- Swallow by D.M. Thomas
Gollancz, 312 pp, £8.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 575 03446 7
- First Among Equals by Jeffrey Archer
Hodder, 446 pp, £8.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 340 35266 3
- Morning Star by Simon Raven
Blond and Briggs, 264 pp, £8.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 85634 138 X
The tradition of the Commedia del’Arte is apparent in all three of these novels. A repertory company of stock characters is presented to an audience already familiar with many of the masks, half-knowing what to expect of them, and the maskers seem to improvise witty or pathetic dialogue, according to an agreed storyline. D.M. Thomas remarks that he is indebted to Germaine Greer for supplying him with information about the tradition of the improvisatrici in Italy: he has constructed Swallow (‘the second,’ he says, ‘in a series of improvisational novels’) in the form of a story about an ancient and honourable literary contest, at which great storytellers of all nations improvise a fictional narrative in accordance with a theme chosen by the judges. The odd thing is that D.M. Thomas is not a storyteller. Swallow is the sort of book that attracts descriptions like ‘metafiction’, ‘fabulation’ and ‘self-referential’ – words that came into vogue at the same time as ‘ego-trip’. Plausibility is not attempted. None of the tales told are any good. They break off in confusion. They smell of midnight oil, not of improvisation. Two of them are in verse, with hard-sought rhymes. One of them is disqualified on grounds of plagiarism. ‘Even the author of Swallow,’ as the blurb bemusedly admits, ‘becomes involved indirectly, through a memoir of adolescence he has written.’ Swallow is a novel to be discussed by lecturers, not read for pleasure.
To ginger up his non-story, D.M. Thomas introduces post-Chatterley musings (give them an inch and they’ll take an ell) which do indeed look like improvisations, straight from the stream of consciousness. Here is a Russian at the improvisers’ prize-giving: ‘I get phases like tonight when I’d love to fuck almost every woman I see. Look at that magnificent, fat, blowsy frau dancing with the Pole. God, I’d love to get it up her and stifle myself between her breasts!’ Here is another Russian, visiting Washington:
Surkov thought of the Kennedys. Marilyn Monroe, whom he had met at a party in Los Angeles. A stab of sorrow.
‘I don’t like this fucking city,’ he growled. ‘It’s all male power. It’s as bad as Moscow.’ He nodded towards an obelisk, and said: ‘Why do they have a prick but no cunt? You have enough fucking feminists in this country – why don’t they protest? Why don’t they insist on erecting a cunt, in memory of – I don’t know – Annie Oakley, Marilyn Monroe, the witches of Salem?’
A little of this goes a long way; but D.M. Thomas goes from length to length.
The Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe play no further part in Swallow. Another familiar mask is borrowed from American politics, to give the reader a recognisable stock character. This is Ronald Reagan, here renamed President O’Reilly. (David Lodge’s version, ‘Ronald Ruck’, was funnier.) D.M. Thomas offers a farcical interview with President O’Reilly in which the old man is so confused that he can only answer the question before the last:
‘What is your outlook on death?’
‘You’ll have to ask my wife!’
‘What are your feelings about the possibility of a Third World War?’
‘I’ll be ready for it when it comes!’
‘Do you think it can be prevented?’
‘I don’t believe that’s a serious possibility!’