Running in the Family: Chapter Notes – A Fine Romance

 The Courtship – Flaming Youth


The Courtship (p. 31 – 35)

·         Introduction to Mervyn Ondaatje and Doris Gratiaen, the parents of Michael Ondaatje

·         Mervyn Ondaatje “attends” Cambridge university while secretly living off of the money from his parents

·         To please his furious parents he becomes engaged to the well-off Kaye Roseleap

·         This surge of “good behaviour” is interrupted by the sudden engagement to Doris Gratiaen, the sister of his friend Noel

·         As his sister Stephy writes to the Roseleaps, Mervyn becomes frustrated and lonely in Kegalle while his fiancée is in Colombo

·         Doris writes to break off the engagement

·         After drunken suicide threats, the problem is patched up the next day and are to marry a year later


April 11, 1932 (p. 36)

·         The brief retelling of memories from the wedding of Mervyn and Doris

·         Driving to Kegalle they stop the car to give the Bishop a lift and he ends up driving them there (despite his terrible driving skills)


Honeymoon (p. 37 – 38)

·         A list, separated into three paragraphs, of world events coinciding with the wedding and honeymoon of Mervyn and Doris

·         The events deal primarily with natural disasters, deaths, and other unfortunate incidents, but once or twice mention issues of marriage or love among the other depressing events


Historical Relations (p. 39 – 41)

·         1920s in Ceylon – the retelling of some of the stories from the era of the author’s grandparents

·         Specifically stories from times spent in Nuwara Eliya, with the “constant parties, horse racing, the All Ceylon Tennis Tournament, and serious golf”


The War Between Men and Women (p. 42 – 43)

·         Lalla (Ondaatje’s grandmother) takes a bus home and is subjected to a stranger trying to fondle her breast, not realising that Lalla in fact had no left breast but only a sponge


Flaming Youth (p. 44 – 47)

·         The chapter focuses predominantly on the life and exploits of Francis de Saram, a friend of both Mervyn Ondaatje and Noel Gratiaen

·         The reporting of the youth of these three and their friends centers around their parties

·         Not only were they fond of sneaking onto boats for the cheap liquor, but Francis had developed the “perfect place for parties” at the rubber estate he worked at

·         Their youth was dancing and drinking until Francis lost his life in 1935 to alcoholis





Letters are found throughout the memoir but often Ondaatje weaves them into the narrative structure, allowing them to tell parts of the story, the fragmented, constructed and multi-vocal effect that this creates is one way in which the post-modern nature of this text is revealed to the reader. In this chapter, the letters represent news and its communication. The news is sometimes celebratory, e.g. “writing home a month later, [Mervyn] told his parents the good news that he had been accepted at Queen’s college” (31) or “after several modest letters about his successful academic career” (31). On other occasions this news brings disruption, e.g “It was Stephy who wrote, setting off a chain reaction in the mails, one letter going to Phyllis whose holiday plans were terminated” (33), “Doris Gratiaen wrote to break off the engagement” (35). These letters are all related to Mervyn, and because of the various effects created by the news contained in them, the audience is able to see how that reflects on his personality. Mervyn is described as often “trying to solve one problem by creating another” (33), and this is demonstrated through the motif of letters.



Engagements are a common feature only in this chapter, but they introduce the beginning of what is to be a recurring theme throughout the novel. The constant engagements, being started and stopped (and, in the case of Doris, started again) introduces a sense of fragility or instability about marriage; this is perhaps reflective of the fact that Ondaatje’s parents ultimately separated or it is perhaps indicative of the ephemeral, transient nature of magical and almost mythical impression of life that Ondaatje creates of life in the 1920’s and 1930’s in Ceylon. The presentation of these engagements – “becoming briefly engaged to a Russian countess” (32), “went out at dinnertime for a few hours and came back to announce that he had become engaged to Kaye Roseleap” (32), “came home one evening to announce that he was engaged to a Doris Gratiaen” (33) – suggest to the audience a randomness about becoming engaged, which is strange to them because marriage seems like something not to be taken lightly. When Mervyn purchases “a huge emerald engagement ring which he charged to his father’s account” (34), he comes across as reckless and unaware of consequences, suggesting that his approach to marriage (as everything else) is impulsive rather than well planned out, again revealing something not only about his character but also of the times of which he is symbolic. Finally, when Doris writes “to break off the engagement” (35) yet “the next day the problems were solved and the engagement was established once more” (35), marriage is seen as something volatile but with easy fixes. All of these ideas put forward are contrary to how the reader may perceive marriage to be, i.e. a lifelong commitment to another person that should not be taken lightly. The recurring engagements thus are significant in their development of the impression that the Ceylon of the 1920’s and 30’s was a world unlike our own.



