12 APRIL 1975, Page 14

Breaking up

Angela Huth

Divorce The American Experience Joseph Epstein (Jonathan Cape f4.95) In 1915 an elite little band of 1,050 British married couples braced themselves for the unfamiliar ceremony of divorce. But no area is safe from inflation and in 1972 while some 480,000 people swore, in the act of marriage, to stick together for better or worse, 124,000 others, who had not reckoned how bad the worse could be, went through with the opposing celebration of divorce. Which leads one to conclude that divorce is now established as a booming British way of life, an escape route with which, unhappily, we are all too familiar. It is the unquestionable norm to be surrounded by people who have either been through it, are going through it, or are, at least — if only as the wildest fancy — contemplating it. So I was surprised to find Joseph Epstein's book Divorce had had been given the sub-title 'The American Experience.' "Divorce is a subject," he writes in his preface, "rich in chaos, squalor and mean feeling," and there he goes hugging the insalubrious subject with some jealousy to his American bosom. In three hundred and eighteen pages of his ruminations upon the rich squalor, I could find only one difference between the American 'experience' and the British 'experience' (or indeed the 'experience' of any Western country in which divorce is as unsurprising as marriage) — that is, alimony. In America, divorce is much more expensive. There, vast alimony is the compensation prize: a middle-class man earning $30,000 a year "could just barely afford a divorce." Apart from that, in the many fields of generalisation into which Mr Epstein enthusiastically launches himself, there seem to be no differences there from here. Indeed, why should there be? It's hardly surprising that Mrs Jones in San Francisco, whose husband has deserted her for the local blonde, should have much in common with Mrs Jones in Dibden Purlieu whose marriage is in a similar mess. However, presuming that the glooms of break-up are peculiar to the inhabitants of the United States, Mr Epstein then serves them up in some tantalising slices: 'The Most Detestable of Permitted Things,' A State of Tragic Tension,' 'The Bedroom Olympiad,' The Cost of Discord,' run some of his chapter headings. And at once a suspicion of foreboding descends: somehow this omnibus of bad times is going to be dreadfully familiar, a compilation of things we've read so many times before. Also, right from the start, it's impossible to help noticing Mr Epstein's disinclination to let any particle of the squalid subject slip briefly through his net: he is a master at spinning out the obvious. In 'The Cost of Discord,' for instance, we learn that "clothing and feeding are probably the least of the expenses of bringing up children . . ." and he carries on for twenty-four lines to describe what he means by this, just in case we have missed the point. Now any writer can ask his reader to put up with long-windedness if he is enlightening or amusing, but to dim the pages with observations that are positively commonplace seems to me the height of indulgence. "Divorce has changed the nature of the institution of marriage." "Divorce is perhaps above all an uprooting experience." What, I wondered, had inspired Mr Epstein to write a whole book of such revelations? Ahl The answer lies in the preface — most unsurprising of all unsurprising facts in the book, perhaps: Mr Epstein is himself a divorced man — "A

graduate, so to say." •He speaks from real experience: he has need to coMmunicate that "growthful" experience. And to sear us a little with What It's Actually Like, he entertains us to a few of his own memories. The print narrows on the page, he slips into the third person to warn us of the blow: You are standing in a puddle and there is no solace in having touched the bottom . . . The feelings rolling within you are too many and too complicated to be sorted out with any clarity. . .


You tat in a comfortable wing-chair facing the couch'1.04 on which sat your wife and your two sons, then aged seven and eight-and-a-half. The boys had been callled A

into the living room to be told their parents were no longer able to live together and consequently they had decided to divorce . . What you felt, what weighed you down, was a staggering sense of failure. It was one thing to bollix your own life, but now, in the bewildered looks in your sons' eyes, you saw that this time around you would not be the only one paying for your mistakes, you were bringing others dotvn with you ...

As an admirer of understatement in adversity I blushed at these reminiscences. They were

included for a good enough reason: Mr Epstein explains he didn't want to write yet another book of tragic case-histories — "Katherine, an airline stewardess" — which in such an anthology quickly become a mere statistic. But boldly relying on his own case-history alone for a bit of atmosphere, Mr Epstein fails in his evocation. The memories, broken up like snapshots among the pages, glitter with a grave self-pity: they do nothing to convey "the dreary hum of daily (married) life" that leads so often to divorce.

Perhaps this is in part due to that relentless American solemnity when it comes to so dicey a subject as divorce. But even in the depths of marital break-ups there are light moments, for heaven's sake: it would have been rewarding to have had a few of them added to the list of pains and tragic wounds. (In case Mr Epstein doesn't believe me, let me provide him with one such moment from an English 'experience.' My first husband, during the process of our divorce, was having some difficulty in arranging a co-re spondant. It was to be one of those gentlemanly set-up affairs. He didn't fancy taking a tart out to dinner before the platonic night, and none of our friends' wives seemed keen to help out. Finally, in desperation, he suggested I should disguise myself in my hair-piece for the night.

Much mirth all round. A most engaging idea, I thought, though I didn't have quite the courage to go through with it. Wrote a TV play about it, instead, in which the husband and wife-corespondant, naturally, think better about the divorce in the middle of the night . ..) Having started out on his fat collection of unamazing revelations, Mr Epstein is at least consistent. He concludes with no surprises, in order not to shake us. "With divorce, The Dream of Family is Shattered," he writes in his epilogue, "often turned into a terrible night mare." Divorced, undivorced, we can't but agree with him. We can go along with him, too, when he points out that "marriage today is nothing more than a possibility" and, finally, "Good marriages could well become rarest works of art." Of course, divorce is the probability: and there's no reason to suppose this unhappy fact is likely to change. Mr Epstein's book may have helped to exorcise his own nightmare. For therapy — or enlightenment — on a larger scale, it is no medicine. The

skilful assembling of familiar quandries has the built-in danger of an abundance of sad agreement with the writer. And too much agreement with the obvious is inclined to send the reader into a state of drowsy numbness — even the divorced reader, whose 'identifying', it should never be supposed, is any guarantee to total interest in the general problem of the whole nightmare subject.

Angela Huth, the novelist, has most recently written Sun Child.