Falling in love with the traffic warden

John Bayley

  • Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton
    Hogarth, 528 pp, £4.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 7012 0751 5
  • Trust Me by John Updike
    Deutsch, 249 pp, £9.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 394 55833 2
  • Her Story: A Novel by Dan Jacobson
    Deutsch, 142 pp, £8.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 233 98116 0

Patrick Hamilton is remembered today, if at all, for the short pre-war novel Hangover Square, and the stage thrillers Rope and Gaslight. They are good of their kind, but they lack the feel of involuntary masterpieces which still attends their up till now vanished predecessor – the trilogy of novels brought together in 1935 as Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky. The novels of this trilogy are like first love, whose obsessional joys and miseries are indeed their chief subject. After that, Patrick Hamilton had discovered his milieu and his métier, and he cultivated them professionally with a canny eye to commercial possibilities. Following the war years, and his successes on stage and screen, he returned to something like the early formula in his novel The Slaves of Solitude, with its heroine the lonely spinster Miss Roach. This was the new Barbara Pym country, and he did not quite make it his own. The same applies to an unfinished trilogy, set in Brighton, about a psychopath and potential murderer, Ralph Gorse. Haunting and memorable as its early part is, with the sense of something really nasty still to come, it remains on the level of accomplishment rather than inspired achievement. A long terminal illness forced the author to abandon it. He died in 1962.

In his admirably perceptive introduction to the now reprinted masterpiece, Michael Holroyd comments on Hamilton’s Scottish provenance, something that had never occurred to me when I first took to him. His father had been an eccentric and a ‘character’, whose powers of acting and sermonising had been complimented by no less a connoisseur than Henry Irving, but who must have been a terrible father, particularly at moments when he took his parental duties with Calvinist solemnity. Patrick probably inherited a taste for drink and drama, a touch of Scottish diablerie with literary affiliations in James Hogg, and in such a novel as George Douglas’s The House with the Green Shutters. These are certainly present in the more sensational side of his work. But Twenty Thousand Streets has a quite different and much more English atmosphere, finding its models (and they are very obviously to be detected) in Dickens, J.B. Priestley and Somerset Maugham. It is these antecedents which bring out the work’s true individuality.

This consists to a very large extent in the dégustation, as the French say, of boredom: excruciating, fascinating, endless banality, interspersed – not varied – with a pathos so homely and total that it brings tears to the eyes. Beckett and Pinter have nothing on Patrick Hamilton at his best: in fact, beside him they seem as mannered and as formulaic as the Jacobean dramatists do after Shakespeare. Patrick Hamilton is not exploiting urban boredom, or making it witty: it just comes up in a great wave out of his commitment to his subject, to the pubs and prostitutes and streets, the flotsam of the great dense city. Nothing is on show, or self-consciously revealed. As Holroyd says, the appalling monster-bores of Hamilton’s pub, the Midnight Bell (which is also the title of the trilogy’s first volume), ‘divert us by driving the other characters to distraction’, as they pursue their inanely meticulous little ploys. They are all around us, not shown from a distance. As Keats remarked of his fellow city-dwellers, ‘the creature has a purpose, and its eyes are bright with it.’ Almost as if by accident, Hamilton contrived an artistic truth out of Dr Johnson’s observation that nothing is too little for so little a creature as man.

It is for these reasons that even the Times was moved to comment in its obituary that Hamilton was ‘a genuine minor poet of the loneliness, purposelessness and frustration of contemporary urban life’. Handsome as it seems, the tribute is misleading. Urban life is the same everywhere, and always has been, and only during the last century has it become a fashionable cliché to refer to it in these terms. Where Hamilton is concerned, it would be equally true to say he is a connoisseur of the excitements, obsessions and enjoyments of urban life, for his characters are submerged in these, as they are in the pubs, the cinemas and Lyons Corner Houses, and all the rituals and consolations of such places. The Midnight Bell, the most directly autobiographical of the trilogy, recounts the obsession of Bob, the young waiter at the pub, with the prostitute Jenny, who happens to come in one day. Hamilton himself had much the same experience, but Bob, an ex-merchant seaman, is very much a character in his own right. The barmaid, Ella, loves him hopelessly, and he is always nice to her. What a cliché situation, and yet Hamilton makes the trio astonishingly individualised – seeing, for example, the natural refinement of Bob, and his old fondness for reading history books, through Ella’s hopelessly devoted gaze.

