In a recent issue of TLS, DJ Taylor reviews the works of South Africa-born British novelist Justin Cartwright who died late last year in London at 75. He wrote 17 novels (although, as Taylor notes, he disowned some early ones) starting in the 1970s. As his obituary in the Johannesburg Review of Books points out: “His writing was often compared to Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and he himself named his influences as Saul Bellow, John Updike and Alan Paton.” His obituary in the Guardian cites his most notable books:
Cartwright became a noted observer of the minutiae and absurdities of middle-class life, which he witnessed from the centre of the north London literary establishment. His acceptance was assured by a CV laden with awards, including the 1998 Whitbread best novel award for Leading the Cheers and the Hawthornden prize in 2005 for The Promise of Happiness. […] Cartwright was a rare bird in literary fiction, able to use comedy as a Trojan horse to confront readers with the tragedy of human existence. His most laugh-out-loud works, such as Other People’s Money (2011), a satire inspired by the global financial crisis, were underscored by an appreciation of the role of human frailty in driving historical events.
Although he attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he seems never to have written an “Oxford novel”, as such. He did, however, in 2008 write some recollections about Oxford entitled This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited in which Cartwright recalled visiting an exhibit devoted to John Betjeman, reminding him of the inspiration of Sebastian’s teddy bear in Brideshead Revisited. He goes on to describe Waugh’s book as “still in some minds the defining myth of Oxford [and] the greatest Oxford novel ever written” (p. 167).
DJ Taylor in his TLS retrospective, discusses Cartwright’s novels in terms of their characters which he describes as “Cartwright-man” and “Cartwright-woman” in various guises. The latter he summarizes as:
In her middle-aged-to-elderly guise, Cartwright-woman is safely yet peevishly anodyne, a spirited rearranger of Home Counties flowers, a clipper-out of fascinating articles about Evelyn Waugh’s first wife; but her younger prototype needs watching: […] at all times operating by private codes that Cartwright-man – as ripe for superannuation as Amis- man became in his later versions – has no chance of deciphering.