The Pattern in the Carpet

Margaret Drabble readily admits that The Pattern in the Carpet is an eccentric hybrid of a book, a mix of personal memoir and a history of the jigsaw puzzle. When her husband, biographer Michael Holroyd, was fighting advanced cancer, she found she could stave off depression and panic by passing “a painless hour or two, assembling little pieces of cardboard into a preordained pattern, and thus regain an illusion of control.”

So taken was she with the “innocent soothing relief” to be found in jigsaw puzzles that she decided to write a brief history. But, unlike the puzzles themselves, with their tidy borders and preset patterns and the “safety, of knowing that all the pieces will fit together in the end,” her book sprawled, growing to address childhood memories and issues of “authenticity and family and folk memory.” She writes, “[O]f course I have made things difficult for myself by straying out of my frame and finding new pieces as I go along. This is not the book I meant to write.”

It may not be the book she meant to write, but it is certain to attract a wider audience than a straightforward history of an activity that many associate with nurseries or nursing homes. A gifted writer can make almost any subject compelling — think of John McPhee on geology. But puzzles are a real challenge. What kept me reading The Pattern in the Carpet was not Drabble’s somewhat rambling, freeform discussion of the interplay between tapestries, mosaics, jigsaws, and board games. Far more interesting are the glimpses of Drabble’s early years in East Hardwick and Sheffield, England, in the 1940s, her vivid portrait of her Auntie Phyl, with whom she associates jigsaw puzzles and much that was pleasurable in a childhood marred by depressive parents and her own tendency toward melancholy, and such offbeat personal tidbits as her admission to having “spent as much on dentistry as Martin Amis.”

Part of the allure of puzzles for Drabble is the relief afforded by “hours of freedom from words.” Now that she’s sworn off fiction because she’s afraid of repeating herself, Drabble admits with surprising vehemence to feeling oppressed by writing, which she calls “an illness. A chronic, incurable illness. I caught it by default when I was 21, and I often wish I hadn’t. It seemed to start off as therapy, but it became the illness that it set out to cure.”

This, from the author of 17 novels, many centering on women seeking a meaningful balance between family and career, beginning with A Summer Birdcage (1963) and including The Needle’s Eye (1972), The Ice Age (1977), The Middle Ground (1980), and The Peppered Moth (2001), her most autobiographical work before this book. Drabble also spent years editing The Oxford Companion to English Literature, a labor that no doubt contributed to her being named a Dame of the British Empire in 2008.

Drabble emphasizes the contrast between the daunting open-endedness of fiction versus the comforting finiteness of puzzles, which “can’t be done badly. Slowly, but not badly. All one needs is patience.” In distinction, “The novel is formless and frameless. It has no blueprint, no pattern, no edges. At the end of a day’s work on a novel, you may feel that you have achieved something worse than a lack of progress. You may have ruined what went before. You may have sunk into banality or incoherence.”

The Pattern in the Carpet doesn’t sink into banality or incoherence, but it does wander where some readers may choose not to follow — including discussions of changing concepts of childhood, games, and the pastoral, and digressions on three British writers — John Clare, Alison Uttley, and Robert Southey — whose names are unlikely to resonate with American readers.

More interesting are some of the philosophical issues raised by puzzles. Drabble notes that Georges Perec’s classic jigsaw novel, La Vie: Mode d’Emploi, “uses the jigsaw as a central metaphor for the tragic futility of human endeavour and the tedium of existence….” She herself wonders intriguingly, “Do I believe in the jigsaw model of the universe, or do I believe in the open ending, the ever evolving and ever undetermined future, the future with pieces that even the physicists cannot number?”

Jigsaw puzzles were originally educational rather than recreational, first commercialized in the late 18th century by a British bookseller named John Spilsbury, who marketed “dissected maps,” which were a learning tool especially popular with royalty. The word jigsaw is a relatively recent coinage, from the late 19th century, derived from the cutting tool also known as the fretsaw — a word which in my opinion more aptly captures the mounting anxiety that hits as you near completion of a large puzzle and fret that some pieces may be missing.

Drabble does not mention the disproportionate sense of accomplishment and psychological satisfaction that comes from snapping in the last piece of a puzzle — the sense of Gestalt — although puzzles have most definitely been a positive throughout her life.

This is in large part because of her Auntie Phyl. Phyllis Bloor was her mother’s maiden younger sister, a schoolteacher who ran a bread-and-breakfast in Drabble’s grandparents’ Georgian farmhouse on the Great North Road in Yorkshire. “With my mother, it was nearly impossible to do anything right; with my aunt, it was quite hard to do anything wrong,” Drabble writes, revealing — like Doris Lessing in her recent memoir Alfred and Emily — that time doesn’t necessarily heal childhood wounds. But jigsaws, Drabble notes, “are a useful antidote to anger.”

After reading The Pattern in the Carpet, I was not struck by an urge to tackle what was touted on a BBC 4 radio program as the World’s Most Difficult Puzzle — the 1964 Springbok edition of Jackson Pollock’s Convergence. But I did check out the puzzle offerings in my local stationery store: lots of lighthouses and Impressionist paintings. As Drabble asserts, reassembling a painting that’s been fragmented into hundreds of pieces is a great way to become intimate with an artist’s strokes. Maybe on my next rainy vacation.