At the start of the novel Ondaatje also foreshadows the destructive role that alcohol will eventually have on his father. Alcohol is Mervyn’s drug of choice and therefore crops up in the story whenever he is not doing as he should, e.g. “being able to offer [his parents] only champagne at eleven in the morning” (32) when they arrive to confront him about his life at Cambridge; or when he was misbehaving with his friends when “he would roll into the barracks, step out in his dress suit, inspect the guard, leap back into the car full of laughing and drunken friends and depart” (34-35) and again when he was doing something that is important, but that he may be fearful of “By the time they got to Colombo my father was very drunk and Aelian was slightly drunk” (35). This foreshadows not only Mervyn’s alcoholism but the drunken and exaggerated feel to many of the stories involving his father adds to theme of postmodernism that runs through Ondaatje’s memoir. Alcohol also figures prominently in the chapter entitled ‘Flaming Youth’ which centers around Francis de Saram, a close friend of the narrator’s father and Noel. He “had the most extreme case of alcoholism in my father’s generation” (44) and “lived on gin, tonic-water, and canned meat” (46). One of the aspects alcohol is that it plays a key role in creating the energy and life of the people at the parties they attended, in a sense this is the fuel that made their youths flame. However, Ondaatje also explores the downsides of alcohol as we know that Francis de Saram drank himself into an early grave.



Driving in ‘The Courtship’ is mostly conducted by Mervyn (or with Mervyn in the vehicle), and subsequently it expresses how repressed he feels in the home he lives in with his parents and how he yearns to be free. To stay with his friends and his fiancée, “He would drive down from his parents’ home in Kegalle to Colombo” (34) because he “had nothing to do in Kegalle” (34). There is one story in which “he was given the car and asked to go and buy some fish [..] Two days later his parents got a telegram from Trincomalee, miles away” (35) – in this the reader can see just how repressed he is in Kegalle because he takes advantage of even the most flimsy of pretexts to flee his home. The fact that when he drives to Colombo to rescue his relationship with Doris but arrives “very drunk” (35) suggests that both driving and drinking are seen as escape mechanisms for Mervyn, and add to his character development. In contrast in ‘April 11th 1932’ driving is related to the Bishop of Colombo and the wedding of Mervyn and Doris. The anonymous narrator remarks that on their trip to Kegalle they saw a car in the ditch and “it was the Bishop of Colombo who everyone knew was a terrible driver” (36). The people in the car are forced to give him a ride to the wedding, but because of space constraints the bishop ends up driving them all, and the narrator says, “We were all so squashed and terrified for the rest of the trip!” (36) Driving is significant here because adds to the humourous tone of the memoir, following on from the drunken journey to Columbo in ‘The Courtship’ which Aelian and Mervyn undertake which results in Aelian’s farcical attempt to hide all of the guns in the headquarters of the Ceylon Light Infantry in order to prevent Mervyn from killing himself. In later chapters, such as ‘The War Between Men and Women’, we see that Lalla takes a bus because “she did not own a car” (42). Perhaps, given that cars for Mervyn were always linked to freedom and escapism, the fact that Lalla does not have this opportunity might suggest something about the power she has in society as a women, and as the title suggests, the war between men and women in the Ceylonese society.



