Nobody is God

Robert Taubman

  • Rabbit is Rich by John Updike
    Deutsch, 467 pp, £7.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 233 97424 5
  • Charlotte: Life or Theatre? by Charlotte Salomon
    Allen Lane, 784 pp, £30.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1425 4
  • Weights and Measures by Joseph Roth
    Peter Owen, 150 pp, £7.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 7206 0562 8
  • November by Rolf Schneider
    Hamish Hamilton, 235 pp, £7.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 241 10347 9

Rabbit novels come out at the turn of each decade, like a series of reports on the state of America. Rabbit is rich, the third and latest, takes place in Brewster, Pennsylvania, from June 1979 into 1980. Rabbit – as Harry Angstrom is still known to himself – runs a Toyota agency; his scene is now the country club, the golf course and the Bahamas on a wife-swapping holiday. The novel is effortlessly informing about time and place; about smart money and car dealing, what they say about Chappaquiddick, TV ads, the contents of a bathroom cabinet. This is a corner of America in a mood of complacence ample enough to admit self-criticism, provoked in particular by the oil crisis and the queues at petrol stations. Flags are at half-mast for the hostages in Iran. God, who used to be present to Harry in his childhood, has withdrawn, ‘giving Harry the respect due from one well-off gentleman to another’: but a consolation is that ‘not only is the Pope coming but the Dalai Lama they bounced out of Tibet twenty years ago is going round the USA talking to divinity schools and appearing on TV talk shows.’ Much scope for criticism of America is offered, but not inadvertently, for the criticism is all made or implied in the novel itself. And Updike’s trend-spotting instincts are not just alert to news-items but sustain whole scenes of social comedy, as in the marriage preparations of Nelson, Rabbit’s son and now his greatest trial. All this, even the dirty talk that grates plausibly on the ear, is so good, so alive, that one wishes Updike would stick with realism and forget about Rabbit and the meaning of life.

For Rabbit is again, as on earlier appearances, an equivocation at the heart of the novel: a holy fool, the most ordinary and average of men elevated into a state of grace. Now that he’s older and richer he’s still more ambiguous. He is the focus of a good deal of the edgy disgust that gets into Updike’s comedy. Here is how he recalls a primal scene: ‘When he was about twelve or thirteen he walked into his parents’ bedroom in the half-house on Jackson Road not expecting his father to be there, and the old man was standing in front of his bureau in just socks and an undershirt, innocently fishing in a drawer for his undershorts, that boxer style that always looked sad and dreary to Harry anyway, and here was his father’s bare behind, such white buttocks, limp and hairless, mute and helpless flesh that squeezed out shit once a day and otherwise hung there in the world like linen that hadn’t been ironed.’

The sex scenes lack this comic touch but are just as realistic and unerotic and therefore unpleasant, though enlightening. Harry is compromised by them, in his dull, good-hearted way. Nothing loth when it comes to wife-swapping, he nevertheless stands off from the rest, ‘appalled, as he sometimes was, by this coarse crowd that he’s in’. One is constantly provoked to the question: so what the hell is so special about Harry?

