Beating the Bounds

Adam Mars-Jones

  • BuyHarvest by Jim Crace
    Picador, 273 pp, £16.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 330 44566 5

Jim Crace is as much ‘out-of-pattern’ as the narrator of his new novel, a settled outsider. He can hardly even be said to resist the pull of publishing convention, any more than aluminium resists a magnet. He’s attracted to unlabelled, marginal or parenthetical times and places, environments that might seem unpromising as settings for fiction, even actively hostile to the growth of narrative. Harvest follows this trend: a historical novel that takes place outside history.

The withholding of labels and reference points could hardly go further than it does here. We’re used to place and period being clearly indicated in chapter headings or film captions, and characters wearing name tags like supermarket cashiers, as if it were a job requirement. The village setting seems to be Tudor, but all evidence is circumstantial. (There’s no proof positive that this is England, though such local surnames as Saxton, Derby, Higgs and Carr strongly suggest it.) There must be a royal head and name stamped on the coinage, but we have no way of knowing whose it is. No historical event intervenes or is even referred to, in the way that – for instance – the Black Death impinges on even so enclosed a world as the convent in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them.

There is a manor house, there are villagers (58 of them), there is barley to be harvested. The settlement isn’t particularly remote, except that for a modern readership remoteness itself has been abolished, to the extent of disappearing also from its idea of the past. One of the plot points of the Spielberg-produced summer blockbuster of 2011, Super 8, set in the late 1970s, was the delay caused by the time it took to process film. Whole days! Teenagers gazed at their parents, not exactly with respect, but with sorrowing wonder at a deprivation they couldn’t have imagined for themselves. When we read about the past most of us fall prey to the same empty amazement, though historical novelists are generally in the business of soothing their readers with continuities rather than admitting the psychological inaccessibility of the past.

The absence of institutions is the most startling thing about the world of this book. There are law courts and civil authorities somewhere, with relevant powers and responsibilities, but they’re so far out of reach they might as well not exist. There’s no church, although a site has been set aside for one. The nearest place of worship is a long day’s travel away, as is the nearest alehouse. The neglected pillory next to the site of the unbuilt church, ‘our wooden cross’, offers – when it is no longer neglected and people are put in it – a tableau of survivable secular crucifixion with no image of transcendent suffering to balance it.

God is also absent from village conversation, despite the tendency of faith to fill in gaps. The narrator suggests an explanation of sorts: ‘we continue not irreligiously but independently, choosing not to remind ourselves too frequently that there’s a Heaven and a Hell and that much of what we count as everyday is indeed a sin.’ The rituals observed are pagan, like the selection of a gleaning queen at the end of the harvest, and the erl-king is a more likely visitor than an angel.

To call the village economy frugal would be selling it short. Working the land is no different from being worked by it: ‘the land itself, from sod to meadow, is inflexible and stern … it will not let us hesitate or rest; it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it.’ Impatience with waste isn’t confined to the village. When the lord of the manor’s mare is killed, he is regarded as sentimental for refusing to recycle her, his cousin asserting that he had valued his mastiff just as much, ‘but he still yielded thirteen pounds of grease when he was too old for the job and had to be dispatched.’

Some things are rationed or unobtainable that it’s hard for modern people to imagine doing without. There isn’t a looking glass in the parish, ‘though no doubt there are some wives who have a secret sliver with which to horrify themselves and which they wisely do not seek to share.’ The nearest reflection is two days distant. ‘We close an eye and see no more than the side of the nose, or possibly some facial hair, the outer regions of a beard. We know our hands and knees but not our eyes and teeth.’

The past is imagined here in all its richness, or paucity, though neither alternative seems right. The richness of its paucity perhaps. Poor relative to what, when there is no point of comparison available to those labelled impoverished? Having no conception of other periods or ways of living, they exist in time but perhaps not in history. Women used to serve the men’s food and then wait their turn to eat, having their suppers cold, but that’s as far as social history goes. Similarly, the villagers live in a place but outside geography. The ritual of ‘beating the bounds’, as practised in this community, seems to mean beating children until they understand they mustn’t stray beyond the boundary marker. Claustrophobia and agoraphobia would be equally understandable responses to these surroundings, except that both states require more knowledge of the world and its spaces than the natives have access to.

I’ve withheld the narrator’s name until now – he’s Walter Thirsk – partly to follow his example. The first page of the book is in the first person plural, and an ‘I’ only gradually detaches itself from the collective, eventually revealing himself as very unlike his fellows. The tug-of-war between that ‘I’ and ‘we’, and the turbulence within the ‘we’, provides much of the book’s tension. Walter came to the village 12 years previously as the manservant of Master Kent, lord of the manor by right of marriage. The hierarchy between the men was never strictly observed since they were more intimately connected, not blood brothers but ‘milk cousins’: Walter’s mother was Kent’s wet-nurse. Walter himself married a local woman, Cecily, and with Kent’s permission transplanted himself to the village and its life. Both men are now widowers, a further bond if an unshareable wound can be a bond.

Walter’s origin in another part of the world shows up the (almost literal) lack of signposts as a formal decision on the author’s part, rather than a psychological truth about lives without the experience of travel. The idea of a settlement without a name, undefined by any relationship with city, diocese, neighbouring town or even county, is a suggestive novelistic starting-point by virtue of its very bareness, but a formula like ‘the place where I and Master Kent had lived before’ just sounds coy.

Walter’s marriage is social mobility in a rare benign form, undertaken willingly. The only move possible for most people in the book is unsocial mobility, expulsion from everything they have known. Little overlapping waves of dispossession wash the settled lives away. When rootedness is what gives meaning, displacement is the topological form of death. The opening page records the arrival of outsiders on the common land, strangers who nevertheless know enough about local customs to have smoke coming out of a chimney, to signify the establishment of a homestead.