Death makes its first appearance as a motif in the ‘Honeymoon’ chapter where there are a series of contextual references to the events around the time around of Mervyn and Doris’s honeymoon., Ondaatje’s decision to include headlines such as “Lindberg’s Baby Found – A Corpse!” (37), “The 13th President of the French Republic was shot to death by a Russian” (37), and “In America, women were still trying to steal the body of Valentino from his grave” (37) is perhaps an allusion to the unhappy marriage that is to come between Mervyn and Doris. Death continues as a motif in the ‘Historical Relations’ chapter where it helps to glamorize and romanticize the past. These deaths were regarded as “casual tragedies” (40); ranging from when “Jessica almost died after being shot” (40) to “poor Wilfred Batholomeusz who had large teeth was killed while out hunting’” (40) and when “T.W. Roberts was bitten in the leg by a dog […] Later the dog was discovered to be rabid, but as T.W. had left for England nobody bothered to tell him” (41). The ironic understatement with which these deaths, especially the last, are discussed enhances the sense of humour running through the memoir at this point creating the impression that life in Ceylon at this time was carefree and light-hearted. Interestingly, however, death also seems to invoke a revitalization of people, as shown when Ondaatje writes, “Both my grandmothers lived cautiously, at least until their husbands died” (41). Here the motif may be being used by Ondaatje to convey the post-colonial theme that colonized countries can only blossom once the colonizers have left, in the same way that the grandmothers could not be free until after the deaths of the strict colonial / patriarchal figures symbolized by the grandfathers, Philip Ondaatje in particular


Rumours & Gossip

Rumours appear explicitly as a motif in the ‘Honeymoon’ chapter: “there were upsetting rumours that ladies were going to play at Wimbledon in shorts” (37) and “It was rumoured that pythons were decreasing in Africa” (37). The somewhat arbitrary nature of these facts suggests something about the arbitrary nature of the information that Ondaatje was able to uncover in his search for the truth … and perhaps also the arbitrary nature of the events that make the news, especially given the relatively superficial nature of both facts. The concern over the shorts at Wimbledon perhaps also creates the impression that people in this time period were afforded the luxury of being shallow and flippant about real problems, once again hinting that Ceylon in the 1920’s and 1930’s was a place where real-world responsibilities were suspended. The glamorization continues in the combination of death with the sports being played; “Jessica almost died after being shot by an unknown assailant while playing croquet” (40). The casual presentation of this suggests to the reader that any danger to the lives of the characters was something so natural that it was not greeted with any surprise, and it is this indifferent attitude that gives off the idea that these times were carefree and relaxed.



This motif appears principally in the ‘Historical Relations’ chapter where it is used to glamorize the 1920s and 30s in Ceylon – the era of the grandparents. Ondaatje uses the elite status of the sports portrayed to convey the allure of the times, e.g. the “All Ceylon Tennis Tournament, and serious golf” (39) or the fact that “Each morning the men departed for the club to play a game of billiards” (40). The motif of sport also suggests a unity among the wealthy Ceylonese community of which the Ondaatjes were a part as most of the sports involved were played or watched as a group. There is a enclosed or protected (almost incestuous) nature of this group is suggested by their resistance to foreign influence for when “they had to play champions from other nations” in tennis (40), the played in the lowlands rather than the highlands where “the excessive heat could be guaranteed to destroy the visitors” (40 thus creating the impression that this community was united against all foreign influence.



Nature in the novel is included to highlight setting and this is particularly evident in the chapter ‘Historical Relations’. When Ondaatje writes, “The gardens were full of cypress, rhododendrons, fox-gloves, arum-lilies and sweet pea” (40), he does so to compare the flowers to the setting around him. The flowers are symbolic of purity and beauty, and so in their inclusion Ondaatje suggests to the reader that the era of his grandparents was also one of purity and beauty. The description of nature thus adds to the thematic development of the romanticisation of the past.



The motif of dancing occurs most noticeably in the chapter entitled ‘Flaming Youth’, where there is “‘a lovely flat rock in front of the bungalow where we danced to imported songs such as ‘Moonlit Bay’ or ‘A Fine Romance’’” (46). Dancing helps to create the impression of the past as a place of magic, beauty and wonder where reality was suspended. Even the idea of reaching perfection appears, in the line  for the most part it was the tango that was perfected on that rock at Gasanawa” (46). This is significant because it represents the continuing embellishment of Ondaatje’s family’s history and the world in which they lived as her paints an idealized and romanticized impression of their past. The motif of dancing is also present in the references to Isadora Duncan (33) and the radical dances that Doris and her friend practiced in private. The references to Isadora Duncan’s expressionistic dancing style and the fact that the dance was reported as being ‘a very beautiful dance’ (34) help to reinforce the sense of the magical and mythical that runs through many of this chapters. Although dancing, too, has its unpleasant side effects when the girls discover that the gold paint they used to paint themselves with has left them with a rash. Ondaatje also makes the point that there is something special about native Sri Lankan dance when he notifies us on p.40 of Charlie Chaplin’s presence in Colombo to study Kandyan Dance.