He is special, at the least, in having such an equivocal role to play: for the worse things look in America the more gloriously Harry must stand out as the epitome of its common man. Compromised he is, and not only by wife-swapping but by making love to his wife (he is still with Janice) in a bed full of gold Krugerrands. But though ‘he never reads a book, just the newspaper to have something to say to people’, untutored wisdom springs to his lips: ‘ “These eighteen-year-old girls...are really just children except for their bodies.” “Well, who isn’t?” Harry asks.’ Or ‘ “We did what we could,” Janice says, firm again, sounding like her mother. “We’re not God.” “Nobody is,” Rabbit says...’ We have the authority of his internal monologues for his love of men – ‘He loves men, uncomplaining with their pot bellies and cross-hatched red necks, embarrassed for what to talk about when the game is over, whatever the game is’ – yet he also finds them not just boring but ‘as boring as they must appear to God’. Rabbit is not himself an interesting character. What he has is archetypal status, and the scenes he plays are archetypal ones, to do with the challenge now represented by his son; the Oedipal grudges on both sides are acted out pro forma, with all of Updike’s local brilliance of timing and dialogue; one after another, primal scenes like the view of the father’s buttocks occur in their place, as in situation comedy, providing plenty to amuse or disgust but nothing that deeply disturbs. Rabbit is a bit flat. The focus of a lot of sad truisms about fathers and sons, the horrors of aging, the lost innocence of America – but not a great catch as the hero of a novel. Yet here is Thelma, who has drawn him in the wife-swapping (the pleasure is mainly hers, he was hoping for Cindy), telling him in much detail that it’s enough that he merely existed: ‘Just existed. Just shed your light.’ And we recognise a truth in this, and see that Rabbit himself recognises it. It makes him confide to Thelma ‘his sense of miracle at being himself, himself instead of somebody else, and his old inkling, now fading in the energy crunch, that there was something that wanted him to find it, that he was here on earth on a kind of assignment.’

We see now what makes Rabbit so lovable. Any character becomes lovable whose author is having a romance with him or her. And here the special token of love is that ‘it’ that wants to be found. We may remember from twenty years ago in Rabbit, run Harry’s vision of ‘this thing that wasn’t there’: ‘What is it? Is it hard or soft? Harry. Is it blue? Is it red? Does it have polka dots?’ Harry, of course, has many sentimental moments in these novels. ‘Our tears are always young,’ he thinks, after a depressing visit to Ruth, who is now old (he no longer sees Ruth, but suspects she may have borne him a daughter). Or, feeling lost in space, as he sometimes does, he thinks of ‘what souls must feel when they awaken in a baby’s body so far from Heaven: not only scared so they cry but guilty, guilty’. This is uncomfortably like looking into Rabbit’s own soul – which is no discomfort for Updike, who evidently loves him for all this: the guileless simplicity of his hero who nevertheless knows, in his simplicity, that he has ‘it’ wanting him to find it. The meaning of life? Rabbit is now 46, and reflects that ‘if a meaning of life was to show up you’d think it would have by now.’ But ‘at moments it seems it has,’ in this novel – and it doesn’t have polka dots, but looks more like a beer can: ‘it is not something you dig for but sits on the top of the table like an unopened dewy beer can.’

I wouldn’t hold sentimentality against a writer, but he must be careful about the company it keeps. Harry’s moments of illumination are edgily close to Updike’s more malicious ones, like the revelation of the father’s buttocks. A moment after thinking of babies’ souls, Rabbit thinks that what he really wants is ‘to have Cindy arrange herself in the pose of one of those Penthouse sluts on a leopard skin and get down in front of her on all fours and just eat and eat and eat’. This isn’t unnatural of Rabbit, but Updike is too fond of the literary game of juxtapositions, and it reduces his characters to abject helplessness. The juxtapositions may be droll, cheeky, disagreeable, or just nullifying: but what they don’t do is give any depth to the novel.

Life or Theatre? is the title Charlotte Salomon gave to a collection of more than a thousand gouache paintings, with accompanying text, which she left with a village doctor in the South of France in 1942. It tells a story through a variety of arts – mainly pictorial, but with dialogue and passages of psychological analysis and indications for music (a Singspiel is what she also called the work). It’s unlikely that she wanted to produce a wholly new kind of performance art; or that her opposition of life and theatre is as deeply pondered as that of Dichtung and Wahrheit in Goethe’s autobiography. A simpler explanation of the confused fictionality and reality of her book is just that Charlotte Salomon, with her range of talents, was naive enough to employ them all in trying to record her life. ‘C’est toute ma vie,’ she told the Villefranche doctor. She was 25, a refugee from Berlin.

