Smorgasbits

Ian Sansom

  • The Devil's Larder by Jim Crace
    Viking, 194 pp, £12.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 670 88145 7

According to Henry James, reviewing John Cross’s life of George Eliot,

the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life. There is nothing more singular or striking in Mr Cross’s volumes than the absence of any indication, up to the time the Scenes of Clerical Life were published, that Miss Evans was a likely person to have written them; unless it be the absence of any indication, after they were published, that the deeply studious, concentrated, home-keeping Mrs Lewes was a likely person to have produced their successors.

Before the publication of his first book, Continent, in 1986, Jim Crace worked as a freelance features journalist for the Sunday Telegraph. He’d written a few short stories, some radio plays, and had won the Socialist Challenge short story competition (judged by challenging socialist Terry Eagleton). A website, www.jim-crace.com, will give you all the facts – which don’t exactly show ‘an absence of any indication’, but are unexceptional (apart from the fact that he lives in Birmingham). Asked by the Financial Times, ‘What do you do for fun?’ Crace replied: ‘Walk dog, mow lawn, play tennis, put world to rights.’ Just the normal then.

By the time Continent was published Crace was already 40 – in the full bloom of adulthood – and the book announced itself prematurely old: ‘Consider your inheritance, fellow students. Enumerate and evaluate. You are the sons and daughters of rich men. Who else but rich fathers could spare the money for tuition fees, for examination bribes, for graduation robes?’ The narrator sounds like a college student giving a commencement address, or Kurt Vonnegut without the jokes: a voice assuming a certain wisdom. Later in Continent, Crace tells the story of an elderly calligrapher and explains the old man’s careful procedures: ‘He is seeking beauty of the highest intellectual order, the most contemplative, the most civilised and sophisticated. There can be no haste.’ There has been no haste: a stately seven books from calligraph Crace in 15 years.

Crace has had what one might call a Victorian career – the apprenticeship in the papers, the confident late start guaranteeing imaginative freedom, the big whiskery ideas, and a fine, deep, but forgiving style which has granted him popularity – with both the advantages and the disadvantages of such a venerable pedigree and position. He is a writer who appears to be working in mahogany and not plain pine. Or perhaps he works in plain pine and stains it mahogany; sometimes it’s difficult to tell. Certainly there are none of the warps, the jestings, the weepy precipitations and amber preciosities that characterise nearly all contemporary fiction. Cutting his teeth on pulp, on the mags and papers, Crace served his time, worked his way through the usual mistakes, and then emerged as a novelist, indentured. His journalism was pretty sure of itself, but these days his sentences sound forth as hoary pronouncements, less like Dickens and more like Alfred Lord Tennyson: speculative, morbid and poetic. Significantly, and most shockingly, there is no trace of bathos, that most common and undignified of modern effects, running beneath and below his lines. Indeed, in all the thousands of pages of Crace just about the only flippancy to be found is in his new book, The Devil’s Larder, in which a hippy baker is described who ‘wore flour in his hair’. It’s the kind of joke your dad might make. Or a vicar.

Like all good atheists, and Victorians, Crace is preoccupied with religion. In fact, he’s churchy. On the dark glass of the page he reads like a rather solemn soul who regards lightheartedness as blasphemy; in person, no doubt, he’s a laugh. Reading his novels no one could doubt his seriousness of purpose: in The Gift of Stones (1988) he does prehistory; in Arcadia (1992), the city; Signals of Distress (1994) covers the 19th century; Quarantine (1997), the origins of the myth of the Christ; and Being Dead (1999) does death. Reading all this, reading Crace, gives one that delicious feeling, that feeling familiar from school assemblies, political meetings, committees, lectures and services, that feeling, in the face of zeal and high ideals and in the hearing of whithers and whys and wherefores: that sense of oneself as facetious. In Being Dead, for example:

Life is. It goes. It does not count . . . No one transcends. There is no future and no past. There is no remedy for death – or birth – except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.

It’s almost enough to make you titter.

Which is why, despite all his serious efforts, the Rev. Crace remains rather amusing – in the same way that, say, D.H. Lawrence, the Most Rev., was rather amusing. To be holy is to be ridiculous, and also to lack a sense of the ridiculous. After a lifetime’s searching, Lawrence finally found some kindred spirits, a people worthy of respect, the Etruscans. ‘To the Etruscan all was alive,’ he wrote in Etruscan Places, ‘the whole universe lived; and the business of man was himself to live amid it all. He had to draw life into himself, out of the wandering huge vitalities of the world.’ The only problem with the Etruscans, of course, was that they were dead. They would have hit it off with Crace.

