Observer Review: Auto Da Fay By Fay Weldon Essay, Research Paper
Fay and fortuneAuto da FayFay WeldonFlamingo ?15.99, pp366When Fay Weldon leaves St Andrews with an MA in economics and psychology, she takes her scarlet university gown with her: it comes in useful later, she says, as a Father Christmas outfit, before moths claim it. The scarlet gown is perfect Weldon garb – it sums up the teasing personality behind her autobiography, Auto da Fay. How much of what she writes is serious-minded and educated – how much a festive charade?The delight of Fay Weldon is that one can seldom be absolutely sure if she is serious. She has always been anarchically clever, funny, fearless, a one-woman-show. As a child, she was the Cheerful Person in her family. When her sister took up with an unsuitable man, her mother leant on Fay. ‘To be cheerful was my accepted role around this time, and come to think of it, always has been and still is.’ (She is full of afterthought.)Weldon doesn’t let the reader down any more than she did her mother in this frustrating, engrossing, lazily entertaining autobiography. It is the sort of book stuffed full of things that you hope are made up but fear are true. I flinched at her description of the way toads were once used in pregnancy-tests and cannot banish the description of the chef in a hotel where Weldon worked who used to blow his nose into the whipped cream when angry.But Auto da Fay begins before the beginning, in the womb, in New Zealand. When her mother was pregnant with Fay, they survived an earthquake (might this explain Fay’s enduring taste for drama? Her first short story was set in Pompeii). The New Zealand of childhood is sketchily remembered: the ‘inspiring’ cakes seem to have hung on most vividly in the mind, the friendships second, the landscape third. Weldon’s mother and grandmother were English: ‘bohemian’ literary, musical, fragile – not obvious candidates for robust antipodean life. Her father was a charming doctor who liked the heat (or generated it in others, especially women).The book’s structure is slovenly, as if rambling at speed and the text itself seems unedited. But repetitions are telling: Weldon confesses (several times) that she does not like watching horror movies at home (the devil must not be invited in), she tells us (twice) about her rejected advertising slogan: ‘Vodka makes you drunker quicker’ (tempting to repeat that one, I can see); and she boasts three times that her grandmother, Nona, lived to 99 (this greatly appeals to her).It would be surprising if it didn’t. The amazing thing about this book is the degree to which Weldon believes family history repeats itself. Life is a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. Hand-me-downs rule. We are no more than our ancestors’ cast-offs. Her belief in patterns is superstitious: ‘the lost wedding ring turns up on the day of the divorce; the person you sit next to on the Tube happens to be your new boss.’ She has seen ghosts, of course.If this were a conversation and not a book, one would want to keep interrupting to ask more about what she felt, more about what her family was actually like. For someone so garrulous she is emotionally guarded, admitting – tantalisingly – that she prefers to look outside herself. The exception to this is her outburst of grief over the death of her friend, Flora. And, at one point, over 100 pages in, without warning (everything she does is without warning) she grumbles furiously, as if it is all the reader’s fault, that she is not finding writing her autobiography therapeutic.She solves the problem by writing as if her life were fiction. She describes engagingly the romance of living in a houseboat on the Thames as she did for a while and the feckless charms of the father of her first child. She resorts to the third person to relive her marriage to a schoolteacher, Mr Bateman, whom she married out of miserable expediency (for her son’s sake). Mr Bateman sounds like a figment of her imagination, a bad dream. He acted as a nervous pimp, guilty about his sexual non-performance, finding her other partners. She grew fat and became source material for her first novel The Fat Woman’s Joke. Narrative, for Weldon, has always been a cure.The autobiography ends as her writing career begins. I was left musing over an unacknowledged pattern in her life that is too strange – and revealing – to ignore. It is to do with her tendency to look down (rather than back), her interest in what goes on at ankle level and below. She describes her father walking off down a beach, abandoning her family for good. This leads on to a description of a chained magpie who pecked her ankles. When she has a crush at school, it is the girl’s pixie-ish footwear, not her face, that enraptures her. Anxiety is like a fox that ’snapped at her heels’ and babies, she warns, grow into children who ‘run around your ankles and bite you’.Ron Weldon (to whom she was married for 31 years) may be responsible. On their first date, he told her to ‘keep looking at the ground’ as you never knew what you might find. He then conjured a £5 note from the gutter.