Extreme Understanding

Jenny Diski

As any adult can tell you – or any adult not given over entirely to mawkish and convenient notions of innocence – children are born spies. Every parent (previously an independent individual pursuing their own interests and desires) knows: a child arrives and it starts to watch you. You are never alone again, not really. There is someone who has arrived and will not go away; who not only watches you but also possesses their own consciousness, has views, puts two and two together and understands more or less than you want them to, but either way distorts the picture you have of your life.

It is the sole task of children to find out what is going on. From the first (or is there a brief time when just being will do?) their job is to piece together incomprehensible signs and whispers, to learn to interpret them in order to reveal secrets. The overt stuff is one thing, useful obviously, but also excellent cover to keep the adults happy: learning to talk, to walk, to put a spoon to your mouth. The real work is to find out what is going on. Not why – that doesn’t really matter to spies or children – just what is happening and how it happens. It can hardly be any other way, at least not for children brought up in the enclosed family unit, more amoebic than nuclear, that has developed in the West over the past century and more.

The family is a breeding ground for covert operations, its very structure tending to encourage conspiracy and duplicity. A little world, like the larger nation state on which it is modelled, where loyalties are formally required and betrayal is, on the level of thought at the very least, inevitable. The public and the private rub up against each other like tectonic plates, both within the family, and between the family and the wider world, creating intolerable tensions. A new creature born into such a structure had best have all its wits about it if it is to survive. It must watch, listen, and try to put disparate events together to explain the shortfalls between what is said and what is happening. Figuring out what is going on is everything. You don’t know what is happening, and the people who you suppose do know tell you only what they think you ought to know. You grow up with lies and half-truths, Santa, the tooth-fairy, denials, evasions, and when you start to wonder if anything they’re telling you is true, you also realise that there’s no one else to ask, nowhere else to go, so you had better play your cards very close to your chest. The essence of the family, whether it has one or two parents, is that it is enclosed, like a religious order. Whatever version of reality it offers is the only one available. There’s the playground and television, but everyone in and on them came through the same system and is probably lying or getting it wrong. Children learn to inhabit a secret life between what they live and what they’re told. I suppose it’s a source of imagination. Either it drives you mad, or you learn to enjoy the game. And that’s just to describe the regular happy enough family in uneventful enough times.

We take it as axiomatic that adults are more capable in the world than children, that they understand more, can manipulate reality better, but this is a bold assumption. What happens in the torrid little world of the family when, aside from ordinary resentment of the intrusion of their watchful children, the parents and/or the times are a particular disaster, is that the burden of knowing becomes immense for the child. Secret knowing is a weight we all carry, but when you have to know for or instead of your parents or the world, you are obliged to know everything. So Maisie discovers, the watchful centre of adult turmoil, in What Maisie Knew. Her parents, step-parents and governesses explain their version of the world to the living flame that keeps their incomprehensible relationships on a rolling boil: ‘It isn’t as if you didn’t already know everything, is it, love?’ and ‘I can’t make you any worse than you are, can I, darling?’

As she was condemned to know more and more, how could it logically stop before she should know Most? It came to her in fact as they sat there on the sands that she was distinctly on the road to know Everything. She had not had governesses for nothing: what in the world had she ever done but learn and learn and learn? She looked at the pink sky with a placid foreboding that she soon should have learnt All.

Knowing is one thing, but conveying that knowledge is a separate task. What and how Maisie knew is filtered through the adult narrator’s ability to interpret the nature of that knowing to the reader. Henry James offers a master-class in point-of-view in his preface to the novel:

I should have of course to suppose for my heroine dispositions originally promising, but above all I should have to invest her with perceptions easily and almost infinitely quickened. So handsomely fitted out, yet not in a manner too grossly to affront probability, she might well see me through the whole course of my design; which design, more and more attractive as I turned it over, and dignified by the most delightful difficulty, would be to make and to keep her so limited consciousness the very field of my picture while at the same time guarding with care the integrity of the objects represented . . . Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary. Amusing, therefore, as it might at the first blush have seemed to restrict myself in this case to the terms as well as to the experience, it became at once plain that such an attempt would fail. Maisie’s terms accordingly play their part – since her simpler conclusions quite depend on them; but our own commentary constantly attends and amplifies. This it is that on occasion, doubtless, seems to represent us as going so ‘behind’ the facts of her spectacle as to exaggerate the activity of her relation to them. The difference here is but of a shade: it is her relation, her activity of spirit, that determines all our own concern – we simply take advantage of these things better than she herself. Only, even though it is her interest that mainly makes matters interesting for us, we inevitably note this in figures that are not yet at her command and that are nevertheless required whenever those aspects about her and those parts of her experience that she understands darken off into others that she rather tormentedly misses.

