Penelope Gilliatt Gilliatt, Penelope (Vol. 13) - Essay

Penelope Ann Douglass Conner


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gilliatt, Penelope 1932–

A British novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter, Gilliatt is perhaps best known as a film and drama critic. Her fiction is noted for its wit, its skillful dialogue, and its cast of clearly drawn and memorable characters. Gilliatt recently left her position as a film critic and writer for The New Yorker, a magazine with which she had been affiliated for many years. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Catherine Petroski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Splendid Lives is generally unified by the advanced years of its stories' pivotal characters, who have led lives both very and not so splendid. Because many of these people lie at certain strata peculiar to English society, Americans reading the book will be reminded of how differently the English look upon society as a whole and their respective places in it. The tone of the stories is not entirely sympathetic or positive, though moments of laughter are to be found everywhere in Gilliatt's stories. Old age is anatomized, but held at arm's length, with the result that we have somewhat clinical appraisals of the characters' predicaments.

The predicaments found in Splendid Lives are often far from dire…. The title story depicts a cousin of Queen Victoria, a ninety-two-year-old retired bishop whose main concern is how to get his prize race horse back on feed. One notable detail about the collection is the appearance of equine images in nearly every story, and those images relate directly to the characters' social status.

But then we have "A Lovely Bit of Wood," with its somber picture of working-class retirement, and "Catering," rendering the tedium and hopelessness of lower-class family life. "Iron Larks" ought to become a definitive statement on how oblivious the academy can be. "Phone-In" is the collection's most adventurous story in terms of form, and in tone the most playful. (pp. 299-300)


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William Boyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There's a] looseness, an almost decadent lack of direction, in Penelope Gilliatt's The Cutting Edge. The narrative hovers around the affection between two often-separated brothers—Benedick and Peregrine, a musician and a writer, respectively down and out in Istanbul and Positano—who are eventually reunited in the compliant arms of Benedick's ex-wife. There's an air of plundered notebooks about the desperately sparkling conversation and the redundant cast of eccentric minor characters, who look suspiciously like rejects from Miss Gilliatt's latest collection of short stories, Splendid Lives. At one point she says conversation is like 'the sound of souls buzzing in a glass prison of a world which they cannot escape but still try to understand'. This is all very well, but the chat has to be fairly remarkable if it's to continue to sustain our interest: 'We are the trustees of no culture but our own,' and so on. It's a shame, because Miss Gilliatt's laconic style occasionally creates moments of accurate poignancy which are worth pages of brittle dialogue and recycled aperçus. (p. 554)

William Boyd, in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 27, 1978.

Eve Zibart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Penelope Gilliatt, the acerbic British movie critic for the New Yorker …, has produced a "novel" [The Cutting Edge] by stringing together a series of just the sort of dry martini, upper-crust and stiff-upper-lip character sketches the New Yorker is famous for. And like a long bout with dry martinis, it may be fun, but ultimately there's very little nourishment in a handful of olives….

The language of the book is determinedly literary, and often extremely effective; but it is most effective when most succinct. There are quick, glittering sentences ("He began to live in a chill delirium of work") and passages of extraordinary humor, as when Peregrine, who speaks little Italian, attempts to explain to his housekeeper in Positano that he is writing a play in poetry about a homosexual and instead informs her that he is composing a tragedy about spinach.

Gilliatt is keen to follow through with her investigation of "emotional links," etc. She loads the brothers down with a mirror image—another pair of siblings, these a set of twins, their illegitimate younger half-brothers. She then has Peregrine and Benedick change their hair and even their eye color (via contact lens) to more closely resemble one another. But three-quarters through the book having moved Benedick's ex-wife Joanna in with Peregrine, Gilliatt gives up. We know almost nothing about Joanna, little about why she left Benedick and even less about why she moves in with Peregrine. There is no ending and precious little ambiguous conclusion. When Peregrine says portentously, "I don't know whether you're in love with me because I'm not like Benedick or because I'm not like Benedick," Joanna comes back with the one natural retort in the entire book—she tells him to shut up.

