The late style of the graphic novelist is both enticingly accessible and disturbingly perceptiveby Jane Shilling / December 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
As a small child, the artist and author Posy Simmonds used to sit under the table with a book and, hidden by the long tablecloth, listen enthralled to the grown-up conversations going on above her head: “I was aware of an adult world where things seemed to go terribly wrong and awful things happened.” Almost seven decades later she is still recording an adult world where things go terribly wrong, in pictorial narratives in which satire is mixed with vivid curiosity and an inexhaustible relish for the strangeness of everyday life.
For Simmonds, words and drawing went together from the very beginning. She was born in 1945, the middle child of five, and grew up on her parents’ dairy farm in Cookham, Berkshire, where she learned to read by leafing through the cartoons in old bound volumes of Punchmagazine: “It was always completely normal that drawings would have words attached.” She developed an early interest in drawing, and she and a friend once hid behind a tombstone in Cookham churchyard to watch the local artist Stanley Spencer at work: “Eventually he gave us some sweets to go away.”
After school, Simmonds spent a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, then studied graphic design at the Central School of Arts and Design in London (now Central St Martin’s), where she met her husband, the graphic designer Richard Hollis. The cartoonist Mel Calman, who had been impressed by her degree show, put some newspaper work her way and introduced her to the Guardian journalist Jill Tweedie, whose lodger she became.
Simmonds worked as an illustrator for the Guardian, and in 1977 the then editor, Peter Preston, asked her to create a cartoon strip for the women’s page. After a hesitant start (“I created a lot of characters, but I didn’t really know who they were”), the Webers sprang into being: a staunchly liberal couple struggling to combine left-wing idealism with the quotidian reality of nits, disappointing holiday cottages, waning libido and the horror of having a conversation about contraception with their sneering teenage daughter.
“As I drew them I thought I knew them,” Simmonds said in 2010. “George was teaching at a polytechnic but he wished he was at Cambridge. Wendy was one of those women you see on holiday with their split ends and their clogs who was juggling feminism with having a brood of children.”
A characteristic episode found an irritated Wendy purchasing a kitchen blind in a dainty Toile de Jouy print, in the spiteful hope that its insufferable bourgeois chintziness would infuriate George, only to discover him blissfully deconstructing it: “The blind translates the window into a mirror of attitudes totalisantes, recording our passage from Ignorance to Enlightenment…”
The strip ran for a decade, from 1977 to 1987, while Thatcherism crept up on the Webers. In a cartoon drawn in 1989, Simmonds imagined the minatory Ghost of Christmastide appearing to a triumphalist Thatcherite stockbroker with a Docklands flat, a brutally capitalist worldview, and a Porsche (which the departing Spirit cheerily vandalises).
Fast-forward several decades, and it is Christmas once again. This new book’s setting is Knightsbridge and the protagonist, the ominously named Cassandra Darke, is the elderly, wealthy and profoundly misanthropic proprietor of a Mayfair art gallery. The heroines of Simmonds’s earlier graphic novels, Gemma Boveryand Tamara Drewe, were lissom, alluringly discontented young women with the wide-eyed, under-the-eyelashes regard that is Simmonds’s default signifier for sexiness.
Cassandra, by contrast, is a fearsome old party with mean little currant eyes, a potato nose, a thin-lipped mouth fixed in a permanent disapproving scowl, a body like a badly stuffed bolster and a geography teacher’s iron-grey bob. She is the horrid embodiment of what becomes of alluringly discontented young women when they get old, their allure vanishes and only the discontent remains.
Cassandra lives in solitary stuccoed splendour in Osmington Square, SW3, attended by a housekeeper, a driver and her pug, Corker, who seems to be the only living being for which she entertains any tender feelings. Some hints are dropped as to the origins of her alienation. She never knew her father, who died in the war when she was a baby; as a child she was less favoured than her step-sister, Margot, whose appealing habit of comforting those in distress took an unsisterly turn when she made off with Cassandra’s art dealer husband, Freddie. After her divorce, Cassandra occupies her time dealing in prints and writing a book on post-war British sculpture. But in 2015, when Freddie is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she agrees to help out at his gallery—a rare gesture of altruism whose consequences are to prove life-changing.
The novel unfolds in a series of flashbacks over the course of a year, beginning just before Christmas 2016 in central London where, “not long before they came to arrest me,” Cassandra wanders among the “crowds of imbecile Christmas shoppers” in Piccadilly. The sight of an acquaintance, Jane McMullen, gives her a guilty twinge of foreboding. All sorts of murky matters, she suspects, are about to be “dragged up from the swamp.”
Cassandra’s motto is “assume the worst,” which is just as well, for 2017 will see her convicted of art fraud. While running Freddie’s gallery, she sold four unauthorised copies of sculptures by Jane’s late husband, Kenneth McMullen RA, to various wealthy clients “who pissed me off… I spit on them, their ignorance, their vulgarity, their itchy palms.” She is given a suspended sentence and 200 hours of community service. “Pauperised” by damages and legal fees, she sacks her driver and housekeeper, discovering public transport and fast food, but continuing to live with Corker in stately SW3.
