A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses

Clive James

  • Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz
    Sidgwick, 464 pp, £5.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 283 98647 6

To be a really lousy writer takes energy. The average novelist remains unread not because he is bad but because he is flat. On the evidence of Princess Daisy, Judith Krantz deserves her high place in the best-seller lists. This is the second time she has been up there. The first time was for a book called Scruples, which I will probably never get around to reading. But I don’t resent the time I have put into reading Princess Daisy. As a work of art it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks, but as best-sellers go it argues for a reassuringly robust connection between fiction and the reading public. If cheap dreams get no worse than this, there will not be much for the cultural analyst to complain about. Princess Daisy is a terrible book only in the sense that it is almost totally inept. Frightening it isn’t.

In fact, it wouldn’t even be particularly boring if only Mrs Krantz could quell her artistic urge. ‘Above all,’ said Conrad, ‘to make you see.’ Mrs Krantz strains every nerve to make you see. She pops her valves in the unrelenting effort to bring it all alive. Unfortunately she has the opposite of a pictorial talent. The more detail she piles on, the less clear things become. Take the meeting of Stash and Francesca. Mrs Krantz defines Prince Alexander Vassilivitch Valensky, alias Stash, as ‘the great war hero and incomparable polo-player’. Stash is Daisy’s father. Francesca Vernon, the film star, is her mother. Francesca possesses ‘a combination of tranquillity and pure sensuality in the composition of the essential triangle of eyes and mouth’. Not just essential but well-nigh indispensable, one would have thought. Or perhaps that’s what she means.

This, however, is to quibble, because before Stash and Francesca can generate Daisy they first have to meet, and theirs is a meeting of transfigurative force, as of Apollo catching up with Daphne. The scene is Deauville, 1952. Francesca the film star, she of the pure sensuality, is a reluctant spectator at a polo game – reluctant, that is, until she claps eyes on Stash. Here is a description of her eyes, together with the remaining component of the essential triangle, namely her mouth. ‘Her black eyes were long and widely spaced, her mouth, even in repose, was made meaningful by the grace of its shape: the gentle arc of her upper lip dipped in the centre to meet the lovely pillow of her lower lip in a line that had the power of an embrace.’

And this is Stash, the great war hero and incomparable polo-player: ‘Valensky had the physical presence of a great athlete who has punished his body without pity throughout his life and the watchful, fighting eyes of a natural predator. His glance was bold and his thick brows were many shades darker than his blonde hair, cropped short and as coarse as the coat of a hastily brushed dog... His nose, broken many times, gave him the air of a roughneck... Not only did Valensky never employ unnecessary force on the bit and reins but he had been born, as some men are, with an instinct for establishing a communication between himself and his pony which made it seem as if the animal was merely an extension of his mind, rather than a beast with a will of its own.’

Dog-haired, horse-brained and with a bashed conk, Stash is too much for Francesca’s equilibrium. Her hat flies off.

‘Oh no!’ she exclaimed in dismay, but as she spoke, Stash Valensky leaned down from his pony and scooped her up in one arm. Holding her easily, across his chest, he urged his mount after the wayward hat. It had come to rest two hundred yards away, and Valensky, leaving Francesca mounted, jumped down from his saddle, picked the hat up by its ribbons and carefully replaced it on her head. The stands rang with laughter and applause.

  Francesca heard nothing of the noise the spectators made. Time, as she knew it, had stopped. By instinct, she remained silent and waiting, passive against Stash’s soaking-wet polo shirt. She could smell his sweat and it confounded her with desire. Her mouth filled with saliva. She wanted to sink her teeth into his tan neck, to bite him until she could taste his blood, to lick up the rivulets of sweat which ran down to his open collar. She wanted him to fall to the ground with her in his arms, just as he was, flushed, steaming, still breathing heavily from the game, and grind himself into her.