Eve Zibart, "Gilliatt's Glittering Surfaces," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), January 21, 1979, p. G3.

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ambiguity] is the subject of ["The Cutting Edge"]. There exist meaningful characters … who cannot be considered clearly right or clearly wrong, and meaningful events that will always be murky, ill organized and impossible to pigeonhole.

On occasion, "The Cutting Edge" appears to be narrated from the viewpoint of ambiguity personified. The two brothers. Peregrine and Benedick Corbett, start out as Brother A. and Brother B., owing to a delay in their christening, and they continue through life closer than most married couples, one dealing with what the other will not, so that there is a kind of interlocking of functions…. They are seldom even in the same country, but their fond, witty letters leap continents and they have the rare ability to resume their relationship instantly whenever they're brought together again. Inevitably, they both love the same woman. It's while attempting to sort out the triangle that Peregrine and Benedick learn that some things are not capable of being sorted out; their lives will forever contain a number of blurred boundaries.

Penelope Gilliatt's fiction has always been brisk and economical, but never as stripped-down as it is here. She circles a scene with a quick swath of words, cutting an empty shape in the air for the reader to fill in. It's not that there are no details, but that the details describe something slightly off-center—a side character, a spot on the canvas where we...

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Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Cutting Edge is, in a word, insufferable. It is self-congratulatory in the way of novels that presume shared allegiances with the reader, without bothering to establish them. It is not entirely clear to me, moreover, what Gilliatt had in mind with her portrayals of Peregrine and Benedick; perhaps she thought she was illuminating the fallacies of a populist age through the brothers' tetchy resistance to them. Unfortunately, the two are less rugged individualists than priggish separatists and Gilliatt's fatuous elitism is made to stand in for more valid protestations. Finally, she confuses issues of taste with issues of morality, and her confusion is indicative of the novel's ultimately shallow level of preoccupation: "Values can't be measured against each other. They're incommensurable. They allow no reduction below themselves. One may prefer Dante to Shakespeare, or claret to champagne, but that ends it." Except for those of us who drink Coke. (p. 15)

Daphne Merkin, in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 29, 1979.

Helen Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Much of the action [in The Cutting Edge] is narrated through letters. The characterization of the two brothers is often achieved by comparing them in a similar situation. This disciplined treatment and the fairly remote, privileged life-style of the gentle, intellectual characters … together produce a distinctly anachronistic impression. The Cutting Edge is endearingly reminiscent. It does not feel like the 1970s. (pp. 105-6)

This is partly because, as usual, Penelope Gilliatt provides a composite social and cultural background for her characters. As in many of the stories, the generations portrayed in The Cutting Edge are clearly the product of an education, the embodiment of a definite mentality. The two brothers, suitably named Peregrine and Benedick, reflect a caste of English society at odds with their time; the self-conscious sons of an eccentric, academic father. This heightens the historical aspect of the novel. So do stately sentences like 'In the guise they presented to the world, they were as different as in their gait.'

The Cutting Edge reaches beyond the self-imposed limits, however, because its author infuses them with her own sophistication. There are some meteoric diversions. Not only is her characters' behaviour unremittingly odd, they also grow progressively more enigmatic. Hints at possible homosexuality are discreetly introduced via the brothers' young half-brothers, Tom and Sam, and via a glancing reference to Oscar Wilde. Peregrine and Benedick's attempts to elucidate each other and themselves flounder.

Unfortuantely, the inevitable fusion of the two brothers in the bedroom, (if not actually in the bed), of their shared love, Joanna, seems forced. It does not resolve anything and it mars a novel of real quality. One of the book's many attractions is its neat symmetry and it is disappointing that at the very last this should override other considerations.

The Cutting Edge shares its predecessors' wit and polish. It is a pleasure to read. But Penelope Gilliatt seems to lay so much store by control and discretion that, despite her talent, there is something faintly brittle and glacial about the performance. (p. 106)

Helen Harris, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1979), February, 1979.