Everything flows, a meander around Putney, a novel by Sofka Zinovieff

A miner, Sofka & Sarah and a National Coal board truck and driver outside Bolsover colliery in 1974.


by Michael Wells, London, May 2018.

There used to be a large detached house at number 108 West Hill, Putney in South-West London. I lived there for a few months before I was born in the summer of 1960 in the Edwardian semi my parents had bought in nearby West Wimbledon (aka, Raynes Park, but we were on the right side of the tracks).

West Hill is about a mile away from the River Thames. There is a stretch of riverbank from Wandsworth Park along past the District line bridge and up to St Mary’s church by Putney Bridge that allows the houses a back garden with riverside frontage. Sofka lived in one of them when we first met in 1973, shortly after her parents split up, shortly after mine had, too. The house, the river and the 1970s are the thematic threads she weaves into her latest book and second novel, Putney, the suburb that becomes a metonym for childhood, first love, friendship and the healing power of making art. It’s more complicated than that, though, as thirteen-year old Daphne, the main protagonist — I could have used the word heroine, which like heroin and hero, evokes Ancient Greek etymological exaltation — is raped by Ralph, the thirty-year-old composer friend of Edmund, her writer father, so questions of underage sex, consent and parental protection also loom large. So far, so shocking, but Daphne doesn’t experience it like that, not at the time anyway. Daphne’s mother, Ellie, for Eleftheria, is Greek. Her name means Freedom, as in “freedom or death” the rallying cry of opponents of Ottoman Rule and the motto of Greece today. Daphne’s daughter is Libby for Liberty, another character the same theme, and whose father is a generation younger than her mother. When Libby appears, she is about to turn 13, the age that Daphne was when the key action takes place. Literary names are clues, so let’s remember that in Greek mythology, Daphne was pursued by Apollo, who was smitten with her beauty. To escape his clutches, she pleaded with her river-god father, who turned her into a laurel bush, well sort of, if you look at Bernini’s sublimely sensual sculpture of the ravishment (in the Galleria Borghese in Rome). Old Father Thames witnesses the early love between Daphne and Ralph (“counsel” plus “wolf” Wiktionary tells us) and then brings her back nearly forty years later to London from Greece, after a disastrous marriage to a Greek billionaire, years of distress, drug abuse and general dysfunctionality. Her Aunt Connie (Constance, perhaps?) has left her a flat in Fulham, overlooking her old family home on the other side of the river. To earn her living Daphne works in a local travel agency, specializing in Greek holidays for wealthy clients, but at heart she is an artist. Sofka uses the perspectives of the three main protagonists, chapter by chapter, to toggle through their mindsets, thoughts and feelings and trickily invites us to make assumptions about causality: Daphne is screwed up because she was screwed — physically and emotionally by flaky adults — as a child; Jane, Daphne’s best friend from childhood is a successful, happily married mother and professional research scientist because she grew up in a stable family. But it’s more complicated and subtle than that. Sofka has the story-teller’s knack of leading us up and down the garden path and then popping off somewhere else. In Chapter Two, when we first meet middle-aged Daphne on her own terms, she is making a wall-hanging, also named Putney, to celebrate her childhood, which she pictures as a golden age of freedom with “no rules, no constrictions, no bars” and in which her secret, forbidden, but genuine love for Ralph — who opens the proceedings and, at nearly seventy now, is being treated for cancer — is central. In Chapter Three, Facebook reconnects Daphne with Jane. Life has taken her a few miles from Wimbledon to Wandsworth, given her a dependable husband, two bright, well-adjusted, educated, grown-up sons and she is doing well, thank you very much. She projects an image of suburban middle-class smugness and reliability. But that’s not the whole story, far from it.

Daphne is a beautiful wild child, footloose and fancy-free, the daughter of freedom and adventure, but also an allegorical figure. Rather than Bildungsroman or roman à clef, for me Putney works as a Proustian madeleine. Reading Sofka’s evocation of childhood, the discovery of passionate love, the comfort of friendship and the desire to take control of a life at its outset, flooded me with memories of that time and that place. She weaves a marvelous mnemonic warp and weft of the 1970s fabric of South West London.

Sofka’s father, Peter, the mad Russian inventor and composer — try googling “Partita for unattended Computer, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 1967” — and her young and very beautiful mother, Victoria, split up when she was eleven. Victoria moved over the bridge to Fulham and Peter further upriver to a village outside Oxford. Sofka read anthropology at university and has written about both sides of her family in two of her previous books, using the tools of her trade to put analytical distance and familial intimacy together. A Red Princess tells the gripping story of her Russian grandmother’s imperial ancestry and post-war communism; The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, my Grandmother and Me relates her English side, complete with gay granddad and an abundance of Bright Young Things. Both sets of her grand-parents divorced, which was more common in their elevated social circles. At the other end of the spectrum, my forebears, laborers and domestic servants, had pulled themselves out of the tidal mud at Erith in Kent and swam upstream with the rising tide of twentieth century social mobility. By the 1970s this swell had left a highwater mark of equality in the UK, which has since ebbed back to 1900 levels, but my father had jumped up a class or two to land on the other side of prosperous Putney Heath and wealthy Wimbledon Common. Our kind of people did not divorce or separate, neither for social nor economic reasons, let alone emotional ones. However, sinking or swimming, as the Dylan song had it, the times they were a-changin’; the 1969 Divorce Reform Act in the UK primed the pump for a threefold increase in divorces over the decade starting in 1971. So the drama in our house was great when my father left my mother in 1973. Nobody at school believed me when I told them, which taught me that people can speak the truth and not be believed and, conversely, tell pork pies that will be swallowed whole without a hiccup. Fiction and non-fiction, fake news and alternative facts, nothing new under the sun. People believe what they want to believe.

