Dying Cultures

Graham Hough

  • Problems by John Updike
    Deutsch, 260 pp, £5.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 233 97227 7
  • The City Builder by George Konrad
    Sidgwick, 184 pp, £5.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 15 118009 1
  • The Peach Groves by Barbara Hanrahan
    Chatto, 228 pp, £4.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2490 3
  • Other People’s Worlds by William Trevor
    Bodley Head, 243 pp, £5.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 370 30312 1

This is John Updike’s first collection of stories for seven years. There must have been problems, he says, to account for such a long delay. His preface glances ruefully at some of them – social and political disquiets between 1971 and 1978; but, in fact, the stories hardly move into the public domain. One of them is actually called ‘Problems’, and is cast in the form of exam questions. A, sleeping with B, a new partner who thinks he loves her, has a vivid and longing dream of his old partner C. Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C? This would serve pretty well as a paradigm for most of the present collection. Another is called ‘Domestic Life in America’; and if life there is interpreted as dull unease, half-hearted infidelity, not quite unbearable tension, this would describe the repeated theme. It makes for economy. The same apparatus can be infinitely extended, re-used with changed names for the indistinguishable partners, a different selection from an interchangeable set of unhappy offspring, and a slight shuttle to alter the setting. The family is the centre, but the family in decay, its bonds strong enough to cause neurotic dependence but not strong enough to give strength or support. The main activity is divorce – the glumly ‘civilised’ divorce that involves endless meeting, backtracking, wondering whether it is all worth while.

The assumed moral code in this universe of discourse is resignation: this is the way life goes on. The material signs and symptoms are resolutely limited by the suburban American horizon. A daughter begins to assert her independence: ‘she begged or stole the Ford so often we had to buy a second car: just as the gas shortage overtakes the world.’ There is a kind of sustained irony here, but it is so spare and so discreet that it is almost washed away by the tepid water of the characters’ own consciousness. Beneath a deceptively artless manner these tales are immensely self-conscious. Most English or French novelists write with an unspoken confidence that their own cross-section of humanity can stand well enough for the whole. Updike, in common with most American writers, is acutely aware that this is America, in the fourth quarter of the 20th century. The implication hovers in the air that there are other places, other times, where things might be different: but no one knows where they are, still less how to get there. The characters quote Yeats or Blake or St Augustine, but these glimpses of the moon are relics from college days. They don’t make any difference now, and we are a great deal nearer to the supermarket and the television commercials. The only note strong or poignant enough to cut through this defeated acceptance is heard in the pain and disorientation of the children. That offers fleeting glances into another kind of experience.

What these stories are saying is plain enough. They are presenting a society that has lost its way, and they have no suggestions for finding it again. A good deal of current English fiction says the same thing, but Updike avoids the mere bitchiness that is the prevailing English mode. One or two of the tales are in a different manner. One attempts, with no great success, to expand on the Confessions by re-creating in a modern idiom St Augustine’s relation with his mistress. Another gives a minute-by-minute account of a young businessman’s night with a prostitute. This is the routine canter through the topography of the erogenous zones that is fast becoming obligatory in all volumes of fiction. These two are not New Yorker stories, as most of the others are; and it is the New Yorker, so accomplished, so humane, so decently intelligent and nowadays so deeply sad, that is Updike’s real home. When I was young, long, long ago, we were bombarded with books in orange covers called Studies in a Dying Culture and so forth. They contained a great deal of twaddle, as far as I recollect, but their elegiac titles come back like a knell to the reader of current fiction.

We have been told, though, have we not, that literary narratives are things in themselves, and bear no relation to any outer reality? So just to remind ourselves that there are other forms of discourse, and that they can be treated in other ways, we may turn to the Hungarian George Konrad. His earlier book The Case Worker has been highly praised, but I have not seen it. The City Builder, presented as fiction, is not a novel in any ordinary sense. It is not easily definable as anything else either: in fact, one would be tempted to call it a ‘text’, if this piece of Common Market argot were not so alien to decent British lips. It is the discourse of an architect and town-planner; the time is the present; he meditates on his unnamed Central European city, on its history, both remote and recent; and on its present state. We get glimpses of the speaker’s life: he is the son of an architect, so the planning of the city is in his blood. He comes from the old bourgeoisie, so he feels no alienation from his country’s past. But he has come to terms, of a sort and more or less, with the new regime, and is still vigorous and in possession of himself. He had a wife and now has not. He has a son, who has rejected him and is currently in prison, but only for three months, he reflects, comparing it with the three years he has done himself. All this comes in a brilliant torrent of words, not splashed about, as that might suggest, but controlled and ordered.

