She drew from her garter a dear little dagger …

John Bayley

  • In the Tennessee Country: A Novel by Peter Taylor
    Chatto, 226 pp, £14.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6253 8

Perhaps only new countries can have a real past, peopled with genuine ghosts and filled with authentic records. Or it is countries other than one’s own that are so endowed? Any place that peoples the mind and compels the imagination is not likely to be our own: that past and place are founded, for our own self-preservation, on some variety of Larkin’s ‘forgotten boredom’. And only the best writers can deliberately reveal their own past as a foreign country, where things are differently done.

I had not encountered the Tennessee novelist Peter Taylor before, and this book came as something of a revelation. As a writer he has the gift, which seems both wholly natural and yet to go with a very conscious discipline and decorum, of putting the reader calmly inside his world in his first few sentences. That itself is a gift from the past, as in Jane Austen or Trollope, which some writers of the present can learn to make use of without seeming to be at all artificial, or to be going beyond themselves. Peter Taylor’s voice appears to be as inevitably his own, and yet as much at home with past generations, as Turgenev’s or Aksakov’s, both of whom were endowing what amounted to a new country with the taste and feel of an older literary civility, like Siegfried Sassoon’s in his imaginary memoirs or, if it comes to that, L.P. Hartley’s – he who coined that now famous phrase about the foreignness of the past, as his opening for The Go-Between. All these writers seem at ease with their past selves in a densely social and not strongly individualised sense. At the same time that past can create for literature a self and a voice unlike any other.

‘In the Tennessee country of my forebears it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear.’ Taylor’s first sentence possesses all that old art of settling us down, making us feel at home. The man who disappears is Cousin Aubrey – Aubrey Tucker Bradshaw – the natural son of a maternal great-uncle, whose acquaintance the author first makes on a special funeral train, bearing the body of his grandfather, a celebrated senator, from Washington back home to Nashville, Tennessee. Peter Taylor’s grandfather was in fact, as we learn from the sleeve of the novel, a legendary figure in his own lifetime, a much revered governor of the state, and later a senator. But the wholly fictional spell of the novel is not disturbed for a moment by any of these similarities: indeed, the more obvious the equivalence between the real Peter Taylor and Bradshaw the son, husband and art historian of the novel, the more effectively the novel realises itself as an immaculate piece of fiction, and a subtly unpretentious work of art.

The phenomenon of Cousin Aubrey provides what plot is needed; and at the same time his status as a man of mystery – though in the family he is seen as merely outlandish, even absurd – makes a perfect contrast with the intimacy the reader immediately feels with the narrator’s other relatives, and with the general tenor of his perceptions. As a young man Aubrey has his place as the Governor’s dogsbody, hiring carriages, taking a hand at cards, and squiring the Governor’s daughters on their shopping expeditions downtown. In a Gatsby-like manner he seizes every opportunity and odd moment for self-improvement – he was often discovered by the narrator’s mother, a serious miss of 14, reading ‘something profound and arcane’ on a chair near the door of the Governor’s suite.

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