The Old Jest is set in a village on the Irish coast, not far from Dublin, in the summer of 1920. Nancy Gulliver, the heroine, an orphan just turned 18, lives in a fine old house with her Aunt Mary and a senile, hymn-singing grandfather. In this holiday between school and university she strikes up a relationship with a middle-aged Republican gunman hiding out in a hut on the shore. The action of the novel is concerned with this relationship and what it leads to.
This is the sort of summary a reviewer of fiction feels bound to attempt, partly to help prospective readers to judge whether the novel in question is likely to appeal to them, partly to provide footholds for his own critical comments. In this particular case, it also gives a preliminary hint as to the scale of the task that the novelist has taken on. Jennifer Johnston has to provide sufficient information, directly or indirectly, to make accessible a locality, a period, and a political situation that many of her readers might take to be remote. She is also concerned – this does not emerge in the summary – to evoke a way of life that is in process of dissolution, both locally and nationally, and to show her heroine adjusting to change and challenge. All this in a novel that is little longer than a novella. Yet by a wonderful feat of literary dexterity all these aims are accomplished with no attempt at historical or political explanation, and with an almost unnoticeable amount of exposition.
Nor is this economy achieved at the cost of thinness or aridity: on the contrary, the novel is full of sensuous life, dense with sights, smells, textures, and – especially – noises. Nancy’s thoughts about her lost father, or about her new acquaintance in the beach-hut, are mixed in with her responses to the scenery, to the food she eats, to the feel of railway-sleepers under her bare toes. She is coming to terms, not with new ideas merely, but with crowding impressions, instincts, appetites, fears, all of which the author brings to imaginative life. The descriptive vividness is achieved by a remarkable precision in the matter of detail. Verbs and epithets are unobtrusively apt, and the aptness is pointed up by the rhythm and melody of the prose:
She sat on the side of her bed fully dressed waiting for the household sounds to fade away. It took a long time. Aunt Mary wandered restlessly from room to room, switching lights on and off, no doubt refilling her glass from time to time. Water rattled in the pipes, stair treads creaked, doors here and there opened quietly and closed again. Finally there was the quiet, breathing silence of night time. Bars of moonlight lay on the stairs as she went down.
There is not a striking word in the passage, but it marks out space, time, mood. Here, as everywhere in the novel, the reader is induced to experience with his own senses what Nancy sees and hears. Each episode exhales an atmosphere, and that atmosphere is part of its meaning.
Jennifer Johnston omits with great skill. Inessential circumstance is bleached out of the novel, so that questions extraneous to the action never intrude. Nancy’s schooling, Aunt Mary’s past, the family finances, are barely glanced at. The reader is persuaded that he knows all that he needs to know for the purposes of this particular story. There is the perfect adjustment of means to ends that one associates with Jane Austen.
As in Austen’s case, if there is a price to be paid for elegance and economy it may lie in a limitation of range. The only scene in The Old Jest that seemed to me descriptively a little unsure was the dramatic climax. There is also an unavoidable tendency towards oversimplification: we see the characters only partially, only by certain lights, and from certain angles. The effect is a dimness, or haziness, as in a faded photograph. But so far from being a fault, this gentle remoteness is part of the novel’s truth and charm. The Old Jest has the completeness, the detachment, and something of the transparency, of a floating bubble.
