Karl Miller

It is possible that C.J. Koch’s novel The Doubleman, which has just been published in London,[*] will be reviewed as a pathfinding contribution to literary psychology. A clever and diverting book it certainly is – by the Tasmanian author of The Year of Living Dangerously, who now lives in Sydney – and it applies to established themes a new ambience and a new geography. It takes the double into a delirious realm of folk music, radio, television and the charts. The inhabitants of a land of Faery cut their discs and their capers dressed in Medieval costume; the Mersey sound is emulated by Sydney’s very own elf sound. But this is not a novel novel. It is a Gothic novel, which abides by a tradition of which the writer is learnedly aware, and which can lead him to telegraph his punches. Some of it reads like Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story, of a long time before, which ends up, as it happens, in Australia, with a kind of atomic-diabolic explosion.

Having recently completed a book on the literature of the double, I read Mr Koch’s novel with a pang – compounded of interest and of its dualistic opposite – which may readily be understood. But then there had been other such pangs as my book drew to a close: every few months came a further contribution – not a few of them from the pen of Martin Amis – to a subject which is widely supposed to be exhausted. To suppose it exhausted is not to be unable to suppose that its new works may be pathfinders: the subject presents both faces. At all events, I swallowed my anxieties and tackled The Doubleman, and I seemed to discover there – this, too, may be readily understood – material that bore on conclusions reached in the book I had written. I don’t want to interfere with a discussion by John Bayley which the paper will be publishing shortly: but I would like to diarise a little about this piece of Antipodean duality. Like other strange stories of the genre, it both embodies and attracts coincidence. A strong pang was felt when my eye travelled to page 15 and lit on the magic words: ‘When he first saw how enchanted I was by this toy, Karl Miller was pleased.’

In the literature of romantic duality the most important of all pairs is the one constituted by the author and his principal character, or his narrator: here, if you like, is the primal duplication of the genre. In these fictions doubleness ensues on the singleness of someone’s afflicted solitude. The principal character suffers, serves as patient rather than agent, but is capable of wishing to escape from his sufferings. Then there are two of him, or more – a development which expresses his dilemma and attempted escape. The character lacks character, very often, and exercises a negative capability which turns these novels towards the condition of poetry. This is what Goethe, in Wilhelm Meister, thought all novels were like, and this is the kind of novel that C.J. Koch – of the suitably German name – has delivered.

The narrator, Richard Miller, is lame, loses his father in the Second World War, is literary, theatrical, passive, longing to be ‘at one remove’ from everyday life, from Tasmania, where he is looked after by his grandfather, this Karl, an architect and alderman of German stock. Karl’s origin causes problems which were not unknown, at the period in question, to the present diarist, who was fairly far, however, from ever being taken for an enemy spy, and who did not take himself to have been cleft, as Richard is, by the embarrassments of a semi-enemy name.

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[*] Chatto, 326 pp., £8.95, 18 April, 0 7011 2945 x.

[†] No Half Measures by Graeme Souness. Willow/Collins, 208 pp., £8.95, 28 March, 0 00 218134 7.