One advantage of my parents’ disarray was that the authoritarian, almost military regime at home rather fell apart and I had much more freedom, yet I still suffocated at school. Another big shift was a sort of role reversal, seeing my parents as vulnerable individuals, thrashing about in the counter currents of contemporary social change and personal revolutions in relationships. Beyond that, there was a feeling of responsibility for their well-being and the understanding that I did not need to share everything with them. The generation gap between children and parents was wide. For instance, neither of my parents ever wore denim jeans, which came from a different, alien youth culture and they were certainly not the “helicopter parents” my contemporaries became in the 1980s, when the gap had been bridged and many of my peers would hang out with their children in ways we never did.

Smoking, which has become such a taboo nowadays, was not in the 1960s and 1970s. Far from it, despite the scientific discovery in the 1950s that smoking caused lung cancer, the tobacco lobby successfully duped and doped another generation into the powerful pull of the puff. In Sofka’s Putney, almost everybody smokes, and I relished remembering, almost smelling Ellie’s bidis or the Balkan Sobranies, which we used to favor for their stylish oval section and the chic gold lettering ever legible on the ash all the way down as you smoked. And not to mention the joints. At the end of the book, Libby catches her mother smoking and tells her off, another generational role reversal.

So, how did we overcome the oppression and boredom of childhood in 1970s south-west London suburbia? My friend Mark, who I met on my first day of school, lived in New Malden near the Brycbox youth theater arts center, literally a building-sized box of cinder blocks, equipped as a theatre and music studio, which opened in 1973 and where we would go in the evenings for drama, dance and music. We would repair afterwards to the Fountain pub by the roundabout on Kingston Road. Mark was a talented musician. His parents had given him an electric bass guitar for Christmas after his twelfth birthday and a year later he was gigging in a band in pubs around Kingston, Richmond and further afield. I would often go along for the ride and the music. We never got chucked out of pubs, because we were big, didn’t look like the children we no longer were. No ID checks then. We got into Californian jazz funk rock fusion and listened to the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Little Feat, Steely Dan, Ry Cooder and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Their music and the highly-innovative work Peter Zinovieff’s Electronic Music Studios was doing interested us much more than punk, which came on the scene a bit later, but we just ignored it. At that time, we also smoked some pot and Mark dropped acid, but thinking it would make me too loopy, I didn’t try it myself. My interest in things Russian had been aroused in 1971 by a book Mark’s dad, Ronald, gave us to read, when it was reprinted by Penguin. William Gerhardie’s 1922 Futility, a comic masterpiece of early twentieth century nihilism, had a profound effect on us. Mark later named his musical operation, The Futility Orchestra, after it. Not to Worry, the one-man solo album he produced, wrote and played, was technologically possible only because of developments pioneered by EMS. The track Battersea Lullaby is a beautifully poignant reminder of the years he lived at the top of Plough Road on the corner of St John’s Hill, half a mile above the river, in between Wandsworth and Clapham.

Mark (left) and the author outside the Brycbox in 1974.

At Brycbox, I met a gorgeous, dark-haired, bright brown-eyed, eleven-year-old wild child named Sarah. She also lived in New Malden but went to school in Putney. She was normal like us, meaning that she hated school, wanted to get on with her life, but was frustrated by the constraints of simply being young and put in boxes defined by others. We shared a carceral experience of school as a mediocre concentration of claustrophobic conformism. We became good friends. Sarah was also great fun and up for stuff and was at school with Sofka. Even after the latter had moved to Oxford with her father, they still spent a lot of time together and I would sometimes meet up with them at the weekends, especially when Sofka came to stay with Victoria in Fulham. Sofka’s parents’ houses were like a breath of fresh air where I felt particularly free and not subject to judgmental concerns about who my parents were or what they did. Her parents were always very welcoming, kind and friendly, and always had interesting people around, although a weekend in the country with Peter sometimes involved a bit of physical labor. In Putney, after her latter-day reunion with Daphne, Jane remembers that “entering Daphne’s sphere was like setting off along the yellow brick road. Everything was suddenly in Technicolor; Wimbledon was the black and white Kansas”. That made me smile, as I co-produced “The Wizard of Oz” at Brycbox in 1974, with a twelve-year-old Dorothy whose father had just died and who sang her heart out for him. There was not a dry eye in the house. But boy, was Wimbledon monochrome! The branding of Elys department store on the corner of Worple Road and Wimbledon Hill Road was a design of black and white stripes. Perhaps black and white is too black and white, when dull gray would be a better color match. Sitting in the Windmill Café on the top floor of Ely’s was a good place to indulge in existential ennui and a spot of situationist psychogeography, which had taken that long to reach our stretch of suburban seclusion. By this time Mark and I had progressed from Woodbines and Embassy Red to Disque Bleu and Gitanes cigarettes and I, at least, had been quite taken by the events in Paris in May 1968 and was heading that way a few years later. Playing music in pubs and hanging out with people like Sarah and Sofka was far more interesting and stimulating than school. It was a different time and the atmosphere of freedom and creativity Sofka writes about in Putney was certainly palpable at the time.