The story is of a Jewish bourgeois family from 1913 to 1940. It illustrates a way of life and its destruction: substantial Berlin and travels abroad to the Alps and Venice, Charlotte at art school, her father’s hospital work, and then the intrusion into family and professional life of another order of events – anti-semitism, the camps and the war. Yet it’s oddly casual about historical events: they are pushed around either as if they don’t really matter, or to suit Charlotte’s private purpose. What she produces is an Expressionist fiction about the times rather than an objective record. Thus the first war appears to end in 1917, in time for Charlotte’s birth; the occupation of the Rhineland takes place in September 1939; and the declaration of the second war is postponed until May 1940. And in more important ways, the book is one that seems to resist the Zeitgeist rather than to submit to it. It begins with the suicide of an aunt; Charlotte’s mother commits suicide in 1926; and in the most terrible scenes of her adult life Charlotte tries unsuccessfully to prevent her grandmother from killing herself. Each of these deaths is pictured with such particularity and respect for the individual mystery involved that there’s no suggestion here of ‘holocaust’ literature. The family’s death-wish is its own, and serves rather to separate it off from the historical situation of the Jews in Germany. Nor is there any premonition in the book of Charlotte’s own death, which took place in Auschwitz in 1943. She ends the story triumphantly, rejecting the temptation of suicide and determined, ‘alone with her experiences and her paint brush’, to produce the present work.

Her state of mind at the end is largely due to the ideas of an extraordinary character she calls Amadeus Daberlohn. He, and not Charlotte, is the central character of the book; and if Life or Theatre? is neither ‘holocaust’ literature nor just a bizarre kind of confessional literature, but a novel – an unusual kind of novel, but a considerable one – this is because of Daberlohn and his role in it. He occupies the large central section, where for a while time stands still and a vast, ambiguous relationship develops between this newcomer and Charlotte, then an art student, and her stepmother Paulinka, an opera singer. The author’s irony dwells on all her characters, but inside the story her heroine Charlotte, though romantically in love, employs her own irony both on Daberlohn and on herself. But most of the text of the book comes from him: his theory of masks, death and immortality, his interpretations of Orpheus, Adam and Christ, his views on psychoanalysis and the movies – ‘modern man’s machine for producing himself’. He is conceited and absurd, and is seen to be so, but he liberates Charlotte, sexually and intellectually; his ideas literally transform her; we see in the pictures how she acquires a Botticelli face in response to a theory of his about Botticelli and the migration of souls. This sly seducer and spiritual bandit undoubtedly belongs with the comic-daemonic rouges of German literature from the 17th century to Mann and Grass: the type is here intellectualised and put into horn-rimmed spectacles.

Life or Theatre? is a book that brims with meaning. It takes one back to the days when books by Mann, Hesse or Broch, whatever one thought of them, brimmed with meaning. And this despite the fact that its subject is a death-wish and its ideas often incoherent. Charlotte Salomon’s style as a painter changes in the course of the book, as if this itself were a necessary response to changes in what she finds important. At first it is a charming and documentary style with a feeling for sub-stance, expressing a positive delight in high-bourgeois furniture and carpet-fringes. It becomes another thing altogether: vivid streaks of colour like comet trails and blood stains. They express emotions that are no less real and substantial than the family furniture. In a pencilled comment at this stage, Charlotte Salomon wrote: ‘That which Van Gogh attained later in life, a brushstroke of unprecedented lightness, which unfortunately seems to have a distinctly pathological side, I have attained already.’ This is like one of the flashes of self-awareness with which her character Charlotte sometimes frees herself from her subjection to Daberlohn. It marvellously expresses the confidence, the self-deprecating humour and the sense of danger to be found in the whole work.

