Underparts

Nicholas Spice

  • Roger’s Version by John Updike
    Deutsch, 316 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 233 97988 3
  • The Voyeur by Alberto Moravia, translated by Tim Parks
    Secker, 186 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 436 28721 8
  • Dvorak in Love by Josef Skvorecky, translated by Paul Wilson
    Chatto, 322 pp, £10.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 7011 2994 8
  • Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi, translated by Ruth Feldman
    Joseph, 172 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2726 9

Readers of John Updike’s previous novel, The Witches of Eastwick, will not have forgotten Darryl Van Horne’s bottom: how, at the end of a game of tennis, Darryl dropped his shorts and thrust his hairy rump into his partner’s face, demanding that she kiss it, which she did. In Roger’s Version the roles are reversed. Now it is a young woman – Verna Ekelof – who exposes herself. She is standing only a few inches from where her uncle, Roger Lambert, is sitting, so that when she lifts her skirt above her un-underpanted thighs, he finds himself face to face with ‘her pubic bush’, which he describes as ‘broad, like her face’, and, a moment later, as ‘a sea urchin on the white ocean floor’.

Van Horne’s moony and Verna’s flash would interest Alberto Moravia, whose latest novel, The Voyeur, is much concerned with sexual exhibitionism and the relations – necessary and interchangeable – between exhibitionist and voyeur. Among its many observations on this subject, The Voyeur advances a theory that voyeurism – expressed through the fictional representation of private matters, like sexual intercourse – is a major source of inspiration for Western literature. This is a theory which John Updike’s new book does little to falsify. Indeed, Moravia’s stylish and subtle novel arrives by chance as an edifying complement to Roger’s Version, a finely-ground lens through which to view aspects of Updike’s turbid and murky text.

There are several superficial similarities between the stories of the two books, and each of them is told in the first person. Moravia’s Edoardo is a professor of French in Rome, Updike’s Roger a professor of theology at an East Coast university in a city that has marked resemblances to Boston (it has, for example, a Christian Science cathedral). But these are parallels between books which are in manner as different as engraving and impasto.

Like Roger’s Version, The Voyeur is the story of a double adultery, Edoardo’s with Pascasie, Silvia’s with Edoardo’s father. Ever since her wedding day, Silvia has been meeting and making love with her father-in-law. She does not love him, she says, but the way he makes love with her – alla more ferarum: violently, from behind, pushing her head down and demanding that she say the words ‘I’m your pig’ – excites her. It comes as a revelation after Edoardo’s passivity in bed. For Edoardo always makes love lying on his back, watching her. He makes love, in fact, more with his eyes than his body.

The nature of his wife’s betrayal of him dawns on Edoardo only slowly, rising to consciousness in the manner of a repressed idea rising to the surface of a mind undergoing psychoanalysis (a parallel which Moravia intends us to draw). The pain of the discovery is all that much harder for Edoardo, because his relationship with his father is tense with a history of sexual and professional rivalry. Edoardo’s impulse is to kill his father, but instead he gravitates like a sleep-walker to the bed of Pascasie, a black woman with whom he has developed a peculiar flirtatious rapport after a chance meeting on the banks of the Tiber.

Edoardo’s strange relationship with Pascasie is played out in allusive counterpoint with the situation depicted in a poem that Edoardo has thought a lot about – Mallarmé’s ‘A Negress Possessed by the Devil’, which describes (voyeuristically, Edoardo reckons) a sexual act performed by a Negro woman with a young white girl. The poem’s description of the black woman’s vulva as ‘the palate’ of a ‘strange mouth’ and ‘pale and pink as a sea-shell’ could happily pass for one of Roger Lambert’s erotic metaphors, among which, together with Verna’s pubic sea urchin, his wife Esther’s ‘underparts’ figure as ‘tidbits of rosy marzipan’ fed to his eyes during their illicit afternoons of love, before Roger left his first wife Lillian and the priesthood to marry her.

An inventive imagination like Roger Lambert’s, prone to be stimulated by sexual matters, is a common symptom of the voyeuristic mentality. For the voyeur’s relationship with the external world (especially the world of sex) has been disturbed, leaving him unlinked from its realities and only able to experience them pleasurably from a distance, in fantasy. It is to be supposed that the disturbance which results in the voyeur’s pathological detachment occurs to him in childhood, holding him back in the voyeuristic relation to adult reality which is natural to children. For example, the origin of Edoardo’s voyeuristic passivity is clearly traced to a terrifying scene that took place 27 years earlier. The eight-year-old Edoardo’s vague sense that something is wrong with his parents’ emotional and sexual relations receives brutal confirmation when he accidentally witnesses their love-making – alla more ferarum, with his father forcing his mother’s head down onto the desk in his study and demanding: ‘Tell me you’re my pig, tell me, or I’ll break your neck.’

