Magazine article The Spectator

God Save All Fathers

Magazine article The Spectator

God Save All Fathers

Article excerpt


by Carlo Gebler

Little, Brown, L16.99, pp. 405

Maybe, at an epoch some label `postChristian', which is still affected by the ideas of Freud, it is inevitable that whether our mummies and daddies loved us or did not love us would become a major preoccupation in order to find out who to blame for who we are, and that writers would write books about their parents. Even so, a sympathetic reader can long for windows to be flung open to let out the family fug, and can find himself wondering whether it was really as bad as that.

Perhaps for Carlo Gebler it was. His father, the writer Ernest Gebler, seemed almost crazily determined to prove that his little Carlo was stupid, incompetent and doomed. This is so obviously cruel we are surprised to discover that he carefully fed his two sons, looked after them when they were ill and clearly wanted them to continue living with him.

Their mother is Edna O'Brien. It was an unhappy marriage - though Carlo Gebler only suggests this - which ended in separation and divorce. His subject is not the marriage, or both his parents, but his cantankerous, authoritarian father and himself. A Marxist (Carlo was originally 'Karl'), the father would allow his sons no toys (`products of Far Eastern slavelabour'), no children's television, no straying outside the house beyond the reach of his binoculars, no sweets or sweet things. When his mother, having left the marriage, took young Carlo out and bought him an ice cream she not only wiped his face but wiped his tongue, which, when he returned to the house, his father insisted on inspecting and sniffing.

As a writer Ernest Gebler had an early success with his book The Plymouth Adventure, which was made into a film starring Spencer Tracy. With the money he bought a house in Ireland, married Edna O'Brien, then working in a chemist's, and sired two sons, Carlo and Sasha. Edna began writing, his own work slowed nearly to a stop, and he resented her early success so much that -he later claimed to have written her first two books himself. (Not quite as mad as it sounds; he probably helped her, or at least inspired her - after all, he was the successful writer - and by transference grew to imagine that her first work owed its success to him. …

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