Partly as an attempt to give the reader a feel for Sri Lanka and partly as an attempt to differentiate Sri Lanka from the markedly cold Canada from which he has journeyed, Ondaatje continually stresses the heat of Ceylon. Frequent references to the ‘hot months of April and May’ (39), the ‘lowland heat’ (39) and ‘sweat’ (39) are examples of this. Interestingly this motif not only creates the impression of Sri Lanka as somewhere very hot but it also further implies that Ondaatje does not in fact belong there as he is no longer accustomed to this heat. This motif, then, perhaps underlines the ambiguous position that Ondaatje occupies in his ‘homeland’ as both a local and a foreigner. He has obvious ties to the place but we get the impression that he left too early and has been away too long to really reconnect with this country. Perhaps this in turn implies that Ondaatje’s quest to better understand his identity is always going to be to some extent a failure and this is may also be reflected in the fact that he can never quite find the information that he is looking for regarding his parents and their life together. In some ways Ondaatje is tantalizingly close to everything he wants to obtain: he is in the country of his birth and he has access to a wealth of people who knew his parents and their stories of the past … and yet the understanding of his parents that he craves along with the opportunity to ‘rediscover his roots’ and the ability to gain a better understanding of his identity as Dutch-Sinhalese expatriate that he is in search of, remain consistently beyond his grasp. Often we get the picture of Ondaatje sitting on the edge of a circle of story tellers laughing along with the anecdotes but never able to fully, quite ‘get it.’ Heat is also used to differentiate the lives of the ‘Gasanawa group’ from the rest of the Sinhalese population when they are able to retreat to Nuwara Eliya where they need to light ‘log fires’ (40) because of the cold. The sense of luxury and indulgence this creates clearly re-emphasises the impression that Ondaatjes’ parents moved in a very elite social circle with lives far more fortunate than those lived by most of the rest of the island.



Weapons also appear sporadically as a motif and we learn that ‘rifles were packed into trunks’ for the journey to Nuwara Eliya (39) and that everyone ‘borrowed guns when going on vacation’ (40). The lack of concern with which these weapons appear to have been used once again reinforces the sense of irresponsibility (or perhaps carefree abandon) of Ceylon in the 1920’s and 30’s and this is emphasized by the fact that Aunt Christie volunteered to have an ‘Apple shot off her head by a total stranger in the circus profession’ (41) and the near fatal shooting of Jessic Cantley which is described as little more than a ‘casual tragedy’ (40).



Animals are also used by Ondaatje to create a sense of the exotic about Ceylon, for example we learn that Wilfred Batholomuesz looked like a ‘wild boar’ and there are other references to ‘carts pulled by bulls’ (40), a rabid dog (40) and ‘snakes’ (41). At other times animals are used to reinforce the sense that the Gasanawa group are an elite crowd as they attend the horse races on p.39.




Photograph of the “Irish adventure”

The image of the photograph “No one knew about this Irish adventure except an aunt who was sent a photograph of him posing slyly in uniform” (32) sticks with the reader as it displays Mervyn’s irreverent behaviour from his times while ‘attending university’. This is significant as it is the introduction to Mervyn and his adventures.



The fish that Mervyn is instructed to go and buy (“Don’t forget the fish!” (35)) is symbolic of the authority in Mervyn’s life that he must eventually deal with but chooses to avoid while he can. This exposes more of his reckless personality and reveals how he is not only uncaring about the consequences of his actions but also seemingly ignorant of them, an important development in his character.


Lalla’s Left Breast

In the ‘War Between Men and Women’ Lalla’s left breast can be seen as a symbol representing the strength of women. While the oblivious man on the bus continues to fondle Lalla she “smiled to herself” (42), knowing that “her left breast had been removed five years earlier” (43). Lalla, representing women in this context, is seen to have a secret strength that she does not exert over the men in the society


‘A Fine Romance’

A good example of inter-textuality (where references to a second text enrich the experience of the first) not only does this song give its name to the title of this collection of chapters, but it also aids in the development of Doris Gratiaen’s character and her relationship with her husband. “‘A Fine Romance’ was always my mother’s favourite song” (46), remarks Ondaatje which sounds romantic but a look at the lyrics paints quite a different picture: “We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes/ but you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes” (46). The song is meant to be about romance, yet a sense of poignancy and nostalgia is created when they realise that the song is about a love that has lost its spark. This not only re-emphasises the fragile and temporary nature of love but also creates the impression that the almost-magical world of life in the 20’s and 30’s was coming to an end. It’s position in the chapter ‘Flaming Youth’ which ends with the death of Francis de Saram (perhaps the most extreme embodiment of the carelessness of the times) reinforces the sense that this mythical era is drawing to a close. Indeed perhaps the marriage of Ondaatje’s parents can be taken as the best symbol of the ultimately doomed innocence of this period in history as reality and responsibility could not be suspended forever and their marriage, like the idealized and carefree past it represents, could not last forever.