After her dark years in the wake of my father’s departure, my mother Joan went back to work as a secretary. One job she had for a couple of years was with Sister Madeleine Prendergast, a lovely Irish nun, who ran the Catholic Youth Service Council, based in a house a couple of doors down from St Thomas à Becket Church on the Wandsworth end of West Hill. Joan and Sister Madeleine got on like a house on fire to the extent that we went on holiday to Ireland with her in the blazing summer of 1976 and it didn’t rain once while we were there. I remember smoking Sweet Afton cigarettes homeward bound off the Holyhead ferry in the back of Sister Madeleine’s modish white Renault 5 with a wickerwork ceiling, from a packet given me by her sister Joan Trimble for changing her punctured tire on the rocky roads of Glencolumbkille, Co. Donegal, where we encountered Gaelic speakers with no English, but that’s another story. Back to the passion in Putney. Ralph is dying as he recalls the seduction: “He knew that it had been in 1976 when he went to Greece with Daphne because it was a bizarrely hot summer, when a seemingly endless series of cloudless days baked the country into an almost unrecognizable landscape. Londoners cooled off their feet in public fountains and had picnics in desiccated parks, their character transforming into something more light and appealing. It was like witnessing the marvel of adding heat to yeast, flour and water and you have bread. As the city took on a Mediterranean atmosphere, the accustomed odors of damp stone and muddy gutters were replaced with grass turning to hay, melting tarmac and unlikely whiffs of Ambre Solaire.” Spot on.

“We have come to rape you, to rape you and steal your furniture!”

One evening while she was working for Sister Madeleine, Joan — like the children in Putney, we started calling our parents by their Christian names, in part, perhaps, because the tide ebbing over the shipwreck of their marriage had washed some of their parental authority out to sea — came home and asked me and my younger sister whether a journalist she had met could interview us for a radio program about the children of separated parents. It was topical. We agreed, feeling a mixture of shame at being from a “broken home” and self-importance at being in the media. The journalist came and interviewed us and it was interesting enough. As she was leaving, she invited us to a party her daughter was having the following Saturday. She was about our age and they lived in Putney. We said yes and could we bring some friends; I had Sarah and Sofka in mind, as they were nothing if not party girls. “Of course,” replied the journalist, “I don’t mind who you bring, as long as you don’t rape my daughter or steal my furniture.” This was duly conveyed to Sarah and Sofka, who were indeed up for the party, so off we went. I can’t remember whose idea it was, but on the appointed afternoon we walked through the streets of Putney, practicing our hastily composed ditty, so by the time we rang the bell and the journalist’s daughter opened the door, we sung out in unison, “We have come to rape you, to rape you and steal your furniture!” Needless to say, we did neither and the party was quite uneventful, but it somehow stuck in my memory, only to be given a Proustian jolt by Sofka’s new novel.

Something to be wished for every child is a friend, a complicit coeval with whom to discover the wonders of the world, explore new places and share new experiences. When Mark and I learned to write in 1966 we started a postal correspondence that lasted for the next twenty-five years until he introduced me to email in the early 1990s. At eleven, we learned to drive in his grand-mother Mumsie’s pale blue Fiat cinquecento, with the doors hinged the wrong way. She had the top floor of their New Malden house. Mark and I would take turns in maneuvering the car in and out of the garage and up and down the short gravel drive. His parents were out at work and Mumsie was fairly deaf. A useful and enjoyable skill that came in handy a couple of years later, when I thrilled at the wheel of Sofka’s dad’s left-hand drive, beige plastic Renault Rodeo with a soft top, as we sped around the wooded lanes of rural Oxfordshire. What a dream car. Mark would come over to hang out at my house in Wimbledon and we would often walk up the hill and along the west side of the common and wander about in Cannizaro Park. A favorite haunt from early childhood, I loved the little square-circle Italianate fountain pond near the entrance, the aviary with lots of colorful budgerigars and the fantastic collection of massive rhododendrons. We would often sit under a tree, smoking cigarettes and looking over at the wrinklies in their bath chairs on the terrace at the back of the house which was then a residential care home. We knew, of course, that Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie had lived there during his English exile. In the late 1960s and then again from the late 1970s Joan had worked in the anthropology department at the London School of Economics and had typed books for Ioan Lewis, an expert on the Horn of Africa. I think she might have typed the first edition of his Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession, perhaps a partial inspiration for her thankfully passing infatuation with born-again Christianity, which had her practicing glossolalia and witnessing the Lord with a fellow illuminata by the portico of the General Post Office in Dublin’s O’Connell Street in that hot summer of 1976. Halleluiah! My sister and I hid behind the columns until she was done. Our erstwhile neighbor, the Ethiopian Lion of Judah, Rasta for I, and sacred ganja were quite familiar to us and it came as no surprise then, that in Putney, young Daphne and Jane go on an illicit binge in Cannizaro Park. They sneak through a hole in the fence after hours and polish off a bottle of wine and then one of whiskey that Daphne has filched from her parents. Reminded me of swigging sherry and topping up with water to avoid detection. Daphne overdoses and is saved by sensible Jane who fetches her father and an ambulance. Where Daphne and Jane took to the bottle in Cannizaro, Mark and I and our friend Paul, who lived in Coombe Hill, would hop over Ladderstile Gate of a summer evening and wander through Richmond Park to go and smoke weed in the beautifully tranquil and secluded Isabella Plantation.