There is abundant intelligence and energy behind this writing, and very little of it is directed to the concerns that obsess most Western fiction. There is no private life that is not shaped and conditioned by a wider public life: that is the theme of this book. It is varied and rich in detail, and it goes far back in history, but it is shaped by a few leading ideas. For the speaker’s generation it is the armistice line separating East and West that has cut their brains in half: ‘this is what makes us visionaries and frauds and anarcho-structuralists with prostate conditions, only good at celebratory speech-making and sitting in judgment on friends.’ They have been led from the post-Fascist euphoria, when the world was new and all things seemed possible, through the enthusiasm for planning, a world directed by reason, to the slow erosion of these ideals by bureaucracy and corruption, and at last to total disillusion with the resultant regime of tyranny and oppression. There is no narrative in the conventional sense, but the process is not reduced to abstraction; it is rendered as vivid personal experience. In the end, a kind of faith in the city survives: ‘I don’t want to forget that this city, whose shame I know so well, also belongs to those who walked up to marching columns being led away and offered them bread; who didn’t allow the victims’ names to be scratched off registers, who called murderers and friends by their true names.’

Do not be misled by the charming format of The Peach Groves, the attractive typography, the pretty screen-print by the author on the cover. Do not give it as a birthday present to your artistic 13-year-old niece, for whom it looks so suitable. It is not suitable at all. To begin with, it is a venture in a new genre, Australasian Gothic, which she might find puzzling; and indeed it is to be hoped she would, for what lies beneath the scintillating surface is a sinister fable of double-barrelled incest, senile concupiscence, juvenile precocity, jealousy, poisoning and murder. However, it is a fairy-tale, so except for the ogre and the witch, who are both dead by the end, everyone else, however undeserving, seems to live happily ever after. The year is 1884, and Mama takes Ida and Maud from the genteel city of Adelaide to visit her brother Harry in New Zealand. Maud is 12, beautiful but good; Ida is two years younger, not beautiful and less good, but much cleverer; and it is her consciousness that presides over the story. New Zealand to her imagination is an enchanted land, with volcanic forces and geysers, glaciers and snow-clad peaks, creepers with rope-like stems and trees 200 feet high. Uncle Harry is a strong genial giant. But things turn out differently. The country round Auckland has been tamed and made English; the company is prim. Harry is subdued and unhappy, and his relation to Mama seems uneasy. Indeed it is, for it has been more than brotherly. When the strangeness that Ida longs for turns up it is in the form of a girl – the part-Maori half-sister of Harry’s unhappy wife, who combines a passionate loyalty to the old gods of the land with a passion for Harry himself. Relations become complicated, and when a dear old gentleman called Mr Maufe, who is so fond of Maud, invites them all to his house, The Peach Groves, they become more complicated still, culminating in an explosive fancy-dress ball.

Barbara Hanrahan is a painter and print-maker, and her use of sharp light and shade and evocative colour enables her to call up brilliantly the eerie feeling of a country with a wildly exotic landscape that can nevertheless be trimmed and ordered to a likeness of the Home Counties. However, she is too good a writer to rely on visual effects alone. There is a variety of characters in this tale, all more or less bizarre, some tinged with madness, and a variety of incident, hovering on the brink of terror and catastrophe, but all used with a blithe heartlessness, that make up a most eccentric and exhilarating pattern.

By contrast, William Trevor’s Other People’s Worlds is very much drawn from stock. The setting is a small Gloucestershire town, Julia the central character a pleasant middle-aged widow. Her decorous, undemanding world is broken into by an unsuccessful actor casually encountered, with whom she improbably falls in love. His world is one of makeshift and deception. His encounter with Julia is one of many predatory adventures of the same sort, and when he marries her it is bigamy. His mistress, the mother of his child, gets dragged into the entanglement; hers is yet another world – of shabby pathetic failure. The motive of this unalluring fable, as far as I can discern it, is to show the havoc wrought by the collision of incompatible worlds: but all are so conventionally drawn that the clash never achieves any great significance. The writing plods along, with much predictable descriptive detail. But the urban squalors no more come to life than the tea-table domesticities of Gloucestershire. The general effect is rather that of an Agatha Christie detective story with the mystery left out.