Death is inescapable in his work. Indeed, most of his characters seem to have achieved a state of non-being. In Being Dead this is literally the case: Joseph and Celice are murdered at the beginning of the book and decompose through the course of it. Arcadia begins: ‘No wonder Victor never fell in love. A childhood like the one he had would make ice-cubes of us all.’ Aymer Smith, in Signals of Distress, is completely other-worldly. And every story in Continent ends either with thoughts of immortality or in diminuendo: ‘There was too much passion, and too much noise, and I am far too distant from the gate’; ‘A great whoop from the villagers . . . as the winner of the race crossed the line of shadow marked at the side of the store by a low sinking sun.’ All the characters Crace most admires, the men he writes about most compellingly, wonder at the great, the common and the simple things of the world, drawing life into themselves, like Lawrence’s Etruscans, or the dead on holiday. Rook, in Arcadia, for example, who could tell, ‘by smell, by patina, by shape (no easy task) a Trakana cherry from a Wijnkers, and know, before he broke the skin, which aubergines were soured, which peas had greyed inside their pods’. Reading Crace is like an outing with one of Wim Wenders’s angels, or at least an evening class with an urban shaman, an education in the stuff of life: a beginner’s guide to earth, fire, air and water. You can learn from him not only how to test fruit, but also how to boil eggs without a pan, how to slaughter a cow, and how to slake your thirst sucking stones. He clearly admires, and dispenses knowledge of nature’s healing powers, and his books offer a wealth of arcane, incidental and – one suspects – entirely spoof and bluffed information about flora, fauna, insect-life and the weather. It’s a strange combination of magic and physics: for all his work’s hearty rationalism and materialism you half-expect elves and fairies.

Which explains The Devil’s Larder, a book both weird and convincing. It claims, this thing, to be a ‘cumulative novel’ in 64 parts, in the same way that Continent, a collection of stories, was read as a novel. Crace cites Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table and Calvino’s Invisible Cities as examples of similar enterprises. They are not, except in that they are both sui generis. The Devil’s Larder might best be described as a book of insights. The stories are smorgasbits: bite-size parables, folk tales, visions, whimsies, prose-poems, jokes and good advice, wrapped up in pastry parcels. Imagine M.F.K. Fisher deboned, gutted, sliced, rolled around in flour and filo, and cooked in the oven at Gas Mark 7. Crace offers up his stories on a plate: ‘Here is a question for your guests, next time you dine with new acquaintances at home.’ He does sweet: a waiter whose ‘party trick had been to sing out the names of all the 90 types of pastas, in alphabetical order, in less than three minutes’. And sour: a man in an office smelling of ‘Sunday’s garlic’, who can’t understand why his colleagues shrink away from him (‘They could not possibly have heard how badly he’d behaved the night before, how slyly and how grossly’). There’s a spread, if you like; a full platter. The shortest chapter of the book consists of just two words (‘oh honey’), and the longest lasts for fewer than a dozen pages. They’re all quite delicious.

The place is everywhere and nowhere, the world as we know it but jumbled, or at least transposed into an upper or lower case, a kind of Erewhon, a Great Good Place. Crace has been describing the same landscape since Continent: a somewhere familiar, but not quite here. It’s an Afro-Euro-Hiberno-Yankee-Asian kind of place. A fusion. Just to get the flavour: in The Devil’s Larder a group of men set out from town to visit a restaurant: ‘a wooden lodge with an open veranda, and terraces with smoky views across the canopy towards the coast. There is a dog to greet us, and voices from a radio. An off-track motorbike is leaning against a mesh of logs.’ This isn’t a just rustic restaurant: it is The Rustic Restaurant. Also in Crace Town one can find a concierge, a ‘janitor’, tenements and grand hotels, fishing boats, fine bakeries, and no shops, only ‘stores’. It isn’t a real place, but rather an encampment of the living, where Crace the Author and Finisher of all things plots his symbolic acts and exchanges, a world reduced to its most basic elements: making love, eating, fighting and dying.

Displaced, his world is also out of time: the work is purged of virtually all contemporary references. There are no labels. The first short chapter of The Devil’s Larder serves as a metaphor for the book as a whole. It begins:

Someone has taken off – and lost – the label on the can. There are two glassy lines of glue with just a trace of stripped paper where the label was attached. The can’s batch number – RG2JD 19547 – is embossed on one of the ends. Top or bottom end? No one can tell what’s up or down.

This slight, puzzling uncertainty is characteristic of Crace, and can be both deeply disconcerting, and vaguely dissatisfying. You sometimes come away from the novels yearning for something more ponderable and incorporated, the reassuring sight of a Big Mac, say, some Gap chinos, a Nike swoosh, Spaghetti Junction even, some sign that he’s living right here and right now. It seems to be his intention to create a richer, fuller and more extraordinary world than the world around him. And he does, and it’s intoxicating, but it’s intoxicating in the way vodka is intoxicating: a spirit of no colour, no taste and no smell, a substance both mind-boggling and bland. Crace lives in Moseley, sets out to create Utopia, and ends up with Seaside, USA.