The origins of Roger Lambert’s alienation from the realities of the adult world can be located in less specific memories. His recollections of childhood holidays with relatives in rural Ohio paint a pathetic picture of the small boy isolated in a sea of gross, uncaring adults: ‘the men horse-faced and leathery and placidly sexless but the women wide sloping mounds of fat trembling on the edge, it seemed to me, of indecency, with their self-conscious shrieks of laughter, their hands at each shriek darting to cover their mouths, their little teeth decayed and crooked, and the steaming food they were copiously setting on the table a malodorous double entendre, something which excited them, served up in an atmosphere heavy with barnyard innuendo as well as lugubrious piety’. Disgust, anger and fascination are about equally mixed in the brilliant and hilarious grotesques which make up Roger’s family album. The child with gleeful impunity savages the world which has rejected or overlooked it. But the consequence of this overreaching is guilt, fear of reprisal and – to ward this off – an equally savage and gleeful redoubling of disgust and anger upon the self. So it is no surprise that Roger should characterise himself as a bad man: for example, here, in a portrait of the evil, paranoid voyeur.

Secret glimpses ... of life proceeding unaware of my watching have always excited me. Of the days of my ministry I remember keenly the lit windows of my unsuspecting parishioners as I stealthily, in my burglarous black garb, approached up their front walks for an unannounced call, pouncing upon them in their evening disarray with the demands of the Absolute. Like eyes the windows seemed – defenceless, soft and bright – and like the wadded curves of interior flesh the arcs of sofa back and armchair and lamp base within. Esther, spied upon unawares, looked like prey – someone to sneak up on and rape, another man’s precious wife to defile, as a kind of message to him, scrawled in semen.

Within the confines of his head, Roger can let loose the beast in himself, just as Edoardo, watching the clouds behind the dome of St Peter’s, obsessively searches their random shapes for the menacing image of the nuclear mushroom, and when he finds it, takes ‘gloomy pleasure’ in ‘fantasising’ the basilica’s destruction. Edoardo knows, yet doesn’t know, that his fantasies are omnipotent delusions. Rationally, he is in no doubt that the clouds are just clouds, but he still tries to capture the ‘nuclear mushroom’ on a polaroid photograph, like someone attempting to prove the objective existence of a paranormal vision. In Roger Lambert’s thought processes, this sort of confusion is fundamental. He animates the inanimate constantly. A pink sugar-maple leaf is ‘like a small splayed hand clutching at the spilled wealth of beech leaves’, a row of derelict houses have been abandoned by their owners ‘like mumbling mental patients turned out on the street’, windows become eyes, armchairs thighs, gadgets (fridges, cash dispensers, cold drinks machines) think and communicate like people. As for people, Roger possesses their minds and bodies at will, imagining what they see and do in intense detail, as though he believed his visions were true. It is in this way that he creates the episode which dominates Roger’s Version: the supposed adultery between his wife and Dale Kohler.

Dale Kohler enters Roger’s Version on the first page, where we find him sitting in Roger’s office in the Divinity School, disturbing Roger’s cultivated academic complacency with a project to prove the existence of God by means of a complex modelling procedure in computer graphics. Roger dislikes Dale’s project, and he dislikes Dale (his red knuckles, his ‘unhealthy’ skin). But the mixture in the young man of callow Mid-Western openness and steely fundamentalist fervour rouses Roger – reluctant to be roused – from his preferred attitude of cynicism and indifference to an irritated contentiousness, and they get into the first of several debates about the impact of modern science on religious belief. Back at home, Esther, to rile Roger, takes Dale’s part and suggests inviting him over for Thanksgiving, along with Verna Ekelof, whom Dale also happens to know.

