The President’s Child works, effortlessly, on many levels. First, it is a political thriller. Isabel Rust, a television producer and former hack reporter, once had an affair with a man who is supposedly being groomed as Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Her apparently spotless marriage was hastily contrived by her to provide a home for herself and the child of that previous union. On the surface, all is middle-class respectability in Camden Town. But as news coverage of the Primaries increases, people begin to notice the resemblance between Isabel’s son and his real father: Isabel herself is seen by the candidate’s campaign managers as a potential menace, and various moves, entirely credible, are made to dispose of her.
On this level, the invention is powerful and sustained. But it is not at this level that the gravity of the book is made manifest. Mrs Weldon has in the past been a devastating but partial protagonist in the familiar argument of man’s inhumanity to woman. Here she breaks free of her own propaganda, and in one of the most lyrical passages written by a woman for many years, she acknowledges the primacy, the absolute necessity of passion, the centrality and totality of physical love, and the difference between this and whatever other arrangements may have to be made. Mrs Weldon’s celebration of this discovery is not only fervent: it is worshipful. The spiky ladies who populated her earlier novels now fade into the background, while the foreground is dominated by a woman and her lover, and what passes between them is not scornfully reduced but restored to its rightful place. At a time when many women novelists are content to launch chronicles of sexual consumerism, it comes as an agreeable surprise to find Mrs Weldon calmly pushing these back onto the sidelines where they belong, and writing with complete conviction and with an edge of amorous sadness about a love affair marked off from all others. And, as always, she concentrates her meaning in a single phrase: ‘He made me what my mother could not – he made me whole.’
And there is an even deeper level on which this novel is serious, for it deals with cause and effect, with right and wrong, with authenticity and bad faith. Bright facades reveal tragedies and delinquencies which one is somehow not surprised to discover. The snappy infighting of her previous novels is abandoned for a more sombre realisation of what life may be about, and in the course of this process perspectives undergo a change. ‘Feminism is a luxury,’ pronounces the narrator. ‘The world is graded into fit and unfit, not male and female.’ There are fewer possibilities than were once assumed to be available. Perhaps duty is inescapable. Perhaps even God exists. The moral burden is resumed with some dignity and is used to structure an already excellent fiction.
Silence among the Weapons, John Arden’s first novel, deals with the mysterious and violent contortions which led up to the disintegration of the Roman Republic in the first century BC. The leading characters are Marius, Sulla, Cinna, Drusus and Mithridates Eupator, except that they rarely emerge as such: they exist only as they affect the destiny of a limping Greek theatrical agent called Ivory who, at the outset of the story, is in a nice way of business in Ephesus, but who is suborned by his tricky mistress Irene into becoming an agent of a more varied kind. Ivory’s fortunes, or rather misfortunes, in both capacities, lead him to brood, edgily and elliptically, on the contingencies of daily life in a politically corrupt society as he is driven on his peripatetic way into Italy, to witness the butcheries of the Social War, onto a pirate ship off the coasts of Crete and Cilicia, and finally to a reputed exile in Milan.
Enmeshed in its snarling paranoia, the brutalities of its language and of its attitudes, the overwhelming solipsism of its narrative, are some excellent vignettes – of stage performances and private entertainments, of rituals in the Temple of Venus – which convey the spirit of the times rather more vividly than the march of events and which are described with a clarity conspicuously absent from the main body of the book. The text is overwhelming, almost alarming: rowdy, slangy, not immediately comprehensible. Perhaps it is part of Mr Arden’s conspiracy theory of the powers which rule the state that everybody has a nickname and nobody tells the truth; lack of information is veiled as a series of tip-offs. The style puts one in mind of a violently updated prose paraphrase of Sordello, as perhaps this passage might indicate:
Let me be responsible (out of character, but nevertheless) and look at the public grounds – beyond the personal – for taking this chance. His terrible continued Lucanian war – oh but the effects of it, I had seen them. The land had a right to be granted some peace at last. Of course, it was not my land (which was full of Strychnine and the Stain, don’t think about that): its suffering strictly no business of mine. But if I could conclude the suffering by giving the information – surely better for the world at large I should do so, here and now.
What emerges from these pages is the general impression of a pagan, superstitious, venal and physically brutal world, alert only to the basest of motives and the crudest of claims, sexually sophisticated, joky but humourless, cynical even towards its gods, blaming ill luck for every mistake made or maltreatment suffered. John Arden’s confidence in animating this period (and there is evidence of enormous background reading) is considerable; it is impressive; it is unusual. But it is unusual chiefly as a sustained exercise in elaboration and obfuscation. By the end of the novel the reader is left with no very clear idea of the author’s purpose – yet it is quite clear that he has a purpose, and that his purpose is as much political as it is literary. If it is to exhibit the powerlessness of people governed by over-ambitious rulers, then he has complicated his message by making those people both sharp-witted and infinitely corruptible, both excitable and oblique. If, as I suspect, he has summoned up enormous energy in order to describe an enormous despair – the end of rational government, the hopelessness of secular hope – then I think he has managed rather too well.