The Fragility/Instability of Marriage

As revealed through the motif of engagements, marriage is seemingly fleeting and of little value which contrasts with the world of the reader where it is intended to be concrete and lifelong,. Many of Mervyn’s engagements are brief, and the one that does turn into marriage is broken and patched up again in short periods of time. Not only does this theme foreshadow the eventual failure of the marriage of Doris and Mervyn, but it also says reveals something about the magical or semi-mythical times impression that Ondaatje was trying to create of life in Ceylong in the 1920’s and 1930’s – there is a sense that, as he says later, people ‘did not have to grow up’ until the 1930’s and so the marriages, love-making and generally reckless behaviour of the characters that populate the stories posses a child-like naivete and innocence that makes them seem attractive. This in turn creates a sense of poignancy at points in the memoir as it becomes clear that, eventually, this innocence was lost and the world is perhaps a sadder place for this.


The contrast between Francis de Saram and H– in ‘Flaming Youth’ also represents the temporary and fleeting nature of love and relationships. Ondaatje writes, “While he crawled around on his hands and knees, H– consoled Francis’ wife as well as he could “and took as much as he could get”” (44). The way the characters are so cavalier with love and with marriage shows that it does not seem to be taken seriously within that community. At the close of the chapter, upon the death of Francis, it is also noted that “what seemed to follow was a rash of marriages” (47) which again suggests that the generation of Ondaatje’s parents treated love with an element of negligence, and this may in turn foreshadow the eventual disintegration of the marriage of Doris and Mervyn.


Post-Colonialism and the Contrast Between the East and West

In ‘The Courtship’ the West is glamorized by Ondaatje in his descriptions of Mervyn’s his university experiences of “high living” (32) in comparison to the East, where he “had nothing to do” (34) and was “bored and frantic” (35). The West’s increased sophistication seems to be alluring to Mervyn’s generation perhaps because of the freedom it provides as the audience understands that he feels extremely repressed while living with his parents in the East. The other notable mention of West is Isadora Duncan’s influence on the dancing of Doris Gratiaen and Dorothy Clementi-Smith. There is no mention of any Eastern dancers influencing the girls, and reading this text from a post-colonial perspective we can see how the dominant cultural influences were colonial and that the ‘voice’ of ‘local’ or traditional influences cannot be heard above the din of Western culture. In contrast in ‘Honeymoon’ the West and the East are presented as equally troubled through the use of headlines outlining unfortunate events from both the West (death of child/President, theft of dead bodies) and the East (monsoons, hunger strikes, fighting in Manchuria), perhaps implying that, despite their perceived differences, these parts of the world have more in common than we might initially think. It is important to notice that where the East is mentioned, it is almost always with reference to Western figures of influence (e.g. Charlie Chaplin), and through this Ondaatje may be suggesting that the West still has an element of control or power over the East because of its influence.


This trend away from the West is continued in ‘Historical Relations’ where there is a clear preference for Eastern values and Eastern people to the Westerners. Ondaatje writes, “There was a large social gap between this circle and the Europeans and English who were never part of the Ceylonese community. The English were seen as transients, snobs and racists, and were quite separate from those who had intermarried” (41), and in doing so he promotes the Easterners in the community. This is significant because it shows that the generation of Ondaatje’s grandparents was more interested in Eastern principles (ones that were more community- and family- oriented) as opposed to the generation of Ondaatje’s parents, who craved the free and idealistic West. The contrasting attitudes to the West may represent something of the confusion of the Ceylonese themselves … having been colonized by many different nations that have subsequently inter-married and married with the local Sinhalese and Tamil population it is perhaps not surprising that it is no longer clear where their loyalties should lie. This may perhaps be another feature used to make this group of people seem so unique.