Esther takes a liking to Dale and invites him to tutor her son Richie in Maths, and Roger offers to give Verna help with the qualification she needs to lift herself out of the existential sump which she calls her life (she is 19, unmarried with a toddler, and lives in a social security project in a sleazy part of town). The consequences are inevitable. Verna’s tutorials become a seamy trade-off between Roger’s aperçus on the High School English curriculum and Verna’s clumsy striptease. And while Verna is flashing her sea urchin at Roger, Esther is screwing Dale in the Lambert’s attic. Or is she? We never know for sure, because at this point in the novel, Roger’s version of events takes off into open fantasy. His long lubricious day-dreams about Esther’s orgies with Dale seem to serve two purposes for him. They allow him to re-experience erotic pleasure in his wife. And they give him a sense of almost magical power over Dale. It is as though in fantasising for Dale a furious and consuming affair with his own wife, Roger can drain Dale of the energy he needs for his computer project – his Tower of Babel, as Roger calls it. Needless to say, Dale abandons his tower far short of heaven, but we don’t know how or why he failed any more than we know for sure that he was successful with Esther. Here too we depend upon Roger’s remarkable fancy. In a book bloated with imaginative intelligence, the chapter in which Roger visualises Dale’s decisive encounter with his personal daemon is a tour de force. Into the early hours of the morning Dale wrestles with his angel, feeding more and more data into the program he has devised to simulate the structure of life itself, then forcing it through ever more complex manipulations. At the climax of this Faustian frenzy, he suddenly thinks he sees a face in the tangle of graphics on his screen. Desperately, he tries to repeat the procedures that led to this fleeting vision, but the best he can come up with is a shadowy shape like a hand: the print-out is inconclusive. The substance and meaning of this scene are entirely determined by Roger and his way of seeing things. In Roger’s version Dale’s bid to find God on his VDU is an act of profanity or sacrilege, and the science of computing a species of secular black magic. It is interesting that both Roger and Moravia’s Edoardo regard scientists as voyeurs, prying into nature’s private places and snooping on a God who took good care that only his hind parts should be seen.

In the first part of Roger’s Version Dale is given full freedom to oppose Roger’s point of view. But his debates with Roger have the character of a dialectical exercise inside a single brain, an exercise which Roger himself rehearses by means of a virtuoso intellectual ventriloquism, like Rameau’s nephew singing all the roles in the opera and the orchestral parts as well.

The only area of Roger’s experience which seems to originate entirely outside his head is occupied by Verna Ekelof. She alone manages to stem the flow of Roger’s manic imaginative output and input something of her own. For Roger, Verna is the heavy woman, the universal whore, immature and unstable perhaps, but possessed of an instinctual understanding of the needs of this isolated, unhappy man. When Verna lifts her skirt, the aroma that wafts out is not exotic, like the ‘whiff of camel essence’ that wafted from Darryl Van Horne’s anus, telling tales of ancient China, but homely, pointing Roger to the West, to his childhood in Ohio and, further still, ‘back to the birth of life’. In Verna, Roger Lambert comes home: ‘Verna’s place had for me what some theologians call inwardness. My own house, on its “nice” street with its equally pricey neighbours, felt sometimes as if the life Esther and Richie and I lived behind its large windows were altogether for display.’

The merits of Roger’s Version weigh against its peculiarities. Roger Lambert’s remarkable ventriloquism, his facility in the languages of physics, biology, theology and computing, the sullen energy of his intelligence, are, of course, John Updike’s. And the achievements of Roger’s Version are familiar Updike achievements: his exceptional success in rendering personality types (Verna as against Esther, Dale versus Roger), and his ability to show how thought and intellect are mired in feeling and the flesh. But the question inevitably arises as to how much Roger’s version is a version of John’s version, and what, in the last analysis, Updike’s upshot may be deemed to be. Updike has recently pointed out that his novel is a version of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, rewritten, as it were, from the husband’s point of view. However, I have no doubt that, at a deeper level, Roger’s Version is an instalment in Updike’s psychobiography, itself a form of exhibitionism, a spiritual moony, so to speak. Updike bares the underparts of his personality to send the world a message. The message is one of defiance masking a deep hurt, a dirty protest at the outrageous cruelty and arbitrariness of creation: ‘this heartless indifference of things’, ‘the something half-formed and clumsy about all this abortive to-do we call life’. The validation of Roger’s Version lies in its managing at last to stop talking about this pain and actually represent it. It does this in a chapter which is nearly unbearable to read, when Roger has to go and help Verna with her little daughter, Paula, whom Verna, at the end of her tether, has hit once too often. Around the figure of the battered baby the rest of Roger’s Version falls into place.

