Review: Life is a Joke

Seeing the funny side and passing it on


By Rosemary Friedman
Arcadia, £11.99

Nabokov envisaged life as "a great surprise", Lewis Carroll deemed it "but a dream". At 81, Rosemary Friedman suggests in her memoir that it is a joke borrowing W. S. Gilbert's line to infer that amusement and advancing age are by no means mutually exclusive.

Friedman (one of our most deft and durable novelists) sketches pensionable years (as if with a very literary eyebrow raised at their relentless drollery) that are still shared with her lifelong love, eminent-psychiatrist husband Dennis and pass in material comfort.

Nonetheless, there is deal of tsores both professional and domestic: a publisher reneges on her latest novel; a promised play production never makes it to Texas; the BBC demands so many rewrites of her highly topical child-abuse episode of Doctors that the drafts "became like a series of dining options. First they fancied Indian, then Chinese, then Thai… oh what we really want is Indian after all".

Homeward bound from a holiday in Sicily, Rosemary and Dennis learn that the longstanding family joke, "I hope the house hasn't burned down", has come true: their fine Regent's Park apartment has succumbed to the fumes of an arsonist targeting the flat below.

There is a bleak, graphically painful encounter with cancer - first diagnosed as in the lung, then found to be follicular lymphoma, which chemotherapy chases into retreat along with the author's hair.

But to this writer, the serious setbacks, as well as every small, ludicrous, bothersome modern moment like the call-centre's contrary exhortation to "please hold on" (and on and on) "your call is important to us", are grist to the creative mill.

Friedman entertainingly contrasts the quirks of contemporary mores (meals cooked from cardboard boxes? Unsolicited emails promising to spice up your sex life? A grandchild at the Seder table misreading "psalm" as "plasma"!) with those of her young motherhood days when formal dinner parties had to be served while chapters were being penned and daughters' (she has four and 10 grandchildren) nappies washed. "I can't believe how I did it", she says of serving up a supper for seven: 2 chickens, one whole (home-boiled) ox tongue, 2lb of hot dogs, 12 stuffed eggs, 12 stuffed tomatoes, Golden Rice Salad, ratatouille, green salad, orange water-ice, fresh orange salad and the "ubiquitous" chocolate mousse, which along with her chicken soup recipe is the celebratory staple Rosemary has handed down to her girls. That was then.

But she is no kitchen goddess or hands-on matriarch. Even though "family life is the bulwark of our race" she resists being on tap to fetch, carry, feed, house or mind the grandkids. Now is her time and she is writing still, for it at the heart of this book that this is what writers do. They do it even when "writing a novel is like holding the plans for a cathedral in your head. It's not so easy any more."

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