But this is the first of many points at which Mrs Krantz’s minus capability for evocation leaves you puzzled. How did Stash get the hat back on Francesca’s head? Did he remount, or is he just very tall? If he did remount, couldn’t that have been specified? Mrs Krantz gives you all the details you don’t need to form a mental picture, while carefully withholding those you do. Half the trick of pictorial writing is to give only the indispensable points and let the reader’s imagination do the rest. Writers who not only give the indispensable points but supply all the concrete details as well can leave you feeling bored with their brilliance – Wyndham Lewis is an outstanding example. But a writer who supplies the concrete details and leaves out the indispensable points can only exhaust you. Mrs Krantz is right to pride herself on the accuracy of her research into every department of the high life. What she says is rarely inaccurate, as far as I can tell. It is, however, almost invariably irrelevant.

Anyway, the book starts with a picture of Daisy (‘Her dark eyes, not quite black, but the colour of the innermost heart of a giant purple pansy, caught the late afternoon light and held it fast ...’) and then goes on to describe the meeting of her parents. It then goes on to tell you a lot about what her parents got up to before they met. Then it goes on to tell you about their parents. The book is continually going backwards instead of forwards, a canny insurance against the reader’s impulse to skip. At one stage I tried skipping a chapter and missed out on about a century. From the upper West Side of New York I was suddenly in the Russian Revolution. That’s where Stash gets his fiery temperament from – Russia.

‘At Chez Mahu they found that they were able only to talk of unimportant things. Stash tried to explain polo to Francesca but she scarcely listened, mesmerised as she was with the abrupt movements of his tanned hands on which light blonde hair grew, the hands of a great male animal.’ A bison? Typically, Mrs Krantz has failed to be specific at the exact moment when specificity would be a virtue. Perhaps Stash is like a horse not just in brain but in body. This would account for his tendency to view Francesca as a creature of equine provenance. ‘Francesca listened to Valensky’s low voice, which had traces of an English accent, a brutal man’s voice which seemed to vibrate with an underlying tenderness, as if he were talking to a newborn foal ...’

There is a lot more about Stash and Francesca before the reader can get to Daisy. Indeed, the writer herself might never have got to Daisy if she (i.e. Mrs Krantz) had not first wiped out Stash and Francesca. But before they can be killed, Mrs Krantz must expend about a hundred and fifty pages on various desperate attempts to bring them alive. In World War Two the incomparable polo-player becomes the great war hero. Those keen to see Stash crash, however, are doomed to disappointment, since before Stash can win medals in his Hurricane we must hear about his first love affair. Stash is 14 years old and the Marquise Claire de Champery is a sex-pot of a certain age. ‘She felt the congestion of blood rushing between her primly pressed together thighs, proof positive that she had been right to provoke the boy.’ Stash, meanwhile, shows his customary tendency to metamorphose into an indeterminate life-form. ‘He took her hand and put it on his penis. The hot sticky organ was already beginning to rise and fill. It moved under her touch like an animal.’ A field mouse? A boa constrictor?

Receiving the benefit of Stash’s extensive sexual education, Francesca conceives twins. One of the twins turns out to be Daisy and the other her retarded sister, Danielle. But first Stash has to get to the clinic. ‘As soon as the doctor telephoned, Stash raced to the clinic at 95 miles an hour.’ Miserly as always with the essentials, Mrs Krantz trusts the reader to supply the information that Stash is attaining this speed by some form of motorised transport.

Stash rejects Danielle, Francesca flees with Danielle and Daisy. Stash consoles himself with his collection of jet aircraft. Mrs Krantz has done a lot of research in this area but it is transparently research, which is not the same thing as knowledge. Calling a Junkers 88 a Junker 88 might be a misprint, but her rhapsody about Stash’s prize purchase of 1953 is a dead giveaway. ‘He tracked down and bought the most recent model available of the Lockheed XP-80, known as the Shooting Star, a jet which for many years could out manoeuvre and outperform almost every other aircraft in the world.’ USAF fighter aircraft carried ‘X’ numbers only before being accepted for service. By 1953 the Shooting Star was known as the F-80, had been in service for years, and was practically the slowest thing of its type in the sky. But Mrs Krantz is too fascinated by that ‘X’ to let it go. She deserves marks, however, for her determination to catch up on the arcane nomenclature of boys’ toys.