As I read Josef Skvorecky’s new novel, it occurred to me that, however else one might characterise Roger Lambert’s version of the world, nothing would be more appropriate than to say of it, adapting Berryman, that it was ‘horribly unlike Dvořák’. For, like the music of Bach, though unlike it in any other way, the music of Dvořák has nothing unwholesome in it. Like Bach’s, it is music that draws on a deep and simple religious faith, of a kind that Roger Lambert and Dale Kohler lack. Its darkest mood is a touching and melancholy sadness. Pain like Paula Ekelof’s, or the harshness of a world in which there are ‘infants that have had their legs yanked apart and their pelvises snapped’, falls far outside its register. So it is not unfitting that Skvorecky should fail to deepen the range of reference of his novel to include the nastier aspects of life. In the patchwork of personal memoirs from which Dvořák in Love is cleverly stitched together, the stories of the sufferings of American slaves and immigrants seem to have been inserted out of a token piety. The natural tone of the book is much lighter, in keeping with the personality and music it celebrates.

Even sensible people when they talk about music seem to go soft in the head. A sickening and sycophantic reverence creeps into their discourse, and it becomes apparent that music is now a religion, with musicians its ministers by divine calling. Josef Skvorecky, whom we know to be a sensible man, is no exception. ‘Music from heaven’, ‘the heaven-sent gift that distinguishes a real musician’, ‘tones’ which are ‘as close as they could be to heaven’: there is far too much of this sort of talk in Dvořák in Love, and far too much charming and inoffensive behaviour on the part of its main characters. As if sensing the danger that his novel will relax into ‘entertainment for all the family’, Skvorecky spices things up from time to time: ‘she found what she was looking for, turned towards him, and with her supple, pianist’s fingers, drew it over his upright shaft.’ The effect is appallingly vulgar.

Despite these strains of triteness, Dvořák in Love is an inventive and unusual novel. Its originality lies in the ingenious way it weaves the story of Anton Dvořák’s unfulfilled love for his sister-in-law, Countess Josephine Kounic, around an account of his time at the National Conservatory of Music in New York between 1892 and 1895, including the summer which he spent in Spillville, Iowa, an outpost of Bohemia on the Great Plains.

It isn’t difficult to see why the idea of writing a novel about Bohemia’s greatest composer on sabbatical in America should have appealed to Skvorecky. After the events of 1968, he too left Czechoslovakia for the New World. With his past experience, he has good reason to set store by an innocent love of life such as he feels Dvořák’s music expresses and America does not openly repress. How much more so, then, Primo Levi, who lived through Auschwitz, and who, forty years later, continues to bear witness to what he saw. The 15 stories collected in Moments of Reprieve record episodes which let a chink of light into the dark universe of the camp. They commemorate individuals whose love of life, even under those most degraded and degrading conditions, managed to express itself: ‘the few, the different, the ones in whom (if only for a moment) I had recognised the will and the capacity to react, and hence a rudiment of virtue’. Rappoport – ‘shrewd, violent, and happy as the adventurers of earlier days’; Tischler who ‘never succumbed to lethargy’; Bandi who ‘had a unique talent for happiness’; Joel König ‘incapable of hatred or violence, in love with life, adventure and joy’. To remain vital in such circumstances is, these stories quietly argue, to be truly good. To continue on the side of life, even in the kingdom of death. To maintain human dignity in the anus mundi.

The parsimony of Moments of Reprieve (the stories are only a few pages long) is exemplary. Everything in them, as Saul Bellow has said, is essential. In their thrift, they draw attention to an aspect of the world they describe, where the only contact with the outside world is a scrap of newspaper salvaged furtively from a rubbish bin; where a torn piece of cement bag could provide critical extra warmth; where to give someone half an apple or a radish is to bestow a priceless treasure; where a tune played on a violin is a message from heaven.

The saddest figure in the collection is Lorenzo. Lorenzo was not a prisoner but a worker in the camp, and he put himself at great risk to help Levi and, as Levi was later to find out, many other prisoners. When Levi goes to visit Lorenzo in Italy after the war, he finds ‘a tired man ... mortally tired, a weariness without remedy’: ‘I understood that his margin of love of life had thinned, almost disappeared ... He had seen the world, he didn’t like it, he felt it was going to ruin. To live no longer interested him.’ As I read this, I was reminded, to my surprise, of Roger Lambert, and it was then that I realised what a serious novel Roger’s Version is. For Roger’s version of the world is much closer to Levi’s than the diversionary nature of Updike’s text initially leads one to think. The last words of Moments of Reprieve could well have stood in the place of the quotations from Kierkegaard, St Matthew and Karl Barth with which Updike prefaces his novel: ‘we too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting.’