No doubt it is yet another symptom of the decline of the West that we can so rarely afford proper novels nowadays, only skimpy little pieces of 130 pages or so, barely enough to last from dinner to bedtime. These are not novellen, purpose-built long-short-stories, with their defined themes and central symbols, but stripped-down, elliptical narratives that once would have been told at far greater length. Aesthetically, this may be a gain. Such a contracted form must preserve the strongest flavours, the crises of passion, sensation, eccentricity or pathos; what gets left out is the mashed potatoes of descriptive realism. But seen as a social phenomenon, which it also is, the novel so conceived starts to fulfil a different role. It is no longer the companion for days, or weeks, to be picked up, dropped and resumed, digested and pondered over in between. It is something to be swallowed at a sitting, a rapid mood-changer. Here are two examples, one English and one American, both extremely accomplished.
Paul Bailey, with several distinguished novels to his credit already, is a master of this mode. The action of Old Soldiers, the Aristotelian space from the beginning through the middle to the end, occupies only a couple of weeks (and 120 thinly printed pages), but in reminiscence, flashback and confession it tells the stories of two lives. The old soldiers of the title are survivors of the Kaiser’s war, of the age such survivors must be – older than the century. They meet by chance, in the first pages of the book. Victor Harker has returned to London after fifty years away. His wife has died, and he cannot bear their Newcastle home any longer, where everything reminds him of her and of his loss. He runs into Captain Hal Standish in St Paul’s Cathedral, where the gallant captain is acting as a guide for foreign visitors. Harker’s first reflection is that he would never have allowed this man an overdraft. But he has nothing to do and nothing to think about but his grief, and respectable bank employee as he has been, he allows himself to be picked up by the old sport and shares a meal with him. And here the narrative divides into several streams. There is Harker’s half-amused, half-suspicious probing into the obviously bogus Captain Standish’s career. But while this remains a mystery to Harker, it does not to the reader. For at Victoria Station we are allowed to observe Hal Standish transform himself into Tommy, a singularly well-adjusted tramp, who sleeps at a Salvation Army hostel and is tenderly looked after by Sergeant Marybeth. And at St Pancras he undergoes yet another metamorphosis, into Julian, a down-at-heel corduroy-clad poet of apocalyptic tendencies, with a number of female admirers and a regular pitch at Speaker’s Corner. Meanwhile we follow Victor’s sad reminiscent wanderings through London: the obliterated relics of his dismal Hackney childhood, a visit to his parents’ grave – interrupted by memories of his few years of unforgettable happiness with Stella, and a recurrent 60-year-old nightmare of the Somme. We find out the true story of Captain Standish’s military career; and Victor Harker leaves London for Newcastle, never to come back. In the end, like everybody else, they both die.
The remarkable quality of this book is that its very brief compass opens up such long vistas. The whole of Harker’s life, his uneasy relation with his ghastly father, his escape to a career of decorous achievement in the North, the dazzling blessing of his marriage to Stella, when he was long past hope of anything of the sort. Characters who are no more than suggested assume a life of their own; and all this is intercut with the more fantastic oddities of Standish, or Tommy, or Julian, whichever he is. The variety and richness of feeling here are of a kind that is usually associated with a Dickensian expansiveness. But it is all realised with an extraordinary economy of means. The brevity seems pregnant and suggestive. We are left with the feeling that there is a message somewhere about, though it is not quite clear what or for whom.
Nocturnes for the King of Naples is a tastefully confected morsel in the American-decadent mode. The hero is a fading beauty in his twenties, recalling the time of passion and fulfilment when he was 17 and the accepted loved one of an older man. He is the child of hopelessly rich parents, and is exposed to the sufferings traditionally entailed by such a provenance. After the suicide of his mother he is left alone at boarding-school in America while his father devotes himself to drink, drugs and general debauchery in Europe. At the age of 16 he escapes and goes to join the appalling paternal ménage in Spain. His father is a tyrant, a frightening bully, on top of everything else, and it is in flight from this world that he meets the other man – who rescues him, takes him in, loves him, and appears to offer a secure and lasting friendship. We are given no picture of the lover, only the sense of a dominant presence, benign but ultimately unreliable. The alliance breaks up, the boy passes through a series of camp-picaresque adventures, mainly, it appears, in Naples. But it is rarely quite clear where we are, how things came about, or just what is going on. The one fixed point is the love that has been lost; and what gives it a pathos and seriousness not at first apparent is that the boy, whatever corruptions he is dragged through, and however willingly, is simply in search of a father, the father he has never had.
It is all done with a sort of nostalgic surrealist poetry, and it relies heavily on this somewhat archaic charm. I suspect, however, that a good deal of Edmund White’s strength lies elsewhere – in an intelligence and analytic power that is at first sight rather obscured by the baroque trappings. The shadowy lover of the hero, about whom the whole book revolves, is some kind of great man – writer, musician, we are not told. And we are made to feel that his power is essentially destructive – inherently and of its own nature, nothing to do with emotional exploitation or homosexual love.