At what age do we stop being children? Some say that the definition of adulthood is when you realize you will always be a child. Others, like the painter Henri Matisse, have written about the need or visceral compulsion for an artist to keep looking at the world through the eyes of their inner child, suggesting that keeping a flow of creativity depends on an ability to conserve a childlike freshness and innocence. Ralph and Daphne take to meeting on the railway bridge over the Thames at Putney for their secret trysts, and their descriptions of the tidal water below become a running gag between them. Panta Rei, the Ancient Greek Neoplatonist aphorism, often uttered by Ralph, translates as “everything flows” and alludes to the apparent contradiction that you can never step into the same stream twice. It becomes another leitmotiv as the characters and their lives are ever-changing yet somehow they remain the same people. Two years after they first meet, when Daphne is eleven and Ralph twenty-nine, he takes her to sing in the recording of his latest composition, based on William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. The “grooming” has begun, but that’s a highly-charged term, especially now in the wake of Jimmy Savile, the Catholic and Anglican Churches, Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, and makes us wonder about the topography of consent in the context of sexual activity. The main characters of Putney jointly and severally rehearse these questions, as do the police in the second half of the book from the criminal point of view. Ralph is ultimately arrested on suspicion of child sexual abuse, his lawyer tells him ‘that the accusation refers to 1976, and to “vaginal penetration by the accused’s penis” under the 1956 Sexual Offenses Act.’ Article 14(2) of the same act tells us that “a girl under the age of sixteen cannot in law give any consent which would prevent an act being an assault”. The updated 2003 Sexual Offences Act defines the child rapist as a person (a man specifically with the use of the masculine pronoun) who “intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with his penis, and (b) the other person is under 13.”

Let’s, however, rewind to the steamy summer of 1976 when Ralph — a latter-day, more innocent version of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita — accompanies Daphne to Greece on a Magic Bus and plans to take her virginity. He is the big, bad etymological wolf, “Oh grandma, what big teeth you have!” By this time Ralph is married to Nina, a Greek artist, who has one child with him and another on the way. The themes of conjugal love and happy marriage are also deftly woven into the tapestry, more of which later. In Sofka’s narration, we believe that Ralph and — more importantly Daphne — are in love with each other and that when she gives herself to him in her grandmother’s house on Aegina, she is willing and consenting, if not in the legal sense. Sofka the anthropologist has Ralph justify himself later, using the argument that in many societies girls are married at the age of twelve, if not younger. A browse to Wikipedia confirms that “the first recorded age-of-consent law dates from 1275 in England; as part of its provisions on rape, the Statute of Westminster 1275 made it a misdemeanor to “ravish” a “maiden within age,” whether with or without her consent. The phrase “within age” was later interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was 12 years of age.”[i] Different times, different standards, although the eighteen years between Daphne and Ralph are less than the twenty-four between Melania and Donald Trump or Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron, which have nonetheless raised some early twenty-first century eyebrows. Nothing new under the sun here, either. Dante and Edgar Allan Poe were at it, too, Nabokov reminds us. “Oh Lolita, you are my girl, as Vee was Poe’s and Bea Dante’s, and what little girl would not like to whirl in a circular skirt and scanties?”

Sofka, too, has always had a sense of mischief. She uses descriptions of food, eating and drinking, not only to evoke what we ate and drank in London in the 1970s and her discovery of the delights of the cuisine of her adopted country, Greece, but also to put her characters through their scatological paces. At times this reminded me of the books of Albert Cohen whose Nailcruncher, was translated into English by Vyvyan Holland (Oscar Wilde’s son who had apparently inherited his father’s sense of humor) and panned by primly puritanical George Orwell who seems not to have understood Cohen’s parody of Tolstoyan romantic passion and praise of conjugal companionship, not to mention his biting satire of anti-Semitism and the ineffectuality of the international organizations in 1930s Geneva.