Solipsism of a very different kind is exhibited by Peter Redgrove in The Facilitators, or Mister Hole-in-the-Day, a psychic parable operating on the very near shores of what the author describes and clearly experiences as magic. It is a magic which has its roots in Jungian dreams and symbols but which is used in the cause of easy-access surrealism and hippie celebrations, hallucinations, cults, orgies and madness. Running through the narrative or fable is a glorification of psychic energy, but this is to be achieved by way of rituals which are empty of all meaning: ‘magical masturbation’, for example, is supposed to bring about dynamic transformations in consciousness, while fantasies about bees, bee-keeping, bee-swarms, and the ingestion of honey, flower into affirmations of fertility and resurrection. A mysterious Institute in Cornwall is directed by Madame Jacqueline Dimitrios, the richest woman in the world, and various suitors, willing themselves into lunacy for purposes of admission, direct their energies to winning her hand, although they do not know whether she is alive or dead. As she is a bee-master, she is always veiled. She is also the initiator of orgiastic mysteries, elaborately stage-managed and aloofly inconclusive. All this is worrying on several counts. There is a core of serious therapeutic teaching contained in the message of Dionysian liberation, and occasionally the writing is of sufficient strength to convey this. But any seriousness is dissipated by Beyond the Fringe exchanges between the inmates, and by the suggestion that arcane enlightenment can be attained only through induced delirium. Perversions of true purpose (and enlightenment is the truest purpose of all) convey only a limited measure of entertainment, unless of course the pleasure is in the perversion. For all its orgone-box ecstasies, there is something essentially iconoclastic in Mr Redgrove’s fable.
The legacy of the British in India, and the lasting impression they obviously bequeathed to the whole subcontinent, form the subtext of Kamala Markandaya’s Pleasure City. Imperial garrisons and stations have been succeeded by multinational conglomerates, staffed by old colonial hands, whose purpose is to build luxury hotels, opening up the coastline to the rich of all nations. It goes without saying that in the development of ‘Shalimar’, a complex of hotel, villas, theatre and health club, the unspoiled fishing village of thatched huts and kerosene lamps will be overshadowed, and its inhabitants, pressed into service as waiters, lifeguards and shop assistants, will become rich but denatured. It is a theme with a distinguished pedigree, and here it is handled gently and with skill: but it is flawed by sentimentality, for the two main characters, clearly seen as representatives of their respective races, have one of those idealised and elemental relationships which consist of physical companionship and very short sentences. Tully, son and grandson of English soldiers, one of whom built himself a house called Avalon on the same strip of shore as the vulgar but luxurious Shalimar, is tall, fair, easy, laconic, compassionate and impervious: Rikki, the Indian foundling who becomes his companion, is clearly the genius of the place, physically perfect, devastatingly honest, wise beyond all acquired wisdom. These two parfit gentil knights try to make sense of the old order which has disappeared and the new one which has replaced it. Tully, who has taken possession of Avalon, spends his time sculpting a marble cherub; when mixing with the guests he retains the smiling equilibrium, the conqueror’s affability, bequeathed to him by his upbringing. Rikki, who has fond memories of the Mission couple who taught him English, is the unassimilable, unspoilable essence which the new Western influence can do nothing to diminish. And I take this to be the main message of the book: that Indian nationhood can now resist the blandishments of these clumsy foreigners with perfections and sophistications of its own. The handling of this theme is oblique and extremely well-mannered: it is only in the physical descriptions of her characters that Mrs Markandaya reveals her true sympathies.
Michael Korda has polished his first novel, Worldly Goods, up to a high gloss of readability. He deals with weighty matters: the refinements of criminality encountered by members of the Grünwald family in the Hungary of the 1930s and 1940s. The enormously wealthy, quarter-Jewish Grunwald brothers, Matthew and Steven, try to arrive at various accommodations with the Nazis, whom they despise on grounds of breeding, and if this involves them in the sale of uranium ore for a projected secret weapon, they are well able to justify this on grounds of business expediency. But as former guests and acquaintances begin to turn up in SS uniform, it is clear that further ransoms must be paid to secure a passage to freedom, and when one brother travels to Zurich to sign the necessary papers and fails to return, the rest of the family suffers the fate which it had always thought reserved for more commonplace victims.
The two original Grünwald brothers each had a son, and a reckoning has to be reached between these two cousins, both of whom have survived and become immensely rich in America. Various worlds collide at this end of the saga, which is used as a frame for the earlier recital: we are made free of publishers’ launches, the buying of silver futures, executive jets, meals at Lutece, Taillevent, La Colombe d’Or, motor-cars containing two telephones, a television set, a bar, a coffee percolator, and all the latest magazines, private collections of Old Masters whose existence is never revealed to the naked eye of the interloper, wardrobes of couture clothes acquired in a single morning’s shopping in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and similar diversions. This is good fun and is done with gusto: Mr Korda knows exactly how to tell us that the super-rich are different from us. But he also has a complicated story to unfold and he does this with great professionalism. The theme of a powerful family and its fortunes is clearly one which he has at heart: there is old money, so to speak, mixed in with the newer stuff.
And lastly a marvellously funny, marvellously bitter, marvellously intricate, highly moral thriller from John Gregory Dunne. Dutch Shea Jr deals with the private life of a criminal lawyer who decides, at a terminal point in his own fortunes, to investigate the misdemeanours and malpractices that have hedged him around since his father’s death and who, in so doing, dismantles the fantasies on which he counted to sustain him. Towards the end one feels that authentic tingle which signals that the author is taking his characters as seriously as he takes himself. Dutch Shea Jr could well be this year’s Gorky Park.