Getting on

Humphrey Carpenter

  • In the Dark by R.M. Lamming
    Cape, 230 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 224 02292 X
  • A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory by Isabel Colegate
    Hamish Hamilton, 153 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 241 11532 9
  • Midnight Mass by Peter Bowles
    Peter Owen, 190 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 7206 0647 0
  • The Silver Age by James Lasdun
    Cape, 186 pp, £8.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 224 02316 0
  • The House of Kanze by Nobuko Albery
    Century, 307 pp, £9.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 7126 0850 8

‘My idea of what a novelist should do is an old-fashioned one,’ says a character in the title story in Isabel Colegate’s collection A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory. ‘I think that each work should be a step forward from the last, that he should never repeat himself, that he should only produce a book when he is ready to add to his own knowledge – why write down what one knows already? – he should address himself to his generation, applying himself with pure heart and humble mind to their legitimate question What Then Must We Do? ... The novelist should write for his generation and his concern should be nothing less than How To Live, but I do not know my generation and I haven’t the faintest idea how to live.’ The character, you will surmise, is a failed novelist; Colegate herself can’t exactly be the speaker (she is, after all, the author of The Shooting Party), but there seems to be some real angst. Of course there are plenty of other purposes, other tactics, behind fiction. But one can’t exactly reject these criteria out of hand. And the words tend to haunt, as one turns the pages of Colegate’s new book, and of new fiction by other writers.

R.M. Lamming’s In The Dark certainly comes off poorly if the Colegate test is applied. It’s Lamming’s second book; I don’t know the first, The Notebook of Gismondo Cavaletti, but it won the David Higham Prize and is described in a Nina Bawden review quoted on the flap of the new one as ‘confident’. In the Dark has all the marks of a brave but not altogether confident search for something different to say. Few novels have been written about geriatrics (the only remarkable book about the elderly that immediately comes to mind is Angus Wilson’s marvellous and still not widely enough known Late Call): so one admires Ms Lamming’s decision to build her story round a half-senile widower, Arnold Lawson, who has just moved into a new district and is exciting the curiosity of the local newspaper (‘Grand Old Eccentric Comes to Woodburn’). Lawson is a miser, hoarding books rather than cash, and the novel’s excellent jacket-picture by Emma Chichester Clark has a promising glimpse of him peering at a tome, surrounded by towers of unsorted volumes which wait their places on the empty shelves in the gloom beyond. Unfortunately Lamming’s prose never quite measures up to that picture: the book-hoarding ought to be a metaphor for something, but the scene, when we reach it, remains pedestrian (‘He liked to keep some poetry near the hearth, handy for pulling a volume out and leaning against the mantelpiece while he read a soulful passage’), and Lamming is more interested in old Lawson’s relationship with two women, his housekeeper and the intruding Moira Gelling. Of the two, Gelling is supposed to be the more intriguing, a spoilt middle-aged pussycat who has read about Lawson in the paper and wants to poke her nose in to see if he is really so odd; soon she is dragging him off to the local lit. soc. and subjecting him to the dubious pleasure of a jolly Christmas dinner party. But the social setting, the sense of place, is never quite sharply enough in focus, and the housekeeper remains by far the more interesting of the two women. In the novel’s best scene, she waits on a wooden chair outside the bathroom door while Lawson takes his bath, a safety precaution that each of them hates but must observe:

He reached down for the bath-plug. And there she was, thumping on the door.

  ‘Are you all right?’

  He frowned at the doorknob.

  ‘Of course I’m all right. Sit down.’

  ‘You don’t want your cardigan?’

  ‘Why would I want my cardigan in the bath?’

  He’d had to straighten up for that, and now he began again, reaching for the bath plug. He imagined the wooden chair creaking as she parked her behind, plumping herself down, and folding her arms.

This portrayal of mutual hatred and dependence could have given the book a solid centre; but the mood is not sustained, and the final effect inconclusive.

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[*] Balloon Top was reissued by Century on 27 June (255 pp., £2.95, 0 7126 0845 1).