Lee Langley is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in Richmond, London.
Two of the most memorable themes predominant in contemporary fiction, and in novels that have won the Booker and other literary prizes, are History and Empire.
How do we understand and narrate the past? How do we represent the post-Imperial world in fiction? Often, themes of history and empire intersect, as writers recreate the horrors of life under Imperial rule. Lee Langley’s best novels are about India, but are a refreshing change from what critic John Carey has called the ‘moral indignation novel’: for Langley, although she is aware of the abuses of power, India is also a place of beauty and grace, and a rich terrain for the imagination.
India is the setting for Langley’s three central novels, Changes of Address (1987), Persistent Rumours (1992), and A House in Pondicherry (1995), and these are the novels with which readers wishing to explore Langley’s work should start. Changes of Address tells the story of the life of Maggie and her mother in British India in the 1930s and 40s; it is a life of upheaval and chaos as the child is forced to endure her mother’s poverty and chronic restlessness. What might be a life of romantic adventure and bohemianism for an adult is for a child enervating to the extent that, by the end of the novel, Maggie can only abandon the feckless parent. Longing for normality, Maggie has felt a constant outsider, alien, as if she is trapped in a ‘glass bell’; she compares herself to Alice in Wonderland, although what is delightfully surreal in a book is almost nightmarish for the child, on no occasion more so than when her baby brother falls from a coach and drowns on the monsoon-soaked road, during yet another flight.
A poignant dimension is added when we take into account the author’s explanation of the inspiration for the book:
'All novels are to some extent autobiographical … but in this one, very little is fictional. I want people to know that this is something I haven't imagined or dreamed up. This is what it was like.' (The Times, 4 September 1987)
So Maggie, then, is Langley. Nonetheless, although she may not be a fully-fledged postmodernist, the author is aware of the problems of narrating the past, of how memories are constructed, and of how stories are told. Truth, in short, is subtly suspect. It is not surprising that Maggie ponders the way her story might begin:
‘Often it begins with a telegram, this process of looking back. A telegram bringing news of a marriage, a birth, a death. And there was a telegram, but that was much later. So I will begin not with the telegram, nor with the jazz song that played its part, nor with a certain monsoon or the magic which I believed in, always. I should begin, perhaps, with the men’.
The narrative proceeds as the present day Maggie’s recollections of the past, interspersed with a third-person narrator’s continuations of the account, in the present tense. One person’s memory of the past, it is implied, is never enough. Thus, even Maggie herself is uncertain about her memories:
‘Was it a Lagonda? She always said so, later, but it might have been just a Ford. She had a way of colouring the past that makes me mistrust my own memories. Did it happen? Did she tell me it happened? Does it matter which?’
These uncertainties do not obtrude: there is a real sense also of the validity of child’s point of view, and Langley depicts this touchingly and sometimes with humour: on a visit to an Aquarium, Maggie wonders if crocodiles will be upset by her mother’s crocodile handbag.
The next novel, Persistent Rumours, which won two literary awards, was described by the Sunday Times as ‘beautifully written, and sometimes reminiscent of Patrick White at his best’; Sara Rance felt that ‘Langley has a very definite and original voice of her own, with the power to portray a real sense of deeper truths about humanity within the context of a gripping and moving story’ (The Sunday Times, 28 June 1992). This view could be equally well applied to A House in Pondicherry, the final novel in the Indian trilogy. The novel places at its centre Oriane (whose name derives from Proust, a writer who seems to have inspired the novel), the ferociously cultured owner of le Grand Hotel de France in the town of the book’s title in Southern India. Living in a Paris abroad, Oriane, who has never visited the mother country, clings determinedly to French culture, the hotel and the past as the twentieth century progresses, India gains independence and the colony becomes part of a new country with Hindu (from the North) becoming the dominant language. As well as being a meticulously researched account of an under-documented part of India and its history (British fiction has concentrated on Northern India, although Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has its opening set there), the novel is a touching account of change. By the end of the book, Oriane has left the hotel, which is now being redeveloped; the modern India we see is chaotic and sometimes ugly. Although the mood is elegiac, Langley is not a reactionary writer, and shows how Subra, a long-serving staff member at the hotel, gains a better life with the change: the past is not romanticized and Langley shows the violence caused by colonization, and the continuing poverty of the country.
Since A House in Pondicherry, Langley has written two ambitious and acclaimed historical novels; it should be noted that they are published by the prestigious Chatto and Windus, and are beautiful collectors’ items, as is what remains Langley’s most intriguing work, False Pretences (1998). This is a collection of fine short stories that, when viewed together, achieve something higher. Two characters appear in both large and cameo roles throughout, providing an original and thought-provoking linking device. In the final story, ‘The French Wedding’, this idea is called ‘the repertory theory of life’ and explained thus: ‘Each of us thinks we're the leading player in our own drama, but at the same time, we're supporting characters, spear-carriers even, in another play, someone else's.’ Like Kate Atkinson in Not the End of the World (2002), Langley has demonstrated that there is a midway between short story and novel; she has also used fiction to make a philosophical point about the individual’s relation to the exterior world, and the limits of knowledge.
Langley’s work suggests that we should never think we are the rulers of our own universe: as a character states in A House in Pondicherry, ‘Legends can be built on a foundation of misconception. We can never be sure of understanding the past’. There again, the past is a rich place for exploration, and in Langley’s hands, even if it can never be fully grasped, the journey there is an enthralling one.
Dr Nick Turner, 2010
'Perhaps because I was born in India and spent my early childhood there, I grew up with a sense of loss, of being exiled from a place I loved. But for a writer, exile can be a sort of freedom: deprived of the comfort of belonging to one particular place or society, you can perhaps enter more easily the hearts and minds and skins of others.
Looking back over my books I see a preoccupation with outsiders - of enclaves of otherness within larger cultures. This sense of otherness, of not belonging, has always been there - sometimes without my realising it at the time - like a shadowy reef lying beneath the surface. The characters are often people who don't fit in.
There is also a preoccupation with time and memory, love and loss. In my last novel, Distant Music, I write of the Portuguese condition of saudade: an unspecified yearning; a sense of displacement, an awareness of the fragility of human bonds, the echo of waves beating on a distant shore.'