Joseph Roth was a survivor from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which he made the object of both affection and criticism in his novels. He is best-known for a family history, Radetsky March. Weights and Measures is a short piece, first published in 1937; like a folktale, it is starkly simple in manner but open to a variety of interpretations because contradictory and unmanageable human instincts are involved. ‘Once upon a time in the District of Zlotogrod there lived an Inspector of Weights and Measures,’ it begins, and proceeds to reveal some primordial patterns of behaviour in this corner of the decrepit Empire: the exploitation of deserters from across the frontier, the conflict of love and duty, the doubt in the mind of a murderer: ‘God is there. God can see you. God knows what you intend to do. But another voice from within him answered: God is not there, the sky is empty, and the stars are cold and remote and terrible, and you can do what you will.’ The story poses the question, for the Inspector of Weights and Measures, whether principles and efficiency are inimical to happiness, and gets an ambiguous answer. God judges in the end – when the Inspector himself is dying – that everyone’s weights and measures are false. But the love of life Roth displays is not threatened by the moral interest of the fable: they flourish together, as rarely happens in more recent fiction.

November, by an East German writer, happens to have a use for Joseph Roth. Natasha Roth in this novel is supposedly a relative of his, and has written a study of Radetsky March that links it with Buddenbrooks. And Joseph Roth supplies an epigraph: ‘In November ... every hour is as long as a day of repentance, as eerie as All Souls’ Day, imbued with a positively spiritualistic solemnity, in which we do not merely encounter ghosts, but become ghosts ourselves.’ But this isn’t at all the style of November. The Roth connection serves in fact only to mark this novel off from anything to do with the old bourgeoisie and the mandarin style. Rolf Schneider produces, by comparison, an empty sort of novel, but one of honest and relevant emptiness, since its themes have all to do with loss of meaning and security. Natasha Roth is a ‘blocked’ writer suffering from a loss of words that feels like paralysis: ‘loss of speech is death.’ She is researching the case of Rimbaud, convinced that his abandonment of poetry was connected with a failure of revolutionary commitment during the Paris Commune. She is also much concerned in the case of a fellow East German writer who has suffered loss of citizenship and gone over to the West. And her marriage is falling apart. They live – her husband is a director of the museum in Köpenick Castle – in East Berlin, and here again are the bourgeois villas of the old school of writers: but in Natasha’s generation those who live in them feel divorced from society by the mysterious fact of ‘privilege’. This novel is full of supposed relationships that are not real ones, like that of Natasha to Joseph Roth, or her marriage or her place in society. Her son sees some of the problems: ‘He would have liked to talk to his mother about why she wrote differently from the way she spoke, why she wrote for herself differently from how she wrote for publication, why she talked to him differently than to other people.’

The novel contains a range of scenes from professional life, among arts and media people, doctors and diplomats and writers in their public role – but they’re scenes without much variety of human interest: they are dominated by politics. It was an observed fact in Jane Austen that ‘from politics, it was an easy step to silence.’ And November does indeed have an excellent quality of silence about it: an absence of expressed emotions. Schneider’s gift is for dispassionate observation – which may derive from Marxism, but produces pictures as calm and lucid as Vermeer’s. His novel, in which nothing dramatic happens, is more like a view than a story, a view on a clear day at a great distance. A more imaginative strain appears in Natasha’s young son Stefan, who meditates on death under the influence of the poet Trakl, and on Jewish folklore: this has a richness about it that could remind one that Stefan and Charlotte Salomon belong to the same culture and race and century. And yet, for him, the world around him scarcely exists. Seeing other people on a train, ‘You’re dead, dead, he thought mechanically. You have no idea how unreal you are. He clung to the word unreal. It explained everything. It allowed him to sleep, eat, move and utter sentences.’ And that might stand not just for Stefan’s predicament but for the book’s own reluctance to be deeply involved. And that is what modern social realism has come to: a clear difference between the author and his subject. The dry elegance of tone is that of one who finds his subject too distasteful to be dealt with except at a distance. Not that the tone is cruel or inhumane: Schneider’s is very much that of Heinrich Böll, in the laconic, police-report style of The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum; and Böll is famously in support of humanity and justice. But it’s a distancing tone; and if its advantages are the precision and calm of the distant view, it has the disadvantage of bloodless abstraction. Nothing in November brims over, but a lot leaks out, and in its reductive world, as the epigraph says, ‘we become ghosts ourselves.’ It’s not only in the modern English novel that realism lacks confidence.