Post-Modernism, intertextuality and the impossibility of obtaining objective truth

The idea that this text (and all texts) are constructions which can only give us a version of the truth is reinforced in the chapter ‘April 11th 1932’ when the unnamed narrator begins, “I remember the wedding…” (36) but continues to only talk about their trip to Kegalle and how scared they ended up being as a result of the bishop’s driving. The fact that the narrator remains unnamed adds an air of unreliability to the piece and the fact that we are not given any concrete details about the wedding itself suggests not only how different people will give vastly differing accounts of the salient points of an event but also something of the frustration that Ondaatje felt when trying to piece together the history of his parents’ past. The presentation of the facts in the ‘Honeymoon’ chapter is given instead of any detail about the actual honeymoon of Ondaatje’s parents. This is ironic because while the memoir is meant to be exploring the relationships of the family, we are given only a list of synchronous but unrelated events. This perhaps suggests the moments of fruitlessness in Ondaatje’s search for details about his parents’ past where he couldn’t actually find out anything that he wanted and was instead confronted by a barrage of useless and almost irrelevant facts . This sense that Ondaatje is unable to get to the truth he is seeking in turn reinforces the sense of postmodernism that runs through the memoir, a feeling that is emphasized in particular by the fact that the details we received about Wimbledon and pythons remain only rumours.


Romanticisation of the Past

‘Historical Relations’ is the first chapter where we really see the development of the world of Ondaatje’s grandparents and their generation. Descriptions such as “They danced in large living rooms to the music of a Bijou-Moutrie piano while the log fires crackled in every room” (40) and “on quiet evenings [they] read books on the moonlit porch” (40), are clearly idealised. Notably his focus is solely on the wealthy Ceylonese community of which his grandparents were a part and hence a sense of prosperity and community pervade the work. His romanticisation of the past is his way of portraying the golden days of both Ceylon and his grandparents. ‘Flaming Youth’ is also a key chapter in which Ondaatje romanticizes the past. However, in putting forward the idea that everything was full of life and energy – “People’s memories about Gasanawa, even today, are mythic” (46) – Ondaatje contrasts it with the end of the era and the depression following with “The waste of youth. Burned purposelessness.” (47) This theme, developed so strongly in the era of the grandparents, has continued into the next generation with stronger passion and intensity only to be suddenly extinguished. The contrast between the mythic past and depressing present may be used by Ondaatje to further romanticize the past as, like a burnt out candle, there was a brilliance to it that we can no longer regain.


“The War Between Men and Women”

The conflict between men and women in the Ceylonese community is most evident in the chapter of the same title. While other passengers on the bus look upon Lalla with a degree of disgust, she has very little reaction and seems to take comfort in the fact that she knows more than the man realises. This strength displayed in Lalla suggests a deeper, hidden strength in women everywhere another example of which can be seen particularly in the character of Doris. Reading this text from a feminist perspective reveals a considerable degree of strength, fortitude, resilience and common sense among the women that many of the men lack, an insight perhaps afford to Ondaatje as a result of the break up of his parents’ marriage and the time he spent living with his mother after the divorce.




Mervyn Ondaatje

Mervyn and the exploits of his youth are the main focus of this section, where we are introduced to him, his family, and his irreverent personality. His audacious nature is displayed right from the start of the chapter, where his choice to live the secret high-life is only the start of his escapades. He comes across as reckless, becoming “briefly engaged to a Russian countess” (32), joining the army fighting in Ireland during a summer holiday and announcing after only “a few hours” that he “had become engaged to Kaye Roseleap” (34). While these actions may be depicted by Onddatje at times as the exploits of a lovable rogue and their apparent lack of malice may lend them a sort of naïve charm, it is clear that Mervyn’s recklessness often borders on selfishness and this perhaps also foreshadows his later more destructive behaviour and the effect this has on his relationship with Doris in the rest of the memoir. A clear example of Mervyn’s reckless and selfish side can be see when only “two weeks after he arrived in Ceylon, [he] came home one evening to announce that he was engaged to a Doris Gratiaen” (33) and was not even planning to write to his old fiancée so instead has his sister do the deed for him. This sense of selfishness is reinforced by the anecdote in ‘Flaming Youth’ where a diary entry from an unknown writer tells us that one night Mervyn burst into someone’s bedroom telling him that there was a party in Gasanawa that he had to get dressed for, as a result “Vernon went off to find his clothes and returned to find Mervyn asleep in his bed. He couldn’t be moved. You see he just needed a place to sleep.” (45)


Mervyn’s impulsiveness is also demonstrated when he buys Doris the emerald engagement ring. Instead of considering how he would pay for the ring, he simply buys it and charges it to his father’s account. Mervyn’s “father refused to pay and my father [Mervyn] threatened to shoot himself.” (34) This idea of wanting to commit suicide is brought up again when Doris breaks off the engagement.


