Penelope Gilliatt Gilliatt, Penelope (Vol. 10) - Essay

Penelope Ann Douglass Conner


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gilliatt, Penelope 1932–

Gilliatt is an English novelist, short story writer, film and drama critic, screenwriter, and editor. Critics have praised her attentiveness to detail, her sophisticated use of word play, and her ear for dialogue. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Abby Ann Arthur Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Nobody's Business … Gilliatt criticizes those who would organize life on scientific principles, who would use the computer to make sense of erratic human nature. In the face of computer analysts and efficiency experts, Gilliatt turns to that which celebrates the diversity and dignity of human life. (p. 322)

Throughout the collection, Gilliatt suggests that interpersonal communication deteriorates when computers and machines gain pre-eminence. This emphasis reaches its fullest expression in "Property," a story reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's Endgame. Confined to their individual beds, wired to separate electrocardiographs, a triangle of two men and one woman endure a hellish existence. The three-some understand neither themselves nor each other, as the absurdist dialogue indicates.

The machines are powerful, but the mechanical way of life is not inevitable. The final lines of the concluding tale, "Nobody's Business," summarize the heart of Gilliatt's statement. Emily Prendergast, who writes for the radio "the most popular low comedies of the century," expresses her understanding of life: "Nobody can do what he can't … Unless he has a terrific wish to…. Then I expect he could." Earlier in the volume, the "dispossessed"—a schizophrenic woman, a crippled young man, a bastard born to a British gentleman and a poor Indian—say much the same.

Gilliatt makes her point by using wit...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The stories that compose "Splendid Lives" are] resolute in forcing the reader to make up his own mind as to what he is supposed to feel after finishing them. I suppose that a virtuoso of exegesis might apply an almost unlimited number of interpretations to them, for, God knows, they are wide open to the winds of doctrine.

I propose to attempt only one, to resist the seduction of supererogation. It is possible to read "Splendid Lives" just as the title suggests, as stories about people who are not constricted by convention or economic considerations, who are free to follow their impulses and to need nothing more than impulse to satisfy themselves. This is not an altogether unrealistic depiction of a certain style in contemporary life. While the stories have what might be called the authority of eccentricity, I wish that they had more literary security—better-turned sentences, apter invention, more appealing or dimensional characters, a behavioral curve that pleases the mind as an agreeably contoured landscape pleases the eye.

In my reading, the stories work—if they do work—by virtue of their texture, relying on the unexpected or incongruous to keep the reader from growing restive or bored. When we do finally grow restive under such unremitting stimulation, the stories break off. Discontinuing in the middle of things, they baffle us, and this bafflement acts as a depressant that quells impatience. You have to concede that it's all very ingenious.

A writer who opposes the fatigue of the ordinary, who suggests a liberating gratuitousness as a counterpoint to riveting purpose, who lets air—even if it's hot air—into our lives, ought to have some claim on our gratitude. I take off my humdrum metaphorical hat to Miss Gilliatt. (p. 12)

Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 29, 1978.

Susan Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The stories in Splendid Lives] are amusing, even at times hilarious, in a quiet, British sort of way. Still, one doesn't quite know what to make of them beyond that; the stories seem to end at an arbitrary point, leaving one wondering what the point in fact was. I suspect that Gilliatt doesn't intend to make one, and that has its own virtues, though one wishes that behind the charming surface the characters had more dimension, more resonance.

The way to read Splendid Lives is one story at a time, delighting in its ingeniousness, expecting nothing more. (p. E5)

Susan Wood, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 12, 1978.

Eileen Kennedy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gilliatt is a comic writer with a piercing eye for the zany, the bizarre, the eccentric, but she lacks the intellectual energy and philosophical breadth, the penetrating view that's true of [Iris] Murdoch at her best…. Gilliatt is as witty, glib, as tangy, but thin as peanut brittle. Mistress of dialogue, of the flashy remark and the unusual situation, she seems to be afraid of exploring a situation, of developing a character, of examining the serious emotions…. She's quick, a phrasemaker, an evoker of fleeting attitudes, a conjurer-up of domestic situations, where frequently the women are strong, monolithic, and loving, and the men passive, ineffectual cadgers.

[The nine stories in Splendid Lives] are billed as English and American, but Gilliatt's American settings lack verisimilitude. Her grasp of American idiom is tenuous….

Gilliatt has the potential to explore human comedy and human tragedy, as in the best story of the lot, "Catering," which treats mother love, fidelity, caring, fertility, and abortion. But the wonderful mother in this story is never fully developed, is only sketched in through a hilarious, yet almost painful, description of her meagre house as she home-caters a wedding for 125. We want to know the mother better, but Gilliatt makes her too inarticulate, too much like a dumb beast of burden, to be able to carry the tragic dimension. Another potentially fine story, "Fleecing," fails to touch the emotions, though the tutor-boy relationship is well done, because the author skimps on developing the climactic moment….

I suspect that because the short story demands much more verbal analysis than a film—where the visual carries so much of the meaning—Gilliatt errs in applying film-writing techniques to fiction. The House of Fiction does have many doors, but Gilliatt has yet to earn her place there. (p. 6)

Eileen Kennedy, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), April, 1978.

James Brockway

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Splendid Lives, Penelope Gilliatt skates brightly on the surface …, whether in England or the States, but there is a humour, a critical discernment and a keen, satirical mind at work here, which make for more briskness and more fun.

These lives are far from splendid, although the satire in the first story, about an elderly English bishop, cossetted and materially secure—in fact everything His Lord said he should not be—is so velvet-gloved, you might miss it at first…. The social observation … is sharp-sighted, the writing alert, the dialogue true to (awful) life. The stories tend, however, to be shapeless, to end abruptly, as though the authoress didn't know where to go from there and didn't much care, either…. But despite their brisk, modern air and their satire, these stories are not really funny any more than these modern lives are splendid. All rather sad, really. (p. 51)

James Brockway, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright James Brockway 1978; reprinted with permission), April, 1978.