If State of Change were a television programme it would be a prime time BBC Four flagship show, starring a big British name who wanted to prove their acting chops after a successful BBC One cult series. It would have the critics salivating before they’d even seen the preview tapes while, glass of Pinot Noir in hand, the Twitterati would be scratching its head hoping someone will admit to not understanding – or worse – liking – this very well crafted but odd programme – before they have to hint in 140 characters that they would rather be watching EastEnders.
Penelope Gilliatt’s A State of Change, first published in 1967, is stylish and sleek; it’s also sparse and ephemeral. It feels both dense and lightweight. There is little plot; this is a novel driven by cleverly crafted dialogue, witty bon mots and sharp observations. It reads like a Pinter or a Beckett play – still, yet restless, superficially devoid of meaning, but with each word creaking under the weight of its significance. Gilliatt was once a big literary name: if she were alive today, she would most likely have been among the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s shortlist. She was a hugely versatile writer with a massive brain – according to the lovely introduction to this (badly subbed) Capuchin Classic edition written by the brilliant Ali Smith, Gilliatt was believed to have had a higher IQ than Eistein. She was a journalist and film critic, most notably for The Observer and The New Yorker and she wrote short stories and novels, she even wrote an opera libretto.
She is best remembered best for her Oscar-nominated screenplay for John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. Sadly, Sunday Bloody Sunday aside, Gilliatt is now rather forgotten, her books mostly out of print. She’s probably more remembered for once being married to grumpy old playwright John Osborne. Reading A State of Change it’s easy to see why she has fallen out of favour with modern day literary lovers. It feels very much of its time, but not in that rather twee, rose-tinted way that we seem to prefer our 20th century novels to be. There’s no gripping plot, terrible secret or big reveal. It can be bewildering as characters drift in and out of half-remembered conversations. There are time shifts and sudden dramatic changes that unfold behind the scenes that we, the reader, are never party to. As Ali Smith explains in the introduction, one of Gilliatt’s literary quirks was a “mode of unexplaining”, influenced by the ambiguity of director Jean Renoir’s films.
A State of Change revolves around Kakia who leaves her native Poland after the war for drab, war-damaged London where she meets two friends, Don and Harry who she falls in love with, one after the other. The three of them stay close friends over the years, despite the obvious difficulties. There’s no mud-slinging or 4am whisky-fuelled confessions. We’re never told how each character feels; we are made to draw our own conclusions from their actions and interactions. This seeming randomness, this way of writing that not only reflects real life but also celebrates the beauty of writing beyond a structured beginning, middle and end, is out of step in a world where we demand absolute transparency in everything. But Giliatt deserves a better reception from the 21st century.
A State of Change isn’t a warm book, it’s frosty but fascinating, like a glamorous aloof friend ,and it’s a novel worth digging out if you’re a fan of words and graceful writing.
by Suzanne Elliott