The eponymous hero of Nailcruncher (Mangeclous in French) is not strictly speaking an eproctophiliac but is nonetheless enamored of his wife Rebecca’s flatulence. Nailcruncher harangues the Gallants, his crew of semi-imbecile Greek Jews (as Orwell would have it– see endnote for what seems to be casual anti-Semitism by his failure to get the point of the book[ii]) about the need for a novelist who does not shy away from the realism of bodily functions:

“Ah! Gentlemen, if only a novelist would arise who would at last explain to women who hanker after adultery and passionate interludes that a lover purges himself! Ah! Let him arise, the novelist who would show Prince Vronsky and his adulterous mistress Anna Karenina exchanging protestations of passion in loud voices to cover up the grumblings of their stomachs, each hoping that the other would only hear their own rumblings. Let him arise, the novelist who will show the lady changing her position or surreptitiously compressing her stomach to suppress her rumblings, smiling rapturously and distractedly the while! (The Gallants listened with open mouths and goggling eyes to this unexpected display of virulence.) Let him arise, the novelist who will show us the lover poet, Prince Vronsky, seized with colic and trying to contain himself, pale and sweating, while Anna is telling him of her eternal passion. And he lifts his foot to hold himself in. And when she expresses surprise he explains to her that he is doing Swedish exercises! And when he can contain himself no longer he begs his beloved to leave him alone for a moment, because he must create poetry! And then, left alone in the scented boudoir, he is cornered! He dares not go to the usual retreat because the charming Anna is in the antechamber. Then Prince Vronsky locks the door and takes a bowler-hat, and squats over it after the manner of Rebecca, my wife — she, at any rate, does not pretend to be a creature of art and beauty! And suddenly the husband of the adulteress appears, Mr. Karenin, who has broken in the street door! Then the passionate Anna tells him she will have no more of him, that she and Prince Vronsky are in a hurricane and that he, Karenin, is a disgusting and unpoetic husband! ‘Prince Vronsky,’ she cries, ‘has opened the gates of Heaven to me! O dog of a husband, O sallow-face, O son of a slipper and a poultice, do you know what my treasure, my eagle of passion is doing at this moment? He is creating poetry!’ And all this time Prince Vronsky, who had eaten too much melon and drunk too much iced water, is crouched over his bowler hat, or, rather, his staff officer’s cap, and is relieving himself and murmuring his mother’s name with infinite gentleness and delight! Squatting before the piano, he strikes the keys and plays a Chopin nocturne to cover other sounds! There is a novel according to my heart! And the husband, the poor Karenin husband, goes away. And Anna knocks and asks: ‘Dear Prince Vronsky, have you finished creating?’ And the prince answers: ‘Presently, my noble dove; the verses are not quite finished!’ And five minutes later he tells her to come into the room, the window of which is wide open. And the cap is no longer on the ground because this charming lover has locked it up in the bookcase! And he says to her: “Ah, how good it is to create art!’ — ‘Yes, dear Prince,’ replied the adulteress respectfully, ‘it must be marvelous!’ — ‘Yes!’ cried the poet-prince, ‘there are moments when it really must come out…’

Rather a long quote to be sure but intended to show that Putney would have warmed the cockles of Albert Cohen’s heart had he read about the fateful Aegina-bound ferry trip which is taking Ralph and Daphne to her grandmother’s house to consummate their union. Daphne understands the dual closeness and distance that physical love can create and almost gets caught short in her reflections on the nature of male and female orgasm by the difficult digestion of the Choco Milk and toasted sandwiches Ralph has fed her. “The salty sandwich and rich chocolate milk battled inside Daphne’s gut, resulting in an urgent need to find a toilet. […] The rise and fall of the ship on the swell was more apparent inside the cramped toilet, which smelled of engines and gloss paint. One of the two cubicles was occupied and, as Daphne locked the door and sat down, she heard a long fart followed by a stream of piss. The edge of a polished shoe was visible under the cubicle division. She froze in awkwardness at the intimacy, but there was no way to be genteel about diarrhea. […] She delayed emerging, hoping the other woman would depart,” but she doesn’t and it turns out to be one of her grandmother’s friends who recognizes Daphne and throws her into deeper complicity with Ralph, lying about him being an uncle looking after her. Daphne, however, is not Lolita, in that the portrayal of her feelings for Ralph convey an authenticity and voice that Nabokov does not allow Lolita, the captive sex pet, who plots her escape, and whose struggle is overshadowed by Humbert’s overweening egotism. Daphne may be legally underage, but she is knowing, willing and complicit.

Daphne’s change of heart and mind about her relationship with Ralph is operated by pressure from Jane and alarm at her own daughter’s coming of sexual age. Libby gets dressed up with a friend to go to a party and they emerge from her bedroom in “Bright red lipstick, overdone eye make-up, teetering heels and miniskirts revealing lengths of bare, skinny legs. Their arms were covered with glitter, their nails painted bubble-gum pink. They looked like caricatures of underage sex workers.” Daphne realizes that although she would not deny that she had loved Ralph, she had been too young to understand fully what was happening to her and acknowledges that as a mother she would do everything to prevent a predatory elder male from taking her daughter. Everything flows, one generation is like the tide going out, the next like the tide coming in. Freedom and repression, permissiveness and conservatism. (It has been a source of affectionate amusement to my siblings and peers that my thirty-year old niece’s boyfriend asked my brother’s permission to marry her and the same happened to a friend with a daughter of a similar age in Berlin. We’re talking 2017; I wonder how much that happened in middle-class London in 1977.)

