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A Reading Life

Novel titles that hold sway

No matter how hard I try to resist it, I find that a novel's title has an irrational influence on me. Some are so pleasing that I have read the books they adorn on their strength alone. Others put me off so thoroughly that I recoil at their names. (More about them later.) Titles I especially like are, to mention a few, "The Chronicles of Clovis," "A Girl of the Limberlost," "Hindoo Holiday," "Wise Blood," "Gormenghast," "Kristin Lavransdatter" (once I got the hang of it) and "Leave It to Psmith" (particularly rich). I sometimes go around muttering them to myself for the sheer joy of saying the words. To be sure, not all good titles fulfill their promise: "Henderson the Rain King," for instance, hits the right note, but the novel, which I can't seem to finish, is just not for me. And, of course, a number of great novels have terrible titles: "A Way of Life, Like Any Other" springs to mind -- though not entirely, as I had to check up, as usual, on that annoying comma.

For the last couple of years I have been hearing from people whose opinions I respect about a novel with a title so fine that I could not wait to see it installed on my bookshelf -- as it is now --right to the left of Stella Gibbons's admirably titled, "Cold Comfort Farm." It is "Old Filth" by Jane Gardam (Europa, paperback, $14.95). Old Filth. Just right, its heft similar to "Vile Bodies," another good one.

And I am happy to say that the novel itself lives up to its title. The "filth" in question is FILTH, an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong, and Old Filth is Sir Edward Feathers, a barrister, once of the Hong Kong bar, now widowed, nearing 80, and in isolated retirement in Dorset. His life, or rather its endgame, takes a momentous turn when he locks himself out of his house on Christmas Day in a snow storm and is forced to find shelter with his only neighbor. This, as it happens, is a former despised colleague from the Hong Kong years whose life has intersected with Feathers's in a quite shocking way, one which we only gradually discover. Feathers's sobriquet, the sad story behind the old man's stifled soul and outward demeanor, and his entrance into the ruthlessly changed land -- and peoplescape of today's England -- all work together to bring about a novel that is both funny and moving. By book's end the title has achieved an ineffable poignancy and one feels that it could not possibly have been anything else.

Now, to treat unhappy titles. I know it's unfair, unreasonable, and narrow-minded, but I simply cannot bring myself to believe that there's anything for me in a novel called "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," "Sushi for Beginners," "The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios," or -- it makes me squirm even to write this down -- "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," and "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." I just can't stand them.

For a couple of years I have been hearing great reports of Marina Lewycka's "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" (Penguin, paperback, $14) and dismissing it out of hand, its title so arch, as it seemed to me, smacking somehow of the earnest playfulness that surrounds "The Believer." I would have never discovered how wrong I was had I not come across its author's second, benignly titled novel, "Strawberry Fields" (Penguin, $24.95). Now Lewycka, a Ukrainian refugee as a child who now lives in England, is my new favorite writer -- not replacing the others, but joining them as a subject of my tiresome missionary fervor. I have even come to accept the title of the first novel. Its pages do, in fact, include a very good short history of tractors that itself makes up a strain in the melancholy history of the fate of the Ukraine under Stalin and that is a crucial element in this ingenious, witty, and affecting work.

At the novel's center is Nikolai, a Ukrainian immigrant widower of 84 who has, to his two daughters' dismay, married Valentina, a predatory 36-year-old Ukrainian whose appeal lies chiefly in her enormous breasts ("bursting like twin warheads out of an underwired, ribbon-strapped, Lycra-paneled, lace-trimmed green satin rocket-launcher of a bra"). She has an English passport and a "highly civilized" standard of living in mind -- which comes to include "prestijeskiy" automobiles: a Rover, a Lada, and a Rolls Royce. I'm not going to tell you any more except to say that the novel approaches Shchedrin's great "Golovlyov Family" (that title takes practice) in its depiction of a dysfunctional family -- and that I laughed at least once every five pages.

"Strawberry Fields" is also about Ukrainian immigrants, as well as other Eastern Europeans, illegal and semi-legal. They have come to present-day England and are essentially bound into slavery, the prey of ruthless "recruitment consultants." These traffickers in human beings may also be murderers, pimps, and extortionists, but what they do is still all very Business School, not to say Orange Revolution. "Dynamic employment solution," one operator boasts, spelling out his contribution to globalization. " 'Cutting edge fwhit fwhit'-- he does a quick double slicing movement with the edge of his hand -- 'organizational answer for all your flexible staffing need.' "

The story is told from various points of view, sometimes straying impertinently out of the frame in the case of one Yola, who feels "there are some secrets she is not going to share with any nosy-poky book readers." The thoughts of a dog, a character who now joins the great dogs of literature, also advance the narrative. Most of the story, however, is seen from the standpoint of a young Ukrainian woman, Irina, who has become the object of desire of a seedy thug ("the type Mother would describe as a person of minimum culture"). "When I get back to Kiev," she tells herself, "I will write a story about this. It will be a thriller, following the adventures of a plucky heroine as she flees across England, pursued by a sinister but ridiculous gangster." And this and much more is what we have here and it is absolutely splendid.

Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at

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