There is no sense of ‘waste’ in all this. Hamilton became a Marxist, like many writers of the time, and the need for something to believe in can be felt in the background of his literary persona, but it does not impose itself on the people whom he describes with such intimacy and understanding. The second volume of the trilogy, The Siege of Pleasure, is about Jenny, and how she became a prostitute, and here the plot does receive a certain stiffening of dogma which carries it along all the more authoritatively. Her downfall may be due to drink and social pressures, and yet the novel inexorably shows that Jenny is the sort of girl – and not a bad sort either – who is bound for trouble. Today she would be a one-parent family with a permanent entourage of social workers. The last section of the trilogy, about Ella, is in some ways the most moving. Ella is one of the losers, but is not in the least sentimentalised. Her sober charms always seem to attract the wrong kind of suitor – bores adore her endless patience and good nature – and after Bob’s disappearance she ends up in her old job as barmaid at the Midnight Bell.

It is instructive to compare John Updike’s literary persona with that of Hamilton, for in many ways they have almost exactly the same kind of talents. Both are experts in the area where social comedy abuts on the most precise instinct for what a society is like, and what details and fashions and expectations reveal its temporarily true nature. Their interest in urban detail is as obsessive as that of the great realists of the last century – Zola, Galdos, Alas. Both demonstrate an ambiguous morality, all the more interesting for the difficulty it has in separating its obsessive from its contemplative nature. Updike’s interest in religion, like Hamilton’s Marxism, may play a needful part in his inspiration as a writer but it is of no great interest to his appreciative reader. Reading him is in a sense more like watching: watching an endlessly composite Torvill and Dean traversing in their brilliant athletic curves. And Updike manages somehow to combine the display of being best at the sport with quite different human qualities – warmth, eagerness, tentativeness, an air of complete approachability.

His new story collection is marvellously good, exhibiting all these paradoxical qualities at their best. In keeping with the need among publishers and teachers of literature to find shape, development, new themes, in the writers they nurse and expound, the blurb begins with the claim that ‘the theme of trust, betrayed or fulfilled, runs through Mr Updike’s new collection of short stories.’ Maybe so. Maybe Patrick Hamilton’s claim to endure is in the social message of 1930 printed out among the prostitutes and pubs. But the real distinction of both writers is in something much more involuntary than that. Though Updike has none of Hamilton’s intimacy with obsession, he has the same absorbing love of lives as a perpetual fall-out of tactile and acoustic detail, supporting by its own weight, as it were, the span of years which forms the structure of the tale. Updike’s true genius has to do with his sense of time in relation to the technology of living. The backward look embraces a succession of miniature lifestyles, visible like the rings of a tree when it is felled and finished. The sadness of things is for him a source of humour both literal and buoyant. Any other mode of fictional progression, as in the Rabbit and Henry Bech series, in The Witches of Eastwick (funny though that was), and in Roger’s Version, adds too much contrivance to this native awareness of domestic patterning. His great talent will try anything that looks like being a success, in much the same way that Patrick Hamilton’s did. When Philip Roth was selling his millions, and explicit sex was all the rage, Updike competed with Couples, which failed by exaggerating and specialising his natural sense of things, in all the senses of that ancient and convenient word.

Things and short stories go together. Though all his books draw from the generous fund of his skill and his artist’s good nature, the short pieces profit the most from it. In ‘Still of Some Use’, (a characteristic title), a divorced husband and his children and ex-wife are clearing out the attic as they prepare to leave their home and take their separate ways. The substance and symbol of things here are discarded games sets. ‘Discovered in their bright flat boxes between trunks of outgrown clothes and defunct appliances, the games presented a forceful semblance of value: the springs of their miniature launchers still stretched, the logic of their instructions would still generate suspense, given a chance.’ The ‘forceful semblance of value’ mingles our pleasure in the stories with our nostalgic pleasure in vanishing things.

No writer today is less abstract and cagey, in the modern manner, than John Updike. He boldly identifies the quality of his art, and the entertainment and comfort it gives, with the discards of existence, artefacts and trivialities of being, and the way consciousness clings to them. Or at least the mature male consciousness: women and the young are all for pressing on regardless, indifferent to the haunted debris of the last marriage, the former parental home. But the man, the Updike awareness, is fascinated by the formal movement and succession of marriages, an almost stately chain, with the partners waiting to take their new places and form new habits in contrast to the old ones, which the new ones come to resemble. In the Cartesian sense, a new wife exists because she is not the previous one passed on in the dance figure, yet her existence depends on the interrelation, even on her capacity to exploit it. The male partner feeds on his predecessor’s personality, a ghostly but substantial thing, a shed skin or discarded larva. In ‘Beautiful Husbands’ the vanished husband at last becomes boring: his wraps fall from his ex-wife, ‘so that Dulcie at last stood naked, fit to be loved’. But perhaps she has lost in the process what made her lovable? Another new wife, who charms by her gift of mimicry as well as her liveliness in bed, finally sinks into the comfortably unresponsive habits of her predecessor. Marital America, or at least East Coast marriage customs, seem to depend on the nutrients supplied by these exchanges.

