‘Yvonne dear,’ his Aunt said, ‘won’t you do the introduction?’
‘This is Nancy,’ Yvonne said. ‘This is Andy. This is Mildred. This is George. This is Isabella. This is Steve. This is Miss Lear. This is Remus and this is Caterina.’
She paused. ‘This is Peter,’ she said.
Everybody laughed. One of the children threw a ball into the air and someone said something that sounded like ‘sport and game’ or ‘Fort Alane’ and everybody laughed again.
The introductions at the start of The Echo Chamber perform the opposite of their conventional function. The reader senses Peter’s bafflement at the array of names and faces, but is far more baffled himself, seeing on the printed page only names and no faces. Whatever comment was ventured (‘Fort Alane’) is lost on both Peter and the reader. Very neatly, Gabriel Josipovici is introducing us not so much to his characters as to the method of his theoretically-aware kind of novel, which might be called the old nouveau roman in its latest or ‘deconstructionist’ phase: Paul de Man says deconstruction is about ‘the fallacy of reference in a necessarily referential mode’. Names of characters, for instance, aren’t much use as points of reference without at least a face or a label of some kind attached; and the novel, which can’t provide faces, uses labels only sparingly: Mildred is the one who’s always complaining, Miss Lear writes poems. The reader waits to be told more, starts making lists, picks up clues about relationships. Then it becomes clear that a wider reference is intended: the clues dropped are just like those in an Agatha Christie country house mystery, where both the number of characters under suspicion and their extreme simplicity – in most cases nothing but a name and a label – keep the reader alert to points of reference. This is ingenious of Mr Josipovici, slipping us into a familiar, apparently secure fictional world, a world of face-values if not of faces – yet one where by the rules of the game any face-value may have a sinister obverse, and unexpected reversals of meaning are the one thing readers know to expect. So far so good: but in this novel the Agatha Christie reference is itself only a blind.
Peter is apparently suffering from loss of memory, so that to match his social confusion there’s an inner disorientation here which seems to belong to a different kind of novel, the psychological thriller. He is trying to recover his past, knowing only that it contains something he describes as a ‘fall’: ‘You don’t know how frightening it was. If one could die of fright I’d be dead.’ But, following this line of clues, the reader finds himself not, after all, in a Hitchcock movie, awaiting a horrid revelation. This, too, is a blind. One discovers that the present is what Peter perceives as the past, and that the ‘fall’ will happen only in the future and to someone else. Put not your trust in anything a writer tells you.
It’s a bit tiresome that Mr Josipovici has to bring his point home mainly by disappointing expectations – normal expectations about how characters behave in different kinds of fiction, or about memory or time. But obviously he doesn’t mean just to disappoint, any more than Musil did when he said of his own much more laborious novel: ‘the story of this novel amounts to the fact that the story which should be narrated in it is not narrated.’ Many other writers – Eliot and Pasternak, for instance – who clearly are concerned not with fictional games but with the meaning of experience, even if baffled by it, have needed to make the same point, asserting the right of a work of art to go its own way and contain its own truth; and have been somewhat impatient with ordinary readers’ expectations. Mr Josipovici’s novel takes this to an extreme. It isn’t a wrestle with experience or an account of reality; it simply offers alternative readings of Peter’s experience, ensuring that they cancel each other out, and so draws attention to the arbitrarines of any meaning assigned to experience. And this both is and isn’t a fictional game: at least, it’s not only a game. The liveliness of the dialogue – it’s written almost wholly in dialogue – witnesses to a more than usual adventurousness and pressure of ideas. Dialogue dramatises, and does so here at different levels. In that opening scene Mr Josipovici isn’t really dramatising a real-life situation, or only apparently so: what he’s dramatising is the problem of comprehending anything at all about it through a work of fiction. The novel as a whole works in the same way, coping quite remarkably with, in fact, a very substantial subject.
Birthstone is doing, miles away, a similar job – that of the self-contained novel creating its own reality. It starts, banally enough, on a coach tour of Cornwall, but soon reveals, in the mind of the narrator, a modern vein of fantasy. Cornwall provides some of the details – to do with the tourist attraction of crawling through the hole in the birthstone called Men-an-Tol, for instance – but it’s not fantasy as escape or indulgence, from Gothic to Science Fiction. It’s fantasy more as Freud envisaged it, powerful enough to counter reality, working like free association and allowing the unconscious to take over, but at the same time an exercise in self-examination. The subject of this is a girl – mainly girl – with multiple identities, including Jo who cries silently into her tissues, Joanne the promiscuous one, and Joe who is a delinquent male. ‘Personalities split off because one person alone couldn’t cope with an intolerable reality; yet was any reality tolerable?’ Yet her fantasising is remarkable not so much for excess as for its grapple with the possibilities of experience, the horrors and trivia as well as the approaches to nirvana. This contrasts with an American mom and her son whose age-reversal in the course of the story seems no more than fanciful: though the son’s suspender-belt fetish provides a necessary bit of evidence of what other people’s fantasies look like. Seen from inside, the girl Jo’s fantasies are more comprehensive, and by no means enjoyable – neither the sex nor the deformed baby nor the colliding galaxies. It suggests some real familiarity with schizophrenia; and a self somewhere still alive enough to feel neglected – ‘Where am I in all this?’ But this isn’t a moralising novel: simply one that’s both fantasy and about fantasy, not least as a way of coming to terms with pain and horror.
