Classics That Are Not Quite Classics: “The Bloater,” by Rosemary Tonks

 I  heard that the English poet Rosemary Tonks’s 1968 novel, The Bloater, is a neglected classic. 

I love ’60s novels! And a blurb by Michael Hoffman on the cover of the New Directions edition seduced me:  “Writing like this – a bit of Rhys, a bit of Knut Hamsun, a bit of Wyndham Lewis, a bit of Muriel Spark, overlaying the everlasting Shakespeare/Austen/Bronte/George Eliot marriage drama – is far too beautiful and accomplished to be kept on the shelf.”

Though I get it – the writing is fun and edgy, if a bit haphazard – I was too irritated by the narrator’s voice to enjoy it whole-heartedly.   Min is a narcissistic, mean-spirited sound engineer at the BBC.  She is married, but has suitors, among them an opera singer she nicknames “the Bloater” (a swelled, salted herring – we would visualize this better if we were English). 

Min is married to George, who does something very quiet at the British Museum, but she doesn’t seem to like men much.  She teases her male friends, and is vicious to the Bloater.  The only character she seems to relate to is Jenny, a friend and colleague whom she admires for her mod 1960s mien. 

Here is one of her typical fashion reports about Jenny. 

Today she is very got up; a tight, sexy green jersey, a leather skirt in a very  elegant brown with scruffy patches to prove it’s real, things on her wrists which she shakes about too quickly for me to focus, and black hair combed down to her shoulders and then fixed in position with sparkling glue pressed on.

Min is at her best with Jenny.  They go to sordid pubs and discuss men, and also talk endlessly on the phone about men.  Jenny falls in love with “the Guitar,”  a sexy rock musician, and, needless to say,  Min wishes her opera singer were like him.  Perhaps Min is more rock-and-roll than opera, though she does love opera.

So where is this going?  At the end, she falls in love, quite abruptly, and though we are happy for her, we wished we’d seen more of the charming Min earlier in the book.  I found myself begrudging Tonks her neat turns of phrase because the narrator was so cold.

This may be a classic for some, but not for me.

2 thoughts on “Classics That Are Not Quite Classics: “The Bloater,” by Rosemary Tonks”

Leave a Reply