Nothing could be less cynical, however, than Updike’s enjoyment. He gives its full due to a society unflaggingly competitive in social matters, like a school game. These matters constitute the poetry of life, and the sadness is itself part of the game, though it is rare indeed for any partner to be left not playing it. So good is Updike that he persuades us this is true social fact in America, as well as aesthetically convenient for his stories’ purposes. His kindness has nonetheless an element of valediction in it. In one of the most moving tales, ‘More Stately Mansions’, one husband drops out into alcoholism and is visited by the narrator, who used to go to bed with his wife, now long moved on to another spouse. The narrator remembers her appearance as part of that of the spare room they made love in. Her thing, and the things of the room, are what survive. Inconspicuously, these are very precise social chronicles of how the Sixties turned into the Seventies and Eighties.

They are also old-fashioned, in the best sense: less epiphanies than anecdotes, but cunningly constructed to get the best of both. In an anecdote you fall in love with the traffic warden, say, as she gives you the ticket, and marry her, and then find she is only interested in being a traffic warden. With an epiphany she gives you the ticket and it’s an experience for you both and that’s the end of it. Updike’s plots are exemplified by ‘Made in Heaven’, in which the man falls in love with the girl because she goes to church. An atheist, he loves to go with her. They marry and he becomes a churchwarden, an Episcopalian pillar. The years pass and their children grow up and have their own troubles, and the wife comes to church with her husband, but prefers to sit at home in a little room of her own. She gets cancer and won’t see the vicar. She doesn’t believe any more; never has believed; she just liked to go to church by herself, and her husband has taken that away from her. The anecdote makes the obvious point, but the epiphany – and it is there – shows that they have had a happy and tender and loving marriage, and that they are very lucky people.

On the cover of Her Story, very well reproduced, is a detail from a Botticelli painting. Exquisite in detail, it also seems familiar because of the subject. In the delicate swirl of the composition a woman in a blue robe looks down on the child who clings with both hands to her hand and arm, a child whose beauty – he is a handsome, chubby little boy – seems a reflection of what is seen by the woman’s downcast eyes and in her stoically anxious face. There are other details: a young man, a pet dog, a swordhilt and caparisoned arm. A familiar subject surely? The Holy Family on their flight into Egypt?

Not quite. As we learn from the end flap of the jacket, either before or after we have finished reading the book, the subject of the painting is Moses leaving Egypt. The little boy is not Moses, nor is he Jesus, though he might be either, as well as being an anonymous little boy. And that is an image of the way Dan Jacobson has constructed his story – his story being Her Story. It makes a remarkable novel, of a most unusual kind. It shows the unexpectedness and versatility of Jacobson’s powers as a novelist, but also, and even more impressively, his capacity for deep unclever sympathies. His virtuosity and his sympathy are not necessarily quite in line with each other: but their separateness enhances the effect of both. Conrad often gives the same impression, and like Conrad Jacobson is a stylist in the old-fashioned sense. His novels, too, each address a particular problem, in terms of specification and technique. He never repeats a formula.

That being said, he has a fascination with Bible stories, and the ways in which they can be secularised by the cunning of art, to deprive them of their legendary status. The epigraph to The Rape of Tamar (1970) is a quotation from Osip Mandelstam’s memoir, The Noise of Time. ‘I repeat: my memory is not loving but inimical, and it labours not to reproduce but to distance the past.’ Our familiarity with the past is so cosy: Jacobson uses fiction with force and delicacy to alienate it and make it strange. Yonadab, King David’s nephew, the narrator of The Rape of Tamar, observes dryly on the last page that history has recently been invented by Abiathar the priest, whom Biblical scholars have named ‘The Court Historian’.

