Travelling

Elaine Jordan

  • The Viaduct by David Wheldon
    Bodley Head, 176 pp, £5.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 370 30519 1
  • Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury
    Secker, 310 pp, £7.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 436 06505 3
  • Milena by Maggie Ross
    Collins, 280 pp, £8.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 00 222602 2
  • No Place on Earth by Christa Wolf, translated by Jan van Heurck
    Virago, 110 pp, £6.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 86068 363 X
  • Look at me by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 192 pp, £7.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 224 02055 2
  • Not Not While the Giro and Other Stories by James Kelman
    Polygon, 207 pp, £3.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 904919 65 X

The 19th-century novel was the great forum for writing about life – from sanitation to the condition of women, from politics to love. All the novels reviewed here are very much of the 20th century: whatever else they are concerned with, they are always about writing itself, that curious, aberrant occupation which the writer above all needs to explain to himself. One might be able to write oneself into a new way of life, more amusing than the old: in this sense (which is Anita Brookner’s sense) writing is a penance for not being lucky in love but also a way of being livelier than life. Words also preserve memory ‘which would have vanished utterly had he not enclosed it in a fortress of words’ (Christa Wolf). Writing is facing the truth, which cannot be unknown but only forgotten: it is ‘the enemy of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory.’ This is something Look at Me painfully reiterates. But writing is also, like everything else, subject to change according to circumstances. The illicit book which has sent A., the hero of The Viaduct, to prison no longer seems of any significance to him. For Kleist, as imagined in No Place on Earth, ‘the passion which swept him away ... was the seduction of words far more than the need to communicate with any particular human being.’ In Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange, stories are a currency like any other, paper fictions: but for Bradbury’s novelist Katya Princip they are also a way of learning ‘a certain sense of existence’. Even after betrayals and devaluations her message for the hero remains: ‘I mean to give you a better sense of existence.’ But the manuscript that bears her meaning gets blown up. Maybe Brookner’s view, which holds, like Thomas Mann’s, that to be a writer means dying to ordinary life, is less discouraging. Wolf’s Kleist feels something of this kind, but struggles at the boundaries between ideas and writing and life.

Boundaries are important, too, in connecting these novels, since they are concerned with traveling, and strange countries. Slaka, Bradbury’s imaginary East European country, is constructed by means of signs and notices which undergo a linguistic revolution in the course of the novel; without them, and the commentary offered by the hero Petworth’s interpreter, the place would be much the same as other places, we’re told – just as the breakfast is the same, whichever form the menu follows, whatever order is made. The Viaduct takes travelling as the process and condition of life, not just one of its varieties – travelling, in other words, as a quest. No Place on Earth, Milena and, arguably, Look at Me recall and depend on the past: this is their kind of traveling, undertaken to discover something important to the writer through the meditative recovery of past persons, or at least their texts and records.

The Viaduct won the Triple First Award offered by The Bodley Head, Penguin Books and Book Club Associates. It doesn’t take us anywhere much, except, as we expected, back where we started. It doesn’t move or stir, or warm the heart: it’s careful not to. Both hard-edged and indefinite, it prohibits certain kinds of involvement. Neutral in tone and point of view, it takes nothing for granted (except that circumstances will colour judgment) and gives nothing away – a position which tends to suggest something withheld.

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[*] All dressed up and nowhere to go. Pavilion Books, 204 pp., £7.95, 25 October 1982, 0 907516 16 5.