Downhill Racer

John Sutherland

  • Lying together by D.M. Thomas
    Gollancz, 255 pp, £13.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 575 04802 6
  • The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole
    Viking, 162 pp, £12.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 670 82908 0
  • Solomon Gursky was here by Mordecai Richler
    Chatto, 576 pp, £13.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 394 53995 8
  • Death of the Soap Queen by Peter Prince
    Bloomsbury, 277 pp, £13.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0611 6

Lying together marks the end (one hopes) of a sequence of novels D.M. Thomas began in 1983 with Ararat. Now called in its entirety ‘Russian Nights’, the sequence has been a fluid thing. At various points Thomas projected a trilogy and a quartet. In the event, ‘Russian Nights’ has turned out to be five novels long. Five novels too long, some might say. Thomas admits in his preface that ‘I kept changing my mind about whether the work was finished. I should have realised that an author does not decide this; the work itself decides, by suddenly letting go – as it has now done.’

It would have been convenient for Thomas’s career if the work had let go earlier. He began the ‘Russian Nights’ enterprise on the crest of a wave. The White Hotel (1981) catapulted him to international fame. It was a novelist’s fairy-tale: ignored or ridiculed as high-falutin’ pornography in the UK, Thomas’s Freudian fantasia sold only a few hundred and seemed destined for oblivion. But it was unexpectedly picked up in America, where enthusiasm for it became a rage. Pocket Books printed a million copies in paperback and sold them as fast as they hit the bookshop shelves. The novel was put on syllabuses in every forward-thinking English department in the country.

Ararat came out in the wake of The White Hotel’s triumph and was minutely examined by British reviewers, wary about being caught napping again. But the new novel was not easy to applaud or even to comprehend. Summarising any Thomas plot is like trying to stick soap bubbles in a stamp-album, but Ararat is exceptionally elusive, even with seven years’ hindsight. It begins with the resonant sentence: ‘Sergei Rozanov had made an unnecessary journey from Moscow to Gorky, simply in order to sleep with a young blind woman.’ He is a poet, she is a student of his work whom he has never met before. It is a hot October night in the early 1980s and after copulation (‘acrobatic but lacking in finesse’), Rozanov and his partner find themselves unable to sleep. He might drop in on the exiled Sakharovs, he thinks. Instead, Olga suggests he improvise a story to while away the night. What theme? he asks. ‘Improvisations,’ she gives him.

So begins the long ‘Russian Nights’ invention. Improvising, Rozanov imagines three writers themselves improvising stories one sultry October night. From this, there unravels a baffling tangle of tales within tales and dreams within dreams. Connection is Thomas’s obsession in the sequence: ‘the mysterious way in which a word, an image, a dream, a story, calls up another, connected yet independent’. Reading the quintet, one is unsettled by a reality for ever melting into fantasy only to harden back into new reality. And in Lying together we learn that the original point of departure – the writer leaving for an assignation with a blind interpreter – was itself only a metaphor for creativity.

Improvisational novels are risky from a market point of view. Most readers want firmer anchorage than Thomas is willing to supply. In other ways, he has squandered the huge public which he inherited with The White Hotel. ‘Russian Nights’ presupposes that the Anglophone reader shares Thomas’s obsession with things Slav. Few do. It also requires that the reader grasp a running and subtle allusion to Pushkin’s fable of improvisation, Egyptian Nights. Thomas helpfully inserted the whole of his translation of the text of this unfinished work into Ararat. Even so, the majority of readers who don’t have Pushkin at their fingertips must read the sequence with a nagging sense of cultural inferiority. (‘Idiot Brits’ is a phrase Thomas likes to throw around.)

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