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Holiday by Stanley Middleton
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Holiday (1974)

by Stanley Middleton

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In 1974 the Booker Prize was shared between Nadine Gordimer for The Conservationist (still on my tbr after several years) and Stanley Middleton for Holiday. I hadn’t read any Middleton before and really didn’t know what to expect. It would seem that Windmill Books re-issued a number of Middleton books last year – which is great, I was surprised at just how many novels Middleton wrote, there’s a very long list of them inside my copy.

Not knowing a thing about Middleton, I had to look him up to find out more. Stanley Middleton was born in Nottinghamshire in 1919, as well as a prolific writer he was an English teacher at a grammar school. His first novel was published in 1958 his final novel published posthumously. Having won the Booker Prize with Gordimer in 1974, in 1979 Middleton turned down an OBE. He died in a nursing home in 2009 just before his ninetieth birthday.

I very much enjoyed reading Holiday, although I don’t think it could be described as easy, I settled in to Middleton’s prose quickly enough, but the overall book makes for a degree of fairly slow reading. Middleton’s world is a very recognisable one, his observations spot on.

seasieHaving recently separated from his wife Meg, school master Edwin Fisher decides to spend a week in an English seaside holiday resort. Bealthorp is a place Edwin knows well, a place he holidayed with his parents when he was a child. Now, in his thirties, his marriage in trouble, following the devastating loss of their son, Fisher has a lot to come to terms with. Fisher’s thoughts frequently return to the past, to the holidays of his childhood, and his relationship with Meg. Through his reminiscences we gradually come to understand the intricacies of the Fisher’s marriage and the trauma they suffered when their son died. Fisher spends the first couple of days of his holiday indulging in old routines. Walks along the sea front the purchase of a newspaper and back to the hotel for a meal, Edwin seems to be merely killing time.

In the dining-room this evening, silence blossomed once the families began to eat. Fisher enjoyed the activity, the tucking of bibs, the wiping of mouths, the tipping of plates for the last spoonful, the pause between courses where one put on a small show for the other tables or angled for the correct snippet of conversation which would set the rest to chatter or laughing. These people worked hard, holding their fingers correctly, not marking the tablecloths and this ceremony pleased him. In this room decorated with dolls and paper flowers it was proper to act the gentleman, ape the lady. When the standard was judged, by Monday evening at the latest, there’d be a relaxation, a few aitches would topple, salacious asides allowed, confidences would be exchanged, but at this the first dinner after a complete day’s holiday matters were formal.

The Vernons; Fisher’s in-laws, are also staying in Bealthorpe, although at a different hotel, and they waste little time in interfering. The Vernons want Meg to reconcile with her husband, and Fisher is subjected to marital advice from David Vernon. A meal is arranged, David Vernon has arranged for his daughter to come to the hotel to see Edwin. The appointed time comes and goes but Meg never appears.

During the week at Bealthorpe Fisher begins to socialise with his fellow holiday makers, particularly the Smiths and the Hollies. Edwin indulges in a little flirtation, pleased to find himself desirable in the eyes of another woman, even if it is just a mad holiday moment.

As anyone who has holidayed by the seaside in England will know, holiday weeks run Saturday to Saturday, and by the Thursday of your week away, you always feel rather on borrowed time. Edwin feels this too.

“Thursday, now he strolled towards the Methodist church where the iron gates were padlocked, and posters of scrag-ribbed refugees faded in the sunshine. Thursday.
When he was on holiday as a boy the first three days had passed slowly, but by Thursday time flew. Friday flashed a nothing. One bought presents; one ventured into the sea, but home, wash-day, errands re-established themselves in the mind”

With the holiday finally over, Fisher heads back to the flat he shares with a colleague and sets about (following the necessary interference from the in-laws) re-establishing communication with Meg.
The Wikipedia page for Stanley Middleton tells of a journalistic stunt a few years ago; where someone sent the opening chapter of Holiday to a number of publishers and literary agents – and all but one rejected it. If that is true, I’m not certain what if anything that proves, or what the journalist was trying to prove. Tastes and fashions in literature change I suppose, but I can’t help but see it as a little bit spiteful, Middleton was still alive at the time.

I liked the way Middleton writes, his vision of the world and his eye for detail is sharp, very precise and beautifully rendered. Middleton gets underneath the skin of his characters in a very quiet but very real way, their hopes, fears and all that they are trying to escape are laid bare. Here Edwin is a man still grieving for his child, his emotions are numbed. Holiday is an excellent novel, a worthy Booker winner.