Doris Gratiaen

While not featured as prominently as her husband, Doris Gratiaen is nonetheless highly significant. Despite the fact that Mervyn seems so self-centered in his relationships, not even bothering to break off old ones when he comes across the new, it is Doris herself who “wrote to break off [their] engagement” (35) an action which suggests an both an element of control in their relationship and how strong-minded Doris is, perhaps this once again foreshadows the fact that she will eventually leave Mervyn for good. In addition, Doris’s attempt to imitate the modern and impressionist dance style of Isadora Duncan reinforces the magical and mythical impression created of the times in which she was living although the fact that the day after her performance she was “covered in a terrible red rash” may in turn suggest that a price will ultimately have to be portrayed for the idyllic life that these characters currently appear to be living.


Noel Gratiaen

He seems to be included in this chapter as a supporting figure of Mervyn; his exploits have the same rashness and impulsiveness about them and he is one to go “one step further” (33). Ondaatje reinforces the sense of wild and carefree nature of the times by suggesting that Mervyn’s impulsive and reckless behaviour is actually commonplace at the time.


Philip Ondaatje

Philip is a figure opposite to that of Noel. His seriousness and his fury about Mervyn’s actions, which at one point even “erupted” into argument with his son, serve to contrast with Mervyn’s character and therefore throw Mervyn’s excesses into even sharper relief. Mervyn’s inability or unwillingness to follow his parents’ guidance my also represent his character’s lack of respect for authority.


Lalla Gratiaen

Lalla is a woman who “blossomed” (41) especially after the death of her husband, and was known to “persuade all those she met into chaos” (41). This description portrays her as a character with strength and influence as well as one who is also exuberantly irreverent. After her encounter with the man on the bus who groped her, Lalla “smiled to herself” (42) indicating her nonchalance and her confidence as she does not appear to feel the need to react. Instead she enjoys with a secret satisfaction the fact that she has ‘got one over’ on the man and the reader respects her for that, perhaps echoing Ondaatje’s own subsequent closeness to her. Indeed, it is Lalla, Ondaatje’s maternal grandmother, who best sums up the mood that Ondaatje creates of the 1920’s, saying the twenties were “so whimsical, so busy – that we were always tired” (41). The grandparents lived extravagant lives in extravagant times which in turn led to the extravagant lives of their children in times where the same luxuries could not be afforded, hence leading to the tragedies of some of the central figures in Ondaatje’s life.


Francis de Saram

Francis is described in ‘Flaming Youth’ as the “first to drink himself into the grave” (44). He is included to provide a foil to Mervyn’s character as Francis is more outlandish and over the top than even he, showing how Mervyn is not the worst of the characters of his generation. Francis is a romanticized symbol of the energy of the “flaming youth” of his generation; his light burned perhaps brightest of all, but at the same time was quickly extinguished.


The Community

The characters presented throughout this section are numerous and are often not named individually. Instead, In ‘Historical Relations’ Ondaatje chooses to talk about “the era of grandparents” (41) and by delegating a single sentence or two to each character no character stands out as more important than the others. Instead they come together as a group to suggest the ‘whimsical’ tone of the times and the sense that a tightly knit community existed among the wealthy Ceylonese. However, the reader is bombarded with a series of names, making the book more personal while at the same time created a sense of randomness and disconnection. This is particularly evident in lists such as when “people like the van Langenbergs, the Vernon Dickmans, the Henry de Mels and the Philip Ondaatjes were there” (40) or in “They were all there. Piggford of the police, Paynter the painter, the Finnellis who were Baptist missionaries” (41). The importance of surrounding yourself with people was very apparent in Nuwara Eliya in the 1920s, and as such we see both why all the characters are so close to each other and this irony in turn highlights in the distance that would later exist between Ondaatje’s mother and father.