Solo Faces is a novel about climbing. It is a novel, not a climbing book or an adventure story – but only just. It requires at least a vicarious interest in the technicalities of the subject, and those for whom the north face of the Eiger has no more resonance than Haverstock Hill would probably find the detail oppressive, splendidly realised though it is. There are two climbers, Rand and Cabot, bound together in an uneasily competitive friendship. The main interest centres in Rand, whom we meet as a rangy, handsome Californian drifter, living by casual labour, and with any like-minded woman who turns up. Cabot, an old mountaineering companion, tells him of the superior attractions of the French Alps. He makes his way to Chamonix, spends a winter in poverty and privation, and begins to find his way about the mountains. The mindlessness, the taciturnity, the dedication to physical achievement, take James Salter perilously close to the Hemingway bad lands, even within hailing distance of Clint Eastwood: but not, I think, over the edge. The treatment of Rand and his exploits is quite free from the bar-room knowingness, the sentimentality and the sadism that are apt to haunt this kind of fiction; and Rand is a pure and single-hearted agonist, pitting himself against the elements, earth, air and water – not using the resources of weapon technology to slaughter animals.
Cabot turns up, and together they make a spectacular ascent of the Dru. Later Rand effects an even more spectacular rescue on the Dru – single-handed. For this he becomes something of a public hero, and proceeds to live up to the role. He starts climbing solo, on ever more perilous ascents. The Alpine landscape and the experience of climbing are finely re-created in a taut, vivid and unaffected prose. And when as a result of his growing fame Rand deserts the mountains and goes off to Paris with his girl, this is equally well rendered. The confusion and glitter of the city, its luxury and allurement, serve only to accentuate Rand’s position as the perpetual outsider.
When he returns to the mountains, again climbing alone, he attempts an impossible feat, finds he has lost his determination to go on at any cost, comes down, as anyone in his senses would, but comes down to feel that he is defeated, a beaten man. Cabot has been defeated more cruelly, crippled in a fall. Rand revisits him, home in California. Both have come to the end of the road, and Rand drifts back to the marginal sort of existence with which he began. There is a slackening of tension in the conclusion, but this is not accidental. The book has a design beyond the macho formula, and other themes besides the mountains. There is the conflict between comradeship and rivalry, there is devouring ambition and the heady wine of glory; and beyond all these there is a melancholy acknowledgment of the emptiness of a life devoted entirely to heroic physical endeavour for its own sake, without substance or purpose, a driving force without aim or terminus, which, when it begins to fail, leaves nothing behind.
Mario Satz in Sol is light years away from these compact and well-tailored fictions. Sol is the massive first volume of a trilogy (Luna and Tierra still to come) which if completed on the same scale will run to something like half a million words. Set in a Latin American and largely Jewish ambience, it has very few reference-points that are easily recognisable by the Anglo-Saxon reader, and its form four long sections with no other internal subdivisions – does not make it any easier to get hold of. The narrator, like the author is called Mario and comes from Buenos Aires, and links to place and time in the outer world are numerous. But the author’s note tells us to take both characters and events as fictions. Mario’s discourse, which makes up the whole text, is, as he calls it himself, ‘a monstrous letter without head or tail’, addressed to an enigmatic, passionately loved, generally absent Peruvian woman, form whose fascination he cannot escape. She in turn is obsessed by the memory of her brother, whose meaningless death she has a passionate desire to understand. He may, it seems, have been killed by a sect of Christian Kaballists who have a vendetta against their Jewish counter parts. The woman has been intermittently mad, her brother was strangely unbalanced, and the quest into which the narrator is drawn takes on a hallucinatory quality. On the whole, however, we are placed in recognisable parts of the real world – Buenos Aires, Lima, Jerusalem, Paris, New York. A number of characters cluster round this central situation, with a bewildering variety of names – Ananke, Fosforus, Flor de Lis, the Ancient of Days, as well as the more quotidian Lionel, Diego and Pedro. Since the form of the book is a letter to one to whom all this is familiar, nothing is explained, nobody is introduced, and the characters only gradually emerge from what at first sight looks like a phantasmagoria. But Diego is an anthropologist, Pedro a biologist, both killed in guerrilla war. The Ancient of Days (always so called) is a survivor from the concentration camps, long settled in Uruguay, but now living mainly in Jerusalem. Lionel is a New York Kaballist who foretells the fate of the world by gematria – magical numerology derived from the Hebrew alphabet. Some of these figures remain shadowy, some are symbolic counters; some, notably the Ancient of Days, blossom out as ‘characters’ in the ordinary sense. Not all are successful: Lionel comes over as the standard hippy guru, though he is clearly meant to be something more.
Can the whole thing be a success, or is it, for all its passion, curiosity and variety, still a monstrous confusion? The latter is the first impression: but even so it is a strangely compelling confusion, and gradually a pattern begins to emerge. Incomplete, of course: we shall have to wait for Luna and Tierra to see where we land.