Another omen is the presence of a different, legitimate sort of stranger, employed by Master Kent to map the area. Walter deduces that their world is about to be turned upside down, that ‘the village as we know it and our employments are to be surrendered to the yellow teeth of three thousand sheep.’ In a word, enclosures. (This is my slender warrant for a Tudor setting.) It’s quite an achievement to associate the destruction of this strenuous Arcadia with the coming of sheep, given that shepherds have been the original inhabitants of Arcadia since at least Theocritus. Without shepherds pastoral poetry would be called something else.

A lot of unobtrusive work is done in the opening pages. The newcomers attempting to establish a homestead are themselves refugees from enclosure, and the way they are treated by the villagers is a portent of how things are likely to go for those who are moved on. We know what this means already. Not well. This telescoped construction, with a rippling beneath the book’s foundations from the start, makes possible what would otherwise seem very forced, the unmaking of a world in seven days. Master Kent himself seems too mild to want any drastic change, but it turns out that his wife’s cousin Edmund Jordan inherited the estate on her death. A husband ‘is not blood’ and has no entitlement if there are relatives on her side.

Crace has a streak of mischief in him, shown in the past by the inventing of epigraphs, which would then be quoted by reviewers as if they were familiar with the works cited. If he has given up this particular pleasure it may be because he tired of the game, or because the internet has made checking so easy. (The epigraph of Harvest is from Pope, and search engines get behind it.) It would be just his style to make up a bit of Tudor inheritance law to smooth his plot, and then sit back to see if any of the critics claimed familiarity with it.

Nothing wrong with making reviewers nervous, obviously – except that a reviewer is only a special class of reader, and there’s no way of baiting one class without the risk of alienating others. The bargain of fiction is incredibly one-sided, with the writer having all the advantages except the one that counts. The only thing the reader can do that’s beyond the power of the writer is to surrender to what has been imagined, which is the only way the whole thing can work. It may be better to leave the machinery alone.

Walter Thirsk as a narrator has a sort of binocular vision. He has chosen narrowness but hasn’t altogether lost the broader perspectives of his earlier life. He has had to learn to see his surroundings with his neighbours’ unaestheticising thriftiness: ‘For them an iris bulb was pig fodder; celandines were not a thing of beauty but a gargle for an irritated throat; and cowslips were better gathered, boiled and drunk against the palsy than stared at in the open privy.’ There’s a slight awkwardness about his ‘great abundance of uncommon words’, a word-hoard of fantastic breadth and depth. Walter may be new to the word ‘subterfuge’, but he knows ‘problematic’, ‘rescue mission’ and uses outright anachronisms like ‘mauve’ and ‘silhouette’. There’s a definite element of teasing when Crace has him refer to a day of work without manual labour as ‘hands-free’, a phrase that would not have been anachronistic thirty years ago but has become so with the encroachment on vocabulary of digital technology and its devices. Anachronism isn’t something that can be reliably rooted out anyway, it’s Japanese knotweed in language, and sharpens the pleasure of an evocation of the past by reminding us that it can’t be more than that. It helps that Crace is so good at description of nature. Admittedly there aren’t many readers who could testify to the accuracy of a formulation like ‘the muffled sneezing of a skulking snipe’, but it’s hard to imagine anyone failing to respond to this sketch of animal temperament:

Oxen do not have the reasoning of horses and so they tend to be more pliable and patient. They’re steadier; their winter keep is cheaper too. A horse will smell the saddle in another room or hear the pulling on of riding boots and start to kick in protest. An ox won’t know he’s needed for draught work until the moment that he has to pull – and even then he can’t be bothered to protest.

The way that blank verse rhythms keep surfacing in passages like the last two quoted is a more unstable style of anachronism. It’s true that Crace has made extensive use of such effects in other books, notably Arcadia (1992), but they work differently in a modern context, supplying a grandeur that is likely to be ironical. Here they are more perversely alienating. Blank verse is as much of a historical artefact as a punchbowl or a gateleg table, and blank verse before Marlowe and Shakespeare was not particularly expressive by our standards. This for instance from Gorboduc:

This fire shall waste their love, their lives, their land,
And ruthful ruin shall destroy them both,
I wish not this (O King) so to befall,
But fear the thing, that I do most abhor
Give no beginning to so dreadful end,
Keep them in order and obedience:
And let them both by now obeying you
Learn such behaviour as beseems their state.

Plenty more where that came from. As they are used in Harvest, verse rhythms curdle the prose, without having plausible roots in the character’s experience. Much more poetic in a real sense is the moment when Walter, seeing a group leave the village, is reminded of the ‘costumed enactments’ he saw as a boy, whose symbolism he used to enjoy working out before anyone else. He tries his hand at reading the tableau before him: ‘Today, I’m seeing Privilege, in its high hat. Then comes Suffering: the Guilty and the Innocent, including beasts. Then Malice follows, wielding its great stick. And, afterwards, invisibly, Despair is riding its lame horse.’

If there’s a pattern for Crace’s career, it’s perhaps William Golding. The suggestion isn’t new: Frank Kermode proposed it on the basis of a shared imaginative intensity, an ‘almost fanatical concentration on a particular time and a particular object’. Kermode, reviewing Crace’s Quarantine, cited The Spire, but The Inheritors, Golding’s imagining of the arrival of early modern humans, as seen by Neanderthals, seems the stronger influence, not just on the plot of The Gift of Stones (1988), which shows Bronze Age innovation threatening a Stone Age village, but more widely, in a fascination with the strangely smooth passage from stasis to catastrophe. The Inheritors too could be described as a historical novel taking place outside history. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned over and over again, because it can never be learned, that timelessness is something we can only experience in time.