Stash finally buys a farm during a flying display in 1967. An old Spitfire packs up on him. ‘The undercarriage of the 27-year-old plane stuck and the landing gear could not be released.’ Undercarriage and landing gear are the same thing – her vocabularies have collided over the Atlantic. Also an airworthy 27-year-old Spitfire in 1967 would have been a very rare bird indeed: no wonder the undercarriage got in the road of the landing gear. But Mrs Krantz goes some way towards capturing the excitement of machines and should not be mocked for her efforts. Francesca, incidentally, dies in a car crash, with the make of car unspecified.

One trusts that Mrs Krantz’s documentation of less particularly masculine activities is as meticulous as it is undoubtedly exhaustive, although even in such straightforward matters as food and drink she can sometimes be caught making the elementary mistake of piling on the fatal few details too many. Before Stash gets killed he takes Daisy to lunch every Sunday at the Connaught. After he gets killed he is forced to give up this practice, although there is no real reason why he should not have continued, since he is no more animated before his prang than after. Mrs Krantz has researched the Connaught so heavily that she must have made herself part of the furniture. It is duly noted that the menu has a brown and gold border. It is unduly noted that the menu has the date printed at the bottom. Admittedly such a thing would not happen at the nearest branch of the Golden Egg, but it is not necessarily the mark of a great restaurant. Mrs Krantz would probably hate to hear it said, but she gives the impression of having been included late amongst the exclusiveness she so admires. There is nothing wrong with gusto, but when easy familiarity is what you are trying to convey, gush is to be avoided.

Full of grand meals served and consumed at chapter length, Princess Daisy reads like Buddenbrooks without the talent. Food is important to Mrs Krantz: so important that her characters keep turning into it, when they are not turning into animals. Daisy has a half-brother called Ram, who rapes her, arouses her sexually, beats her up, rapes her again, and does his best to wreck her life because she rejects his love. His passion is understandable, when you consider Daisy’s high nutritional value. ‘He gave up the struggle and devoured her lips with his own, kissing her as if he were dying of thirst and her mouth were a moist fruit.’ A mango? Daisy fears Ram but goes for what he dishes out. ‘Deep within her something sounded, as if the string of a great cello had been plucked, a note of remote, mysterious but unmistakable warning.’ Boing.

Daisy heeds the warning and lights out for the USA, where she becomes a producer of television commercials in order to pay Danielle’s hospital bills. She pals up with a patrician girl called Kiki, whose breasts quiver in indignation – the first breasts to have done that for a long, long time. At such moments one is reminded of Mrs krantz’s true literary ancestry, which stretches all the way back to Elinor Glyn, E.M. Hull and Gertrude Atherton. She is wasting a lot of her time and too much of ours trying to be John O’Hara. At the slightest surge of congested blood between her primly pressed together thighs, all Mrs Krantz’s carefully garnered social detail gives way to eyes like twin dark stars, mouths like moist fruit and breasts quivering with indignation.

There is also the warm curve of Daisy’s neck where the jaw joins the throat. Inheriting this topographical feature from her mother, Daisy carries it around throughout the novel waiting for the right man to kiss it tutto tremante. Ram will definitely not do. A disconsolate rapist, he searches hopelessly among the eligible young English ladies – Jane Bonham-Carter and Sabrina Guinness are both considered – before choosing the almost inconceivably well-connected Sarah Fane. Having violated Sarah in his by now standard manner. Ram is left with nothing to do except blow Daisy’s secret and commit suicide. As Ram bites the dust, the world learns that the famous Princess Daisy, star of a multimillion-dollar perfume promotion, has a retarded sister. Will this put the kibosh on the promotion, not to mention Daisy’s love for the man in charge, the wheeler-dealer head of Supracorp, Pat Shannon (‘larky bandit’, ‘freebooter’ etc)?