Daphne, accompanied by Jane, goes to the police and sets in train the process to have Ralph convicted. The cat is out of the bag. Fabrics, velvet and velvet needlecord, in particular, play an important role in the plot. Exhibit one: a piece of a Moroccan waistcoat that Daphne is cutting out for her Putney wall-hanging when we first meet her. A gift from Ralph when she was eleven, she has worn it as a treasure until threadbare. Her cutting it up for incorporation into her artwork symbolizes a transformation to another, positive phase of her life. Exhibit two: a pair of Daphne’s purple velvet needlecord shorts that conjure up hippie chicks and flower power — “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair [..] a new generation with a new explanation” — although this pair is spattered with Ralph’s free love sperm circa 1978. Fear not, they don’t end up on the wall-hanging. Jane, the confident scientist, believes in demonstrable truth, right and wrong, and would have learned at university about Alec Jeffreys (now Professor Sir…) who explained that “Recombinant DNA technology, first developed in 1973, allowed complex genomes to be manipulated, dissected and sequenced. The first human gene was isolated in 1977 and today we now have the final draft of the entire human genome sequence covering most of the three thousand million base pairs that constitute the human book of life.” His eureka moment came in 1984 when he distinguished differences in DNA between family members and thus discovered the world’s first genetic fingerprint.

The person responsible for transposing this DNA genetic finger-printing technology into the criminal justice system was my step-mother, Margaret, then Controller of the Forensic Science Service. She and my father lived at that time in Clewer Village by the Thames just past Windsor before they moved back around a bend in the river and up the hill above Runnymede to Englefield Green. Margaret was a keen gardener and on her coffee table, amidst the back issues of the RHS’s The Garden magazine and the Radio Times, while taking tea with her and my father, I might happen on a cloth-bound PhD dissertation entitled something like “How to identify blood and semen stains on fabric”. Probably not such good bed-time reading as Sofka’s novel, but the science Margaret and her teams introduced for the administration of justice could have led to Ralph being locked up for historical rape. However, it doesn’t quite work out like that. Although Daphne embarks on the ride from “the rapist to therapist” (Nabokov’s, not mine, lulz), we are given to feel that after she has gone through a confession session at the National Society for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, confrontation with Ralph, filing and then dropping charges against him, her ‘coming out’ does not profoundly change the way she remembers feeling about her love for him at the time. Her self-administered therapy comes from making her artworks: cutting, stitching, patching, composing intricate tapestries of healing meaning.

A smile crossed my lips when I opened the second-hand copy of Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph, published in 1924, which I had bought online. It is an ex-library book from Bexley, where our forensic Margaret was born in 1928. Did she read this scandalous, best-selling and undoubtedly forbidden novel as a school-girl? Perhaps she did, because she could be naughty, perhaps that was another reason, apart from climbing an apple tree to hide in the branches and escape detection for a misdemeanor, that she was beaten by the nuns at her convent school, who had also beaten my father, although not at the same time. Margaret’s mother Nina (another one) had been my grandmother Peg’s best friend since childhood, so Margaret had always known my father. At the age of twenty-one, when my father married my mother, did Margaret channel Teresa in The Constant Nymph? Crib notes for those who have not read it or seen the movies: Tessa is the fourteen-year old daughter of exiled English composer, Albert Sanger and lives with him and her many siblings in bohemian splendor and artistic freedom in the Austrian Tyrol. Tessa is madly — and faithfully, whence the title of the book — in love with her father’s friend and fellow composer, the seductive, talented, but cruel Lewis Todd (funny that my father’s middle name is Lewis). Sanger dies and Tessa and her two younger siblings are retrieved by their grand cousin, Florence Churchill, who brings them back to England. She packs Tessa and her younger sister off to a prison-like school, which was most likely modeled on Cheltenham Ladies College, where Margaret Kennedy went (funny that three of Joan’s grand-daughters also went there nearly a century later). Florence in the meantime has married mad, bad Lewis, thinking she can tame him and show him off in London society. Florence has brought him back to a house she’s bought for the purpose in Strand-on-the-Green, a riverside stretch of Chiswick, just east of Kew Bridge where Kennedy lived IRL: the riverside parallels with Sofka’s Putney abound. Another District line railway bridge across the Thames, and more ever-flowing water. One big difference, however, is that shocking as The Constant Nymph certainly was on publication, 1920s censorship would not have allowed Kennedy the explicit depiction of sexual activity Sofka deploys, so Tessa, having run off to Brussels with Lewis, dies in a squalid boarding-house bedroom before he can pop her cherry.