I think I began to see Middleton as a kind of male Brookner – one novel probably not enough to make that judgement, but I definitely want to read more. ( )
2 vote Heaven-Ali | Jul 30, 2015 |
I liked this book - although I can also see why some people would hate it! Middleton seems to have quite a good take on how a man might behave and think in the circumstance of a separation from his wife following a traumatic event in their relationship. I guess it's not very exciting, but I don't read fiction for excitement. ( )
  oldblack | May 29, 2015 |
Despite the prosaic and downbeat subject matter (man goes on holiday to Lincolnshire seaside town and considers whether to attempt to save his failing marriage) this book was surprisingly perceptive and moving, and I can understand why it won the Booker prize. Full of sharp observation, wry humour and humanity. ( )
  bodachliath | Nov 4, 2014 |
After his marriage breakup, Edwin Fisher decides to spend a week at an English seaside resort, to clear his head and lick his wounds. He returns to Bealthorpe, a familiar venue after years of childhood holidays. Edwin moves aimlessly through his first day or so, stretching the most simple tasks just to fill the time. He bumps into his in-laws, astonished to find they are also on holiday in Bealthorpe, and as they begin to meddle in his affairs, he strives to maintain appropriate yet minimal contact. Edwin finds a social life through some of the other lodgers in his hotel. They all gather for drinks and dinner at the hotel, and finish their evening in the pub. Edwin experiments with a flirtation, soothing himself with the knowledge that he is still attractive to someone.

Alone most of the time, Edwin has plenty of opportunity to reflect on his marriage. The novel takes place almost entirely in Edwin's head: taking in the sights, observing other tourists, and then, more often than not, recalling an incident between he and his wife, Meg. Through his reminiscences the reader gradually pieces together the puzzle of Edwin's marriage, and details of the critical emotional event that was just too much for them to bear.

Middleton writes wonderfully descriptive scenes which bring the holiday resort to life:
In the dining-room this evening, silence blossomed once the families began to eat. Fisher enjoyed the activity, the tucking of bibs, the wiping of mouths, the tipping of plates for the last spoonful, the pause between courses where one put on a small show for the other tables or angled for the correct snippet of conversation which would set the rest to chatter or laughing. These people worked hard, holding their fingers correctly, not marking the tablecloths and this ceremony pleased him. In this room decorated with dolls and paper flowers it was proper to act the gentleman, ape the lady. When the standard was judged, by Monday evening at the latest, there'd be a relaxation, a few aitches would topple, salacious asides allowed, confidences would be exchanged, but at this the first dinner after a complete day's holiday matters were formal. (p. 52)

Middleton's style reminded me a bit of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Holiday had a similar dreamy, "day in the life" feeling, accompanied by the imagery of long, slow summer days. And as in Woolf's novel, many small incidents are used to paint a big picture of a character and his relationships, making for a very enjoyable read. ( )
1 vote lauralkeet | Apr 8, 2010 |
One shelf of my library now holds a nearly complete collection of Booker Prize winning novels, which date back to 1969. The short list for the 40th award for 2008 has just been announced, and Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence is there. I have never been disappointed in the Man Booker Prize awarded annually for English-language novels from the British Commonwealth and Ireland. This 1974 prize winner bears a striking resemblance to the 2005 winner, The Sea by John Banville, so I catapulted it to the top of my TBR list.

This was a tough read. The style is difficult, largely due to strange word order and comments dropped at the end of a line of dialogue. It took a while to become accustomed to this strange wording, but the story was absorbing; however, it was nothing at all like Banville’s “elegant and lyrical language so rich it takes the breath away” as I wrote in my review of The Sea. After about 100 pages, comfort set in, and it was no longer a problem. There were occasional flashes of brilliance, for example: “The sun-bars angled down packed wild with dust-specks so that the air danced alive with energy between the areas of dim cleanliness” (2).

Perhaps Middleton has matched his language to the confused state of mind of the main character, Edwin Fisher, who has escaped from his wife, whom he now detests. Before leaving, Edwin seemed genuinely to have tried to smooth things over and save his marriage – at least from his version of the story told in a series of brief flashbacks. Like the character in The Sea, Edwin travels to a seashore vacation resort of his youth to grapple with his failing marriage, but Edwin also has to contend with the memory of a stormy relationship with his father.

The ridiculously formal meeting of Meg and Edwin at the end seemed too contrived to be realistic. I did not get the impression that this meeting was “in character” for either of them. Placing this novel in time was difficult, assigning an age to the characters even more so. This might all be attributed to a setting in the middle to late 50s. An annoyingly intrusive father-in-law seems to sympathize with Edwin, but his condescension should have caused Edwin to send him packing.

The novel was also peppered with words and phrases I have never heard. My library contains a lot of British fiction – old and new – and this is not usually a problem for me. One intriguing word (biro, biroing) appeared quite a few times. After three, I surmised it some sort of writing instrument, but I could not be sure. It was not in my large Random House Dictionary, nor was it in the O.E.D. 3-1/2 stars because I had to work so hard without much reward.

--Jim, 8/9/08 ( )
1 vote rmckeown | Aug 9, 2008 |
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Edwin Fisher is on holiday at the English seaside but this revisiting of childhood haunts is no ordinary holiday. Edwin is seeking to understand the failure of his marriage to Meg, but it turns out that her parents are staying at the same resort whether by accident or design and are keen to patch up the relationship.… (more)

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