The converse of this is Nabokov’s use of an overwhelming first-person narration by Humbert Humbert, which keeps Lolita’s personhood suppressed. We can’t possibly know what Dolores Haze understands. The narrator is himself the evasive, inexplicible parent in relation to his readers. Very occasionally, the reader is allowed to be surprised by flashes of her consciousness, but only because Humbert has himself been taken by surprise. Otherwise Lolita is entirely the narrator’s subject creature: a nymphet not a little girl, sometimes wan, sometimes wanton, according to the interplay between Humbert’s sentimentality and desire.

John le Carré’s Perfect Spy, Magnus Pym, owes his training to a con man father. The only way for the child to know what is going on (Ricky Pym’s words and actions don’t tell him – on the contrary, they are monstrous mystifications) is to keep watch, to eavesdrop and poke around in forbidden places to find out for himself. It makes Magnus, child and adult, immensely disloyal, but only because of an excess of free-floating fidelity hankering for a place to live. He becomes a ready-schooled double agent. Pym’s chaotic, deceitful father is only an extreme version of the regular mystery of parental behaviour. But it’s not a one-way mystery. There are views of Magnus from several characters in the book, but the crucial child’s understanding is modulated through the adult Magnus, looking back, piecing himself together: ‘Once again a willed brightness was overtaking Pym as he listened to the many voices in his mind. To be king, he repeated to himself. To look with favour on this child that was myself. To love his defects and his strivings, and pity his simplicity.’ Adults spy on childhood just as children spy on them. The childhood apprehensions of Jane Eyre or Pip from Great Expectations are related by their adult selves. We can really only make children up. Whatever children understand as children is quite beyond our grasp. Only approximations and artifice are left to adults who have nothing but memory to go on.

Irmgard Keun’s first-person narrator in Child of All Nations supplies a different form of narration; Kully is a knowing child who speaks for herself. (These days, they do this all the time. The child narrative is practically a genre. But, in 1938, it was probably startling.) There is no mediating voice, no authorial voice, no fictional adult reminiscing, so Kully not only has to know, she has to be both childlike in her extreme understanding and translate her knowledge into language her adult readers can interpret. Where James fears to tread, Keun goes in chattering merrily.

The book was written while Keun, like Kully and her parents, was travelling around Europe between 1936 and 1938, for part of that time with the itinerant Joseph Roth. He died in exile of the effects of alcohol in 1939, and Keun returned to Germany, a formerly bestselling but now blacklisted writer, to live incognito throughout the war. The novel consists of Kully, her writer father, who is forever somewhere else hustling, wheedling, bullying or conning ‘travel’ money to get away from where they are stuck for want of the means to pay the bill, and her tremulous, fragile mother, wandering from city to city, part of a travelling band of displaced dissenters and escapees from Nazism. The present tense of Kully’s story is in Brussels with her mother, the two of them left behind in the hotel ‘as surety’ while her father is in Prague in search of the funds to redeem them. There are rules to this kind of existence: ‘In the hotel restaurant my mother doesn’t dare order anything cheap, because that doesn’t go down well with the waiters.’ When her father sends her a present from Budapest she thinks it might be a doll or an embroidered dress, but can’t be sure because they can’t afford to pay the duty on the parcel. She has a studied acceptance of her lack of control in the world. ‘My father always manages to get hold of money from somewhere. And he always comes back to us too. I don’t think he ever completely forgets about us.’ Always, always, ever, in this eloquent translation by Michael Hofmann. She knows how it is with fathers:

Sometimes my father loves us, and sometimes he doesn’t. When he doesn’t, we can’t do anything about it, my mother and me . . . Any steps we might take only have the effect of delaying even more the time when he will love us again. Because he always comes back to us. We just have to hold still and wait, and then everything takes care of itself.

Sometimes, sometimes, always . . .