Narrative Style

‘The Courtship’ is written in a third person narrative voice where Ondaatje retells stories from the youth of his parents. We can already begin to see the limitations on the narrator’s knowledge in the line, “I am not sure how long [Mervyn] had known my mother before the engagement” (33) and this foreshadows the difficult that Ondaatje faced when trying to piece together information about his parents’ past and reinforces the post-modern nature of the text as a reconstruction of the past rather than a record.


In contrast ‘April 11th 1932’ is told completely from the perspective of an unnamed character and his or her memory of the wedding. This reinforces the fact that Ondaatje is writing this memoir in the present in an attempt to reconstruct the past by gathering anecdotes from those around him and the sense that this is a picture of the past pieced together from disparate sources of information is enhanced by the inclusion of fragments from other texts, memories or anecdotes, for example the diary entry in ‘Flaming Youth’ which tells of Mervyn stealing Vernon’s bed for the night. The recounting of these memories also makes the memoir more personal while reinforcing the potentially post-modern sense of unreliability that pervades the text.


The story about a Bishop who is a terrible driver, driving a car full of terrified guests to a wedding at which he is going to officiate after just having crashed his car is also a good example of Ondaatje’s use of humour, which is present throughout the text. The playful feel that this creates helps reinforce the sense of whimsicality of 1920’s / 30’s Ceylon and serves to cast some of Mervyn’s outrageous escapades in a more flattering light. Overall the use of humour (also often noticeable in the punning or witty titles to each chapter) creates a sense of fond indulgence towards these characters and the time in which they lived which perhaps in turn reflects Ondaatje’s fondness for the characters that he is resurrecting and this period of history that he was never able to experience.


The ‘Honeymoon’ chapter comprises of a list of events that were at the time very current. There is an irony here in that the newspaper style feel of the headlines suggest a sense of objectivity while simultaneously preventing the reader / Ondaatje from learning about the actual truth that he is interested in, that is the details of his parents’ wedding and honeymoon.


There is a non-chronological structure to this section as we jump back and forth between Ondaatje’s account of the relationship between his father and mother and his attempts to recreate the earlier ‘era of the grandparents’ as well as the more recent story about Lalla on the bus. Most stories serve to develop the sense of Mervyn’s character or the world in which he lived although some seem tangential, e.g. ‘April 11th 1932’ and ‘Honeymoon’. The fact that these sections do not directly explore the relationship between Doris and Mervyn reinforces the sense we get that in his attempts to write this memoir Ondaatje was confronted by a paucity of information and that as a result information had to be extracted from haphazardly from various sources from all over the island. It also helps to reinforce the impression created that this memoir is a ‘gesture’ rather than a factually faithful ‘portrait’ of the events that happened.


There is a broad pattern of alternation between longer chapters filled with many events and shorter chapters in which only one story is examined in detail, perhaps reflecting the balance between providing information and creating a ‘feel’ for the Ceylon in the 20’s and 30’s through the use of specific and colourful anecdotes.


Another notable aspect of his narrative style is the level of precision and attention to detail that Ondaatje provides about some of the most frivolous things, for example the fact that Francis de Saram was holding a fish when he died (47). Ondaatje’s inclusion of precise but arbitrary and almost irrelevant details helps to create the personal and anecdotal feel of the memoir, as if Ondaatje is on a personal journey of discovery about a past that is specific to him and his family and as such it does not matter if a fact is ‘really important’ as long as it has some value to him. In addition, the arbitrary nature of some of the details may also convey something of the unpredictability of memory reflecting the way in which we sometimes remember things of negligible significance.



Relation of this Section to the Whole:

The opening chapters of the memoir describe Ondaatje’s reasons for writing the text and his experiences upon first returning to Ceylon. This section, in contrast, begins to explore the history of his family and here begins the unraveling of the past, hence the heavy emphasis on his father with some background on his mother.


Chapters such as ‘Historical Relations’ introduce the reader to the times and events of his grandparents, and in doing so effectively create an impression of the carefree and almost ‘mythical’ youth that his parents would have experienced while chapters such as ‘The War Between Men and Women’ explore the character of Lalla in greater detail. Lalla seems to be particularly significant for Ondaatje as she seems to be the most iconic representation of the Ceylonese world of the 20’s and 30’s that he was trying to recreate.


This section ends, however, with the death of Francis de Saram and the ‘rash of marriages’ that followed which seems to be indicative of the end of this almost mythical period of time and perhaps foreshadows the eventual divorce between Doris and Mervyn.