Incompleteness, lack of detachment – the first of these weaknesses arising from the second – are crucial flaws in Diana Melly’s second novel. The Goosefeather Bed is the story of an affair between Stella, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, married to a bisexual art critic named Bernard, and a young man named Simon, who makes a frugal living by occasionally selling some drugs. The author can write well, in a laconic, deliberately flat mode, and Stella’s growing obsession with her hopeless relationship is convincingly charted. But this is one of those novels that seem to be awkwardly compounded with some kind of autobiographical involvement: seem to be so, not because the reader is encouraged to dabble in impertinent speculation, but because there are intensities of personal feeling in the narrative that are not justified nor even so much as explained by the information provided in the text. The author apparently has access to data denied to the reader. On the available evidence, Simon is quite extraordinarily repellent and – worse still – boring. A few palliative general arguments are briefly advanced on his behalf, but they are drastically outweighed by numerous and sharply-dramatised instances of nastiness. Stella’s devotion becomes less and less explicable as Simon grows (if possible) increasingly obnoxious. This need not have mattered – might even, in fact, have been part of the point of the story – if there had been an appropriate emphasis on Stella’s character and motives. It is true that there are suggestions that the affair is the outcome of a personality crisis in Stella brought about by the death of her mother. But unfortunately our knowledge of Stella – of her appearance, of her childhood, of her first marriage, of her attitude to Bernard’s bisexuality – is incomplete to the point of sketchiness. The author seems everywhere to assume that we know far more about Stella than we have been told. In this calculatedly claustrophobic story the two main characters should be mutually defining. Since both are fragmentary, definition is lost.
The Snow Man is a first novel that displays a promising blend of technical competence and raw energy. In form, it is a curious hybrid: a thriller with a Lawrentian substructure. Christie, the heroine, not long married, newly pregnant, unhappy with the devitalising encroachments of bourgeois living, finds herself shut up in a remote house in the Pennines, cut off by a snowstorm, along with a man who may or may not be a murderer. She extricates herself with a resourcefulness that seems to derive, in some mystical way, from her long-lost father, who was something of a magician, and from the mountains themselves, that lend her their primordial force – a favour they will occasionally confer on Northerners of long standing.
The novel goes wrong in a variety of ways. The heroine’s badly-injured ankle is totally incapacitating or scarcely an inconvenience, as narrative exigency dictates. The Lawrentian element interferes with what would otherwise be an agreeable exercise in spine refrigeration, because it obliges the heroine to recall her father’s fey ways at moments when, by rights, she should simply be scared witless. At several points the writing is self-conscious and obtrusive in just the way that Jennifer Johnston’s isn’t: ‘And so she grieved on and on, the regrets rustling and sleek with life in the undergrowth of her mind, a myriad eyes on myriad worlds.’
Spring Sonata is an odd, fantastical work. The author, Bernice Rubens, gambles on bringing to life an extravagant allegory. For me the result is a brave but resounding failure, though from time to time I glimpse the potentialities of the idea. The hero, Buster, is an embryo in the womb of Sheila Rosen, a pianist. He can hear a good deal of what takes place outside the stomach-wall, and having led a number of previous lives can understand and interpret what he hears. He soon gathers that he is to be born into an unhappy family: Mrs Rosen was manipulated by an unloving mother, and will in turn manipulate her offspring. Buster resolves not to be born: when Sheila is in labour he refuses to leave the womb; when a Caesarean section is attempted he eludes the doctor’s grasping hand. Moreover, he manages to reach out and haul aboard a pad, a pencil, and the violin which was to have been played to usher him into the world. All these objects are sewn up inside the unfortunate Mrs Rosen, who is deemed to have been the victim of an hysterical pregnancy. Buster grows and grows inside her, keeps a diary and practises the violin. After some years, during which she alone has continued to believe, in the face of furious family and medical opposition that she is pregnant, Sheila and he play duets together, astonishing all auditors and precipitating tragedy.
In this case, the summary perhaps implies a greater degree of confidence and success than the finished novel achieves. Bernice Rubens might boldly have waived, or ingeniously have solved, the numerous practical problems posed by her story. In the event she vacillates uneasily between the two policies. She dwells on the physical aspects of the pregnancy when she needs some pathos, or wishes to have a satiric tilt at the medical profession; ignores them when they pose difficulties. Buster’s perceptions are so circumscribed by his position as to create further problems of viewpoint and narrative organisation. And to accommodate the grossness of the fantasy the characters have to be so simplified, so heavily caricatured, as to deprive what Bernice Rubens calls ‘a fable’ of any moral significance. The selfishness and possessiveness demonstrated here have a crudity that facilitates the author’s satire but is in danger of making it pointless. In real life, family relationships are more complex than this. Spring Sonata has its moments: there are some laughs, some shrewd comments. But the conclusion must be that its author has on this occasion been carried awry by an impossible idea.