A second gesture of family altruism (albeit grudging and conditional) draws her still further into the marginal realms of poverty and crime—a world that she has hitherto experienced only in the real-life crime shows she enjoys watching on television (“compared with double murderers one almost feels like Snow White”). In the autumn of 2016, Freddie and Margot’s daughter, Nicki—a young conceptual artist of ineffable silliness—asks Cassandra to fund her current art project, “Abused Nudes.” (This involves posting online film of herself flashing anti-rape messages while standing in front of famous paintings of the rape and victimisation of women.)
Cassandra is about to refuse when it occurs to her that Nicki might make herself useful as a dogwalker and general factotum. In exchange, she offers her niece a loan of £1,000 and the use of the empty basement flat at Osmington Square. This arrangement proves convenient not just for Nicki, but also for her new boyfriend, Billy, a rough diamond in pressing need of a place to lie low. But who could be texting Cassandra with death threats and a disgusting image which, she learns to her amazement, is known as a “dick pic”?
Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe (each of which was made into a film starring Gemma Arterton) are tragi-comedies of rural manners. Both draw inspiration from the plot of a classic novel (Gemma Bovery’s relationship with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is closer than Tamara Drewe’s with Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd), and both are narrated by observers who stand at a slight angle to the action. In each novel, the keen edge of Simmonds’s satire is so adroitly deployed that its targets might easily mistake it for affection.
Cassandra Darke is not a comedy. This is not to say that the elements of satire are absent. On the contrary, they are gloriously present on every page, in Simmonds’s exuberant depiction of the follies of the contemporary art world and her exquisitely observed images of London: the hound blithely defecating on the pavement while its haughtily oblivious mink-clad owner chats to a florid fellow in a velvet-collared overcoat; the bleakly modish interior of Cassandra’s house with its cheerless fireplace and spindly Giacometti; the snow-dappled thoroughfares of the West End, twinkling with Christmas lights and garlanded with festive decorations, through which Cassandra stumps in grim foreboding.
But we do not follow the action through the mediating presence of a semi-detached narrator. Cassandra tells her own story, and her readers are inescapably involved with her embittered and cynical worldview, which combines virtuoso selfishness with styptic self-knowledge. It is an uncomfortable perspective: after Freddie succumbs to Alzheimer’s, her thoughts turn to mortality. Rather than a “slow death in a locked ward,” she resolves, “I will see myself out… Croak while you can,” Reviewing the options (“every method is grim”), she concludes, “My ideal death would be soundless obliteration under deep, deep snow.”
It takes a second death—that of an unknown young woman whose pathetic possessions (a small bag of cheap make-up and a single glove) inexplicably end up, together with a gun in a laundry basket in Cassandra’s basement—to turn her gaze from the furiously inward to an acceptance, at first reluctant, but eventually humble and redemptive, of her common humanity with people she is accustomed to despise.
Pictorial narrative is as ancient as storytelling itself, and over the millennia it has developed into a capacious genre, in which distinctions between high and low art are not so much blurred as obliterated. It has proved equally capable of accommodating manga and superhero comics, and masterpieces such as Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, Charlotte Salomon’s Leben? oder Theater?, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning Mausand Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series. But Simmonds has observed that the genre still seems to cause anxiety in the British literary establishment, where “cartoons are… associated with childish things.”
That is changing, belatedly. Gemma Boveryand Tamara Drewewere reviewed in sober literary journals, and the late Cambridge academic, Eric Griffiths, expressed the hope that Gemma Boverywould win the Man Booker Prize. This year Sabrina, by the 29-year-old American author, Nick Drnaso, made the Booker longlist—the first graphic novel to do so.
Yet there persists a sense of Simmonds’s work as a puzzle, defying categorisation by being at the same time enticingly accessible and disturbingly perceptive. The same perplexities, of course, once attended the work of Flaubert, Hardy and Dickens, each of whom, like Simmonds, initially published their fiction in serial form.
With its eloquent pictorial tale of London’s two cities—the rich, where Cassandra lives and the poor, where she experiences a transformative moment of self-recognition—and the implacable psychological realism with which its unlovable heroine is depicted, Cassandra Darkerepresents an intriguing development in that most interesting stage of any creative artist’s life: the Late Period.
As long ago as 1969, the novelist and cartoonist manqué, John Updike, foresaw the emergence of the graphic novel as an important genre: “I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic-strip novel masterpiece.” Cassandra Darkeis not a flawless work: a certain clanking of the theatrical machinery is audible in the plot, and Simmonds is evidently more at home when depicting the moneyed middle class than the criminal underclass, who emit a pungent whiff of Bill Sikes—and pug-fanciers should brace themselves for Corker’s role in the novel’s denouement, where Simmonds shows a daring willingness to allow innocent animals to suffer in the cause of art.
But the visual and moral chiaroscuro of the novel, and its unflinching depiction of pathos and loneliness in the most and least privileged of social milieus, make it a strong contender, if not for the meretricious glitter of literary awards, then for the more lasting prize of inclusion in the canon of comic-strip masterpieces.