A remarkable man, Abiathar. A truly original one. The founder of much more than a mere genre of writing. Before Abiathar, what was there in the way of history? Myths and legends of every variety, many of them obscene and ridiculous; unreliable lists of the names of kings; inflated rolls of battle honours; bloodthirsty execration tablets. Abiathar changed all that, single-handed; and the consequences are still being felt in every aspect of your moral and intellectual life.

Yonadab’s irony, suggesting as it does that Abiathar’s version of history is not really very different from the old legendary sort, is not allowed to get out of hand. But the novel had its own kind of sensationalism. Its elegance, its air at times of a prose poem, highly praised at the time by those old troupers, Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee, could also be felt to be inimical to Jacobson’s real sympathies, his own personality. It alienated him from his own book, and although this gave the book certain stylish advantages it also left on the reader a sense of flatness and emptiness. It seemed all ready to be made into the play Yonadab, by Peter Shaffer, which accentuated the vacuum of style and gave it a purely theatrical emphasis. The real trouble, perhaps, was that Jacobson had seen all too clearly what a good story the rape of King David’s only daughter, by his eldest son, makes in the Bible. It joins up with the story of Absalom, and with the excellent but disregarded advice given him by Achitophel; with the marvellously equivocal personality of David, best suggested in the great canvas of Rembrandt, where he plays the harp before Saul. Yonadab, the observer and insinuator – that ‘subtile’ man, as the Authorised Version calls him, is very much a standard article both in Jacobson’s and in Shaffer’s versions. None the less The Rape of Tamar is in its own way a masterpiece of narration, thoroughly deserving its success, and gripping to read. Its defect comes from its virtuosity in one sense, for it refuses the rewards of the good story that it none the less cannot help being.

Her Story is not a good story at all, but something much more interesting and more moving. The introduction begins: ‘Celia Dinan was born in London almost three centuries ago, in 2007. She died in the west of England at the age of forty.’ So. One of those, eh? But one notices how even in two bald sentences the ingenuities of fable are tempered by something more simple: ‘the west of England’ is not a phrase one associates with whatever may be going on in the year 2000. And this gives an indication of the novel’s imaginative structure, which plays off the preliminary apparatus of Science Fiction against a notion of the timeless, the unendingly anonymous in human affairs, and particularly in female existence. This is not about the historical but about the continuing. In The Rape of Tamar the interest was to some extent displaced from the Bible story on to individuals. What was poor Tamar like – a rather spoilt self-possessed girl? And what about Amnon, the clumsy and ineffectual first-born who did her wrong, and Solomon, his crafty little brother – all by different wives, of course – and what, above all, about King David himself? These are the ingredients of an admirable tale, a tale in which a sense of the past combines with the drama of individual motivation in the high life of any age. There are no individuals, in this sense, in Her Story.

The changes apparent in the England of 2007 are social and religious rather than political. In the course of building alterations to a large Islamic boarding-school for girls, in the Home Counties, some papers come to light in an old trunk in a disused attic. The school itself carries with it a suggestion of the Biblical world brought up to date. ‘The girls, all of whom are from wealthy homes, and most of whom are destined to become the wives of Members of Parliament, senior civil servants, army officers, judges, and directors of companies, may be sure of remaining in the seclusion demanded of them by the religion which they and their husbands-to-be follow.’ The Chairwoman of the Local History Association, who devotedly preserved and studied the papers and arranged their publication, has a Japanese name.

Celia Dinan was herself the daughter of a peer, ennobled for his services to medicine. He and his daughter fell out in some way, but as the editor sagely remarks, it would be unwise to think of this case as exemplifying ‘the stresses which were felt especially acutely within the institution of the family during that remote historical period’. What is certain is that Celia Dinan abruptly left London and went to live in New York and eventually in California with a faith healer and founder of a sect. She bore a son, but the baby was killed by accident in the riot which brought the commune to a close. Returning to England, Celia had a job of sorts for a few years, during which she presumably composed her one ‘novel’. In the spring of 2045 she took a trip to the Middle East, to the countries ‘that now form part of the Arabian republic’, and she may have showed a renewed interest in the thesis work she had once done ‘at the Courtauld (Ibn Omar) Institute, then one of the large number of institutions affiliated to the old, unreformed London University’.