Kully’s mother cries a lot and spends more time waiting than her daughter does ‘because she doesn’t play much, and she has no little friends’. Kully is prodigiously capable. She learns French ‘suddenly’ in the midst of a group of French children with whom she needs to communicate. She views her mother as a girl who has come to play with her. She understands about borders (‘a border has nowhere for you to set your foot. It’s a drama that happens in the middle of a train, with the help of actors who are called border guards’) and visas (‘a principal characteristic of visas is that they expire’). Although she knows she must stay with her mother, because ‘my mother has only me,’ she has the alarming assurance of one who has no choice but to be assured: ‘Perhaps if war comes, we will never see my father again. That thought frightens my mother. She thinks he’ll desert us and not love us any more . . . I’m not afraid, because I’ve got my mother with me.’ But although Kully has the uncanny charm of the precocious, she is also always too knowing and too innocent, like those brilliant, innate, child film-actors who almost but not quite naturalise the words of adult scriptwriters intended for an adult audience. She maintains a fiercely bright, fresh eye on the way of the world, but in the same way that ventriloquists’ dummies do. Of course, children who have to keep their inadequate parents’ lives together are ventriloquists’ dummies of a sort. They elicit phrases like too clever by half, too knowing, so sharp you’ll cut yourself, from discomfited adults. But Kully is unrelenting as the representative of the child of a family and society turned inside out: all the time the reader is aware that she is being worked by an adult hand. Kully has the cool practicality that adults like to portray children as possessing. So does Lolita, who, passing a car wreck on the highway, yells at Humbert to slow down because that moccasin lying in the road beside one of the victims is exactly the one she wants to buy and was trying to describe to Hum the other day.

This is not a criticism. A novel is not, in spite of the way many use the ‘believability’ of characters as a term of praise, required to produce a perfect simulacrum of reality. Kully does not have to have every twitch and terror that might accompany the careful cleverness of a real child trying to survive chaos. Ventriloquism is clever only when the audience is aware that the dummy is not really speaking. (When Peter Brough was commissioned in the 1950s to voice his dummy Archie Andrews for the comedy show Educating Archie on BBC radio, someone was either not thinking very clearly, or being brilliant in an avant-po-mo sort of way.) Keun specialises in ventriloquism, her puppets usually being innocents shedding the blazing light of their half-knowledge on circumstances. Young working women, material girls, in After Midnight and The Artificial Silk Girl, trying to sustain youthful hopes and daydreams while inhabiting a crumbling social and economic world, and a burgeoning political terror. Kully, a child, is the logical conclusion. She doesn’t have to be realistic, on the contrary, she has to be disconcerting. After she trips up a waiter in the hotel kitchen, she is warned by a cook to keep out, or he’ll put her in a saucepan. Kully is too clever for this kind of threat: ‘I don’t think it’s allowed to cook people – the cook won’t really do anything like that . . . I’m not frightened to go to the kitchen, but my father once said: “Nowadays any sort of atrocity is possible.”’

But Irmgard Keun is clever enough to allow the childlike misreading to ring false. Europe in the late 1930s does not need a realistic child narrator to evoke its abnormality. It needs the excessive view of an excessive, unrealistic child. This is what fiction can do. Kully is no more real than Lolita or Maisie. Oddly, in his afterword Hofmann compares Kully to ‘the real-life nine-year-old Daisy Ashford (author of The Young Visiters)’. Daisy Ashford presents an actual child’s-eye view of the adult world – complete with spelling mistakes: ‘Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him.’ The Young Visiters was written in 1890, but not published until 1919, when Ashford was over thirty. The infantile author enchants adults, who feel free to patronise the innocence of children, and safe in the harmlessness of the child’s quaint vision of the world. The Kully of Keun’s imagination is rather different. Her world is horrific, and quaint becomes eerie. When she and her father sail to America to try his luck, it turns out, after they’re at sea, that her mother has missed the boat:

I did once go sailing in Denmark, and that’s why I was hardly afraid at all now. In fact, I wasn’t ever really afraid; just on the third day I badly wanted to get off. I had to keep thinking of my mother, who was never alone in her life, only sometimes without my father. But now she didn’t even have me to protect her. I could picture her crying, and doing unbalanced things.

The child who knows too much is what adults fear, not just because we are watched by them, but also because we were once children too, and for the life of us can’t remember what it was that we knew. There is another possibility: that we knew nothing very much at all. That without the language for it, there is no knowledge, and therefore everything we remember is falsified by its acquisition. In their different ways, James and Keun create the knowing child by supplying her unmediated experience with an adult vocabulary and syntax. These children, like the novels they inhabit, know what they know but say more than they should.