It is a commonplace to write that sexuality–and how it drives us to behave as we do, genetic replication notwithstanding — is one of the great mysteries of this human book of life but however common, we are still not very clear about it all. Sofka’s opening quote is from On Love by the realist Stendhal, “Man is not free to avoid doing what gives him greater pleasure than any other action.” Stendhal loved a lot, but also tried to understand how and why. My friend Teresa, aka Terence in some circles, does not believe in bisexuality, but having been there myself, I’m not so sure. Unlike Nabokov’s macho, exploitative, predatory alpha heteromale Humbert, we discover that Ralph is sexually catholic; the creative and sexual impulses that drive him seem more in tune with the diversity of our contemporary LBGTIQ cake-eating times. Ralph wants it all, as the French would have it, le beurre, l’argent du beurre et le cul de la crémière, that is, “the butter, the money for the butter and the dairymaid’s ass” not to mention the farm boy’s popka, too. Ralph’s compartmentalization has him engaged in the passionate love affair with Daphne, yet still enjoy the warmth and conjugal love of Nina, whose name may mean strong, flower, powerful, intelligent, friend, warrior, dreamer, kind, pretty and whose character encompasses all those qualities, particularly her unfailing friendship for and devotion to her errant husband. Their marriage is what Albert Cohen’s Nailcruncher would advocate “Love is a habit and not a stage-play. Profane, poetic love of the Anna Karenina kind is a lot of lies in which one has to show off, to refrain from certain things, to hide oneself, to play a part and to struggle against one’s habits. Sacred love is marriage, going home and seeing her. And if you are worried she holds your hand and talks to you and gives you courage.” The passion of sex versus the comfort of marriage; Daphne and Ralph versus Ralph and Nina.

Eric Gill, Perpetua typeface

As a sometime editor my curiosity was piqued by the end paper note in my proof copy of Putney indicating that the book is set in Perpetua typeface, designed by Eric Gill in 1925 and first used in “The passion of Perpetua and Felicity”. Was this a compositor’s in-joke, rather like the perhaps apocryphal story of the hidden embroidery of the word “cunt” inside the lining of a jacket Alexander McQueen made for Prince Charles or the more recent and macabre surgeon’s tattooing of his initials on patients’ livers? A convert Catholic, Gill’s sexual tastes were even more catholic than Ralph’s. Patrick Nuttgens writes in his obituary of Gill’s daughter Petra, that “The most extraordinary aspect of Gill’s life was his attitude toward the opposite sex, and in particular to his own sisters and daughters. In the 40 volumes of diaries that he kept from the age of 15 to 58, he recorded day by day not only what he made and earned and spent, but also who he joined in bed and with whom he enjoyed sex. He introduced Betty and Petra to the mysteries of sex and recorded the occasions in his diaries.” Nuttgens adds that “A remarkable aspect of those liaisons with Petra is that she seems not only to have been undamaged by the experience, but to have become the most calm, reflective and straightforward wife and mother. When I asked her about it shortly before her 90th birthday, she assured me that she was not at all embarrassed — ‘We just took it for granted’. She agreed that had she gone to school she might have learned how unconventional her father’s behavior was. He had, she explained, ‘endless curiosity about sex’. His bed companions were not only family but domestic helpers and even (to my astonishment when I heard about it) the teacher who ran the school at Pigotts.”

The visceral pull of the Thames brought me back to London after twenty-odd years abroad and I was surprised that the thrill of walking over Waterloo or Hungerford bridges and reveling in the view, or the joys of running or cycling along the tow-path between Richmond and Putney, had not diminished with the onset of middle age.

Another friend and fellow South Londoner, Gabriel Gbadamosi, of Irish-Nigerian parentage, and mine and Sofka’s vintage — they were at university together — has also written about growing up near the river in the 1970s. His 2011 novel Vauxhall, a little further down the river than Putney, has a chapter on the Thames, which relates the disobedient drowning of one of his school-mates, despite parental interdictions not to go down to the river. “The way down was dank and slippery, and I was always down there where it opened on to a bend in the river. The water came in and out, and sloped with the tide on to the steps, or dropped below a shoulder of mud and shingle. There were old wooden posts sticking out the mud. It smelled old going down, which was one reason for going, it was where you grew up. Everyone said don’t go, but the river pulled you. You just found yourself there, where no one ever looked for you.”

Daphne’s mother Ellie dies early in a car crash in Paris with her French lover (yes, it does happen) and is cremated at Putney Vale Cemetery, alongside the A3, on the border between Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common. Daphne is grief-stricken at the loss of her mother and the moment effectively ends her intimacy with Ralph. Daphne, her brother and father scatter Ellie’s ashes into the Thames at Putney. Panta Rei. My friend Mark also died an untimely death, we had been friends for 44 years when he had a massive heart attack at home in Battersea and didn’t turn up for a gig. He was also cremated at Putney Vale with his favorite bass guitar on the coffin as the curtains clinked shut and we filed out tearfully. The multitude of mourners, many musos among us, repaired to the Half Moon pub on the Lower Richmond Road, just along from Putney Bridge, one of London’s longest running live music venues. Mark used to play there in various bands from the 1980s onwards. A memorial evening was held a few months later over the river at the 606 Club on Lots Road, by Chelsea Creek, near the mooring of the houseboat where Ralph and eighteen-year-old Daphne last make love and are told by phone of Ellie’s sudden death.

