I finished, over the weekend, the five-volume Cazalet Chronicle by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
I am sorry that it had to end. I’ve been gripped for two months, maybe more, by the loves, losses, infidelities, and conversations of the Cazalets. The first book begins just before the Second World War and the last one ends at the end of 1958.
You can read about Elizabeth Jane Howard here. Better yet, you can read her memoir, Slipstream.
What is it about multi-generational family sagas that is so engrossing? The best that I can say about the Cazelet Chronicle is that it provided “companionable monotony”. Throughout the five novels, people have the same conversations, repress the same issues, obsess about dinner party menus and seating arrangements. Endless hot-water bottles are filled for sleeping in cold, damp houses; thousands of cups of tea prepared.
Some of the characters who were funny, engaged, interesting children retain those characteristics as they become adults. Others grow into adulthood having shed themselves of anything interesting. Some characters disappear and we never do get a satisfactory resolution of their lives. Other lives get tied up a little too neatly. But people pretty much are who they are throughout all the books. No great transformations; no moments of life-changing insight.
I’m not really selling it here. I loved these books. I cared about the people and I will reread some day.
The Chronicle is an illustration, in novel form, of a statement made by a Zen master (can’t find a reference–I will continue to look) to his students suffering in zazen:
“The problems that are with you now will be with you for the rest of your life.”