The method makes the girl curiously alive in one sense, while distancing her totally in another. At about the age of forty she died in an accident which might have been suicide, and that is all there is to her, except the notebooks which make up Her Story. This is written in a careful, mildly pretentious style, which seems suited to what we can deduce of the anonymous, vanished woman who gave up ordinary life to follow a faith healer, who had an interest in the Madonna in art (although her supervisor probably steered her towards it as a thesis subject) and in the life of the Middle East. Such an intimate anonymity is the keynote of Jacobson’s strangely moving book. All that the antiquarian can find out about Celia’s mother is that she was a Miss Yerkes, who came from the North, but no photos of her seem to have survived, and unlike her husband she had no obituary notice in the Times. ‘Like many Englishwomen of that era, and of the eras that preceded and followed it, her life appears to have been effectively overshadowed or swallowed up by those of her husband and her child.’ The novelist seems just to notice this fact, but it goes conveniently with an imagined Islamic future. The editor’s point is made more self-consciously in the first notebook of Her Story, with reference to its heroine, who is as faceless as Celia herself.

I shall try. Women like you are always to be found: unknown, anonymous, taken-for-granted women. There is never a shortage of them. No shortage of children for them either. No end of hope, and of the loss of hope.

‘Women like you’ means of course ‘women like me’, and Jacobson has gently and delicately allowed, as it were, for his heroine’s inability to escape from ‘self-expression’, while endowing her with the talent to overcome it, to generalise into real anonymity and dignity the situation which she knows.

The abuse of Tamar individualised her, as the obsession of her brother the rapist did for him. Even so, Jacobson could really only follow out the laconic saga indication in the Book of Samuel, that Amnon hated her after it as much as he had desired her before, and transpose this into modern terminology. In Amnon’s words, it was ‘just another fuck, really’. The author could also hardly avoid near-pornography in his virtuoso description of the rape, and of Amnon’s climactic death at the hands of Absalom and his followers. The Old Testament shows us that sexual disillusionment was as much a feature of life in ancient Jerusalem as in Victorian London, but Jacobson is too good a writer simply to want to underline points like these. As his other novels show, and particularly The Confessions of Josef Baisz, he is too humane and ruminative a novelist to make smart points about current issues. The near miraculous thing about Her Story is the way he avoids doing anything of the sort, partly through the skill of his distancing technique where his ‘Celia Dinan’ is concerned, partly through trusting the very simplicity of his idea.

We take in, bit by bit, that the woman of Her Story inhabits some Biblical country and epoch. Our first suspicion, naturally, is that this is Mary herself, and in a sense we are right. It could be, but it isn’t; and the sense in which it isn’t further enlarges the theme, and adds to its dimension, without scoring any ingenuity of plot or suspense detection. As the blurb very reasonably puts it, ‘readers will discover that the heroine of Celia Dinan’s novel is someone to whom they have never before given a thought, and yet whose identity and fate will be wholly and startlingly recognisable to them.’ True, and even more potent in the impression it makes on the reader is a sense of the claims of passivity. Her Story is about mothers who lose their sons, for different reasons, and who may find them again. It also suggests a connection between the militancy of religious political sects, and the passivity of the women who attach themselves to such sects. Could it be that Christ’s abnegation of worldly power, if by any chance it is founded in some sort of historic truth, could have come from a realisation about the nature of his mother, or perhaps from a rediscovery of her? Celia Dinan may have felt it to be so, in her bereavement, which is that of all mothers, no matter at what age they lose their child.

But this is a spacious text, too, which among other things may leave us wondering whether maternity, and all that goes with it, is not in the last resort a masculine invention, an image men’s minds need, to fit into their other and more strenuous imaginings. Would Celia Dinan really have written Her Story? Would she not rather have enacted it, perhaps in a diary, before she joined the great host of vanished women with no memorial? Lawrence Lerner once wrote a poem, much admired by Larkin and included by him in his Oxford Book of 20th-century English Verse, about the fate of being a woman (‘Having to change your name and your hair-style at least once’), which marks an in some ways similar masculine attitude about femaleness as the only state which is ‘fully human’. We may remember also that the heroine of The Cocktail Party is a Celia, and that its author obviously felt a deep admiration for her choice and her fate.

Dan Jacobson’s autobiography, Time and Time Again, one of his most compelling books, reveals a novelist not only of unusual talent but of unusual compassion. Where unforgiving literature is concerned, the one in a sense has to produce the other, and to authenticate it. Even so there is a big difference between a story like Kipling’s ‘The Gardener’, which uses a subtle narrative ploy as well as a Biblical image to reveal a state of bereavement, and the simple way in which Vasily Grossman did the same thing in his novel about the Russian war, Life and Fate. Jacobson’s approach in Her Story is much closer to the latter, in spite of the way in which he sets up his situation. It remains heartbreakingly simple.