Trust, conspiracy, betrayal and jealousy, contradictions, switches of mind and mood, concealment and sudden game-changing revelations abound in all types of relationships; between lovers, spouses, friends, parents and children. They pose abundant questions in Putney. Was Daphne raped? Was she betrayed by lover, friend, mother, father? Da/Niet, Ja/Nein, Yes/No. Logic gate “If yes”, what is the single binary output? “If no”, what is the single binary output? And fuzzy logic gate: maybe. Sofka’s matter-of-fact prose and style of exposition are grounded in her anthropological training. She has written two Greek books: Eurydice Street, a non-fiction memoir of returning to live full-time in Athens with her Greek husband, Vasilis and their two daughters, Anna and Lara; and The House on Paradise Street a historical novel about the deep twentieth century divisions in Greece seen in part through the eyes of Maud, the English widow of Nikitas, son of Antigone, who returns from the Soviet Union to attend her son’s funeral and attempt reconciliation with her estranged family. We believe Sofka knows experientially what she’s writing about. In this latter novel and now in Putney, she looks at her characters with a certain detachment, while the reader wonders how much of their behavior is semi-autobiographical, how much it relates actual lived experience. In the mid-1980s when she had gone to Athens for fieldwork on her doctorate, I was in Paris, at the Sorbonne, delving into the delights of Denis Diderot and his eighteenth-century enlightenment escapades. My focus was on literary truth and reception theory with reference to Jacques the Fatalist and La Religieuse (The Nun). In the latter novel, the point of departure is a practical joke that Diderot plays on a bereaved friend in the country, the Marquis de Croismare, who he is trying to lure back to Paris. Diderot writes letters to his friend purporting to be from a young nun, Suzanne, who implores the Marquis to help her renounce her vows and escape from her convent confinement. Rather than the plight of poor Suzanne and Diderot’s socio-political campaign against the abuses of locking up girls in convents, what fascinated me was that the Marquis believed the letters to be true, that Suzanne was a real young woman and so he corresponded with her accordingly. How we read fiction or non-fiction, watch TV soaps and believe politicians (or not) depends on how we receive the information. Literary, fictional truth can be as real, compelling and consequential as non-fictional, objective, factual truth. Are the characters in Putney real or true-to-life? Did the events described really take place as events in observed reality? In his essay on the Task of the Translator Walter Benjamin writes that “Only if the sense of a linguistic creation may be equated with the information it conveys does some ultimate, decisive element remain beyond all communication — quite close and yet infinitely remote, concealed or distinguishable, fragmented or powerful. In all language and linguistic creations there remains in addition to what can be conveyed something that cannot be communicated.” In a similar vein, Nabokov writes in On a book entitled Lolita that “There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and […] Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.” Sophia Petrovna might agree with Vladimir Vladimirovich, that this is the moral of her story, too.


[i] The Wikipedia entry on the age of consent through history goes on further to say “The American colonies followed the English tradition, and the law was more of a guide. For example, Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only 9 when she was married to William Williams. Sir Edward Coke (England, 17th century) “made it clear that the marriage of girls under 12 was normal, and the age at which a girl who was a wife was eligible for a dower from her husband’s estate was 9 even though her husband be only four years old.”

In the 16th century, a small number of Italian and German states set the minimum age for sexual intercourse for girls, setting it at 12 years. Towards the end of the 18th century, other European countries also began to enact similar laws. The first French Constitution of 1791 established the minimum age at 11 years. Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons initially set the minimum age at 10–12 years. Age of consent laws were, historically, difficult to follow and enforce: legal norms based on age were not, in general, common until the 19th century, because clear proof of exact age and precise date of birth were often unavailable.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_consent

[ii] In 1940 George Orwell wrote, “Nailcruncher by Albert Cohen, translated from the French by Vyvyan Holland […] is one of the most pretentious novels I have read for a long time. It is an enormous, deliberately farcical story about some semi-imbecile Jews, first in the Greek island of Cephalonia and later in Switzerland. What is chiefly remarkable in it is the length and disgustingness of its scatological passages… If you like scatology, this is the book for you; if you don’t, I should steer clear of it, for long passages in it are calculated to make any ordinary person physically sick.”

Orwell’s reaction is rather surprising, given that Cohen published the book in France in 1938 (the English translation was published in London 1940), by which time it was clear what was happening to European Jewry. Cohen is a master of political satire; one particularly striking example, which apparently left Orwell cold, is when he used one his merry band of Jewish cousins to lambaste for comic effect, “As for Hitler, Saltiel only prayed for him once a year, and then very briefly. Besides, his prayer was rather peculiar: “Oh Eternal,” he said, the palms of his hand turns towards heaven, “if this Hitler is good and acts according to Thy principles, let him live in happiness for a hundred and six years. But if Thou deemest that he acts evilly, then turn him into a Polish Jew without a passport!”. Nailcruncher by Albert Cohen, translated by V. Holland, Routledge, London 1940, pg. 33.

Albert Cohen would also have relished the boiling hot death baths into which Daphne and Jane regularly plunge themselves and which make them lobster-red and are reminiscent of the endless, narcissistic hot baths taken by Cohen’s heroine Ariane in Belle du Seigneur.


Translator living in London, England, more at www.swithunwells.com

Translator living in London, England, more at www.swithunwells.com