Daisy’s libido, dimmed at first by Ram’s rape, has already been reawakened by the director of her commercials, a ruthless but prodigiously creative character referred to as North. Yet North finally lacks what it takes to reach the warm curve of Daisy’s neck. Success in that area is reserved for Shannon. He it is who undoes all the damage and fully arouses her hot blood. ‘It seemed a long time before Shannon began to imprint a blizzard of tiny kisses at the point where Daisy’s jaw joined her throat, that particularly warm curve, spendthrift with beauty, that he had not allowed himself to realise had haunted him for weeks. Daisy felt fragile and warm to Shannon, as if held trapped a young unicorn [horses again – C.J.], some strange, mythological creature. Her hair was the most intense source of light in the room, since it reflected the moonlight creeping through the windows, and by its light he saw her eyes, open, rapt and glowing; twin dark stars.’

Shannon might think he’s got hold of some kind of horse, but as far as Daisy’s concerned she’s a species of cetacean. ‘It was she who guided his hands down the length of her body, she who touched him wherever she could reach, as playfully as a dolphin, until he realised that her fragility was strength, and that she wanted him without reserve.’

Daisy is so moved by this belated but shatteringly complete experience that she can be forgiven for what she does next. ‘Afterward, as they lay together, half asleep, but unwilling to drift apart into unconsciousness, Daisy farted, in a tiny series of absolutely irrepressible little pops that seemed to her to go on for a minute.’ It takes bad art to teach us how good art gets done. Knowing that the dithyrambs have gone on long enough, Mrs Krantz has tried to undercut them with something earthy. Her tone goes wrong, but her intention is worthy of respect. It is like one of those clumsy attempts at naturalism in a late-medieval painting – less pathetic than portentous, since it adumbrates the great age to come. Mrs Krantz will never be much of an artist but she has more than a touch of the artist’s ambition.

Princess Daisy is not be to despised. Nor should it be deplored for its concern with aristocracy, glamour, status, success and things like that. On the evidence of her prose, Mrs Krantz has not enough humour to write tongue-in-cheek, but other people are perfectly capable of reading that way. People don’t get their morality from their reading matter: they bring their morality to it. The assumption that ordinary people’s lives could be controlled and limited by what entertained them was always too condescending to be anything but fatuous.

Mrs Krantz, having dined at Mark’s Club, insists that it is exclusive. There would not have been much point to her dining there if she did not think that. A bigger snob than she might point out that the best reason for not dining at Mark’s Club is the chance of finding Mrs Krantz there. It takes only common sense, though, to tell you that on those terms exclusiveness is not just chimerical but plain tedious. You would keep better company eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in a launderette. But if some of this book’s readers find themselves day-dreaming of the high life, let us be grateful that Mrs Krantz exists to help give their vague aspirations a local habitation and a name. They would dream anyway, and without Mrs Krantz they would dream unaided.

To pour abuse on a book like this makes no more sense than to kick a powder-puff. Princess Daisy is not even reprehensible for the three million dollars its author was paid for it in advance. It would probably have made most of the money back without a dime spent on publicity. The only bad thing is the effect on Mrs Krantz’s personality. Until lately she was a nice Jewish lady harbouring the usual bourgeois fancies about the aristocracy. But now she gives interviews extolling her own hard head. ‘Like so many of us,’ she told the Daily Mail on 28 April, ‘I happen to believe that being young, beautiful and rich is more desirable than being old, ugly and destitute.’ Mrs Krantz is 50 years old, but to judge from the photograph on the back of the book she is engaged in a series of hard-fought delaying actions against time. This, I believe, is one dream that intelligent people ought not to connive at, since the inevitable result of any attempt to prolong youth is a graceless old age.