If Crace’s places hardly resemble what we know of the world, his novels hardly resemble what we now think of as prose. His language is entirely unlike that of other English novelists. There’s no slang, needless to say, no punning and no irony, and nothing that you could describe as verbal wit and wordplay. You never have to reach for your Collins or your OED, and you never have to ask your nephew or a neighbour to explain the argot. This alone is enough to make him sound exotic. Instead of the usual attempt to create the effect of voice, to grasp, to reach and to capture a demotic, Crace appears to be writing the literary equivalent of Esperanto, a pure, simple language of communication: a language with no pollution and no stutter. But it’s not just the pitch, it’s also the roll of his language that’s different. His sentences work more slowly and more deliberately than those of his contemporaries; every sentence a sermon, rather rarefied and compressed. Of Victor, the éminence grise of Arcadia: ‘He lived on mother’s milk till he was six, and then he thrived on charity and trade.’ Or in The Gift of Stones: ‘There was a question that they asked among themselves. The question was, who found this out and why? Who first thought to mine for copper, tin, to measure it in hands and thumbs, to charge it in a pit with charcoal, to pour it in a mould? With what in mind? And why?’ Crace doesn’t really write prose at all: he writes dramatic poetry. The underlying rhythm of his language, its latent power, and his means of enchantment, is blank verse. In The Devil’s Larder: ‘Sometimes I left the strip on the street wall. Sometimes I draped it on the washing-line. Sometimes I put it on the outside windowsill and hid behind the kitchen curtain beads to spot the angel in the yard.’ The effect of these words, in all their repetitive, solemn sweetness, is to lull; they are the sound of Sunday morning (and of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘The holy hush of ancient sacrifice’).

The plots scan also. One suspects that there may be some significance in the fact that there are 64 chapters, or stories, in The Devil’s Larder – there are, after all, 64 squares on a chessboard. Such compositional self-consciousness would certainly suit Crace’s constitution of mind. The various parts in his books always add up correctly. Which is no surprise, since each of his novels asks essentially the same question: given a particular set of circumstances, what happens if? And if x, then y, and so on. He might almost be writing equations, or presenting exegesis. In Arcadia:

Rain fell like country rain, but underlit, theatrically. It could not soak into the earth. It slid down tiles. It skirted round the angles of each brick. It raced through gutters, dropped down pipes, consigned itself to drains, turned roadside conduits into streams with discarded snack packets as the sails of its racing dhows. It ducked through iron sumps. It undernavigated roads in airless culverts and joined the curling traffic of water below the town, where sewers emptied into sluices and sluices discharged their flood into much slower and more muscular arteries of water. And thence into the mains. And thence into the reservoir, the treatment plant, the aqueduct, the pipe, the tap, the coffee pot, and down the sink as giddy waste.

‘And thence’: the locution is telling. Crace often begins a book or a story with the statement of a problem, or a conundrum, and then sets out the proposed solution. At the start of Being Dead, hovering over the corpses of the two main characters, the omniscient narrator presents the proposition:

It might be fitting, even kind, to first encounter them like this, out on the coast, traduced, spreadeagled and absurd, as they conclude their lives, when they are at their ugliest, and then regress, reclaiming them from death. To start their journey as they disembark, but then to take them back where they have travelled from, is to produce a version of eternity. First light, at last, for Joseph and Celice. A dawning death. And all their lives ahead of them.

And so beginneth the lesson.

Crace has always been tempted to overexplain. In The Devil’s Larder he fully oversteps the mark into homily. He can’t, for example, resist summation of his label-less can:

We should all have a can like this. Let it rust. Let the rims turn rough and brown. Lift it up and shake it if you want. Shake its sweetness or its bitterness. Agitate the juicy heaviness within. The gravy heaviness. The brine, the soup, the oil, the sauce. The heaviness. The choice is wounding it with knives, or never touching it again.

Each story in the book ends with a moral at the tip of its tongue, and food of course is the perfect subject for a moralist, since it’s only ever about God and sex and death, and never really about itself. Crace uses food throughout his work to express desire and distress, as well as to provide him with numerous opportunities for little annunciations and great racketing sublimations. In Arcadia, a list of fruit and veg becomes a paysage moralisé: ‘the plump, suggestive irony of roots, the painted, powdered vanity of peaches, the waxen probity of lettuce leaves, the faith implicit in the youth and readiness of onion sets, the senility of medlars (eaten only when decayed), the seductive, bitter alchemy of quinces which young men bought to soften women’s hearts.’ In The Devil’s Larder he continues his vital work of harvesting. We should be grateful for his offerings, even though the stories do bear the marks, as Larkin said of Auden’s ‘Bucolics’, of ‘having been written in despite of something more important’. What could be more important than a slight little book about the stuff of life? The first sentence of his next novel, according towww.jim-crace.com, reads: ‘This used to be America.’ No one could have seen that coming.