Melvyn Bragg’s novel is of the documentary kind, a transcription of what goes on outside it – true to life, one would say if one found it any good: but then paradoxically that depends on the liveliness of what he himself has created. Kingdom Come has a certain bleak honesty, if not much liveliness. It’s set comprehensively in Cumbria, London and New York, in aeroplanes, villages, restaurants, TV studios, London flats, and mainly concerns the third generation of the Tallentire family, known from previous novels. Douglas, a successful media man and writer, is the book’s eye and conscience. There’s much of family interest, pregnancy, a death, tentative courtship, infidelities, the mother’s consolations in church-cleaning; and some specialised interest about working for TV. The observation is quite sharp and valuable, as in old-fashioned novels about air-lines or hotel management. But Mr Bragg cannot let well alone, he has worries and concerns to share, and he takes sides, ponders and moralises. This has been said to be what makes novels worth-while – a criticism of life. It strikes me as the undoing of this one. Nothing comes of it that looks freshly thought or felt – or expressed. The moral judgments are shallow or unsubstantiated or perfunctory. Satire, for instance, is predictably used against a media production involving a rock superstar and a Madison Square Garden show; and what’s wrong with this scene is that it’s the satire and not the dream machine that looks so shallow.
Finding much to deplore about the times – ‘What happened to us all?’ even the rock idol asks – the novel doesn’t find in anything a contrasting strength. Doesn’t find it, while managing to suggest that it’s somewhere around, in ‘tried and traditional ways’, or rural life, evocative of ‘values’, – though Douglas sadly rejects that for himself – or in friendship, which he speaks up for. Its approbations are no less empty and conventional than its satire. There’s a wide-eyed moment when we’re introduced to gritty integrity in the shape of a senior BBC producer: ‘he was, to a few like Douglas, a touchstone, incorruptible, a man to whom the word “integrity” could be applied without a twinge of embarrassment or a grain of pomposity. He had caught the last two years of the War and seen a bit of action ... ’ (but isn’t this casual ‘caught the last two years of the War’ covering up something, perhaps a twinge of embarrassment?). Impossible to find, however, that this man anywhere does embody integrity in the novel – or gets further than being able to say: ‘I always like to think so.’
Java in 1945, the end of the war, the end of colonialism and the advent of ‘extremists’, is pictured in A Gentle Occupation in remarkable detail – a feat of memory on Dirk Bogarde’s part. If there are possible inaccuracies – was ‘camp’ ever so flaunted in an Indian Division at the time? – this may not be inadvertent, but the result of processing memory into a novel. And a novel that for all its assurance draws on a mixed and dubious bag of stereotypes. The sex and brutality are mostly modern, the talk of the natives weirdly Biblical and that of strong men quaintly Victorian:
‘King and country, death and glory, all the rest of it, knew that. Knew that I might cop it one day, or get a bullet in the backside, lose a leg, couple of fingers, that sort of thing ... Ordinary wounds. You know. Didn’t expect the others. The ones you speak of, the, what was it, hidden ones? Worse than the others in a way. I do see that.’
Something about the colonial East, its stock types and tensions, beauty and ambiguity, has lent itself to a particularly exploitative, market-conscious kind of novel. The Rains Came had a big success. Mr Bogarde has shown that he can do it all as well as the professionals, and I wish he hadn’t.
Simenon has written both good detective stories and good crime novels, and the difference isn’t that the latter are more ‘literary’. This is all the difference between Innocent Blood and P.D. James’s detective stories. It is frightfully ‘literary’ – wordy and uneconomical, over-determining the characters with fussy attentions, careless about hard facts and loaded with literary quotations. Like a detective story, on the other hand, it has pace and suspense in the narrative and some good practical psychology. P.D. James doesn’t convince one that her move into a new genre has any advantages.
‘It seems strange now, but I hardly knew Shakespeare before I went to prison. I promised myself that I’d read every play and in chronological order. There are twenty-one. I rationed myself to one every six months. That way I could be sure that they would last out the sentence. You can annihilate thought with words.’
People talk better than that in detective stories – they wouldn’t talk at all about annihilating thought with words. And only 21 plays by Shakespeare? This would be a clue of some kind in a detective story, but in Innocent Blood it is just one of the unaccountable mistakes.
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