Aliza Shevrin has served her apprenticeship as one of the dutiful translators of Isaac Bashevis Singer, along with Ruth Schachner Finkel, Rosanna Gerber, Dorothea Straus et al. She seems no less expert with the Yiddish of an older master, Sholom Aleichem, best-known to English readers as the chronicler of the Jewish poor in the shtetl of the 1880s, the low-life, high-thinking world of Fiddler on the Roof. The world of Marienbad, in 1911, is more classy and farcical: plenty of high life and low thinking. The Bohemian holiday town is thronged with merry Jewish ladies from Warsaw, reluctantly let off the leash by their merchant husbands, slaving away in Nalewki Street. Marienbad is felt to be as dangerous to marital fidelity as Bath and Scarborough were for Restoration playwrights.
This charming comic novel is very like such an English play, strangely enough because it is written entirely in the form of letters – finally speeding up into frenzied telegrams – between Warsaw and Marienbad (and, in the telegram coda to the suite, the yet more dangerous Ostend). In the letters we hear the voices of the writers, like those of stage-actors taking turns to make their witty or foolish speeches, according to character. The tone of The Country Wife is almost echoed when pretty Beltzi Kurlander writes home to her busy old husband in Warsaw, telling him what a good girl she has been in fending off the attentions paid her by the young schlimazels on the train to Marienbad. Thus did Margery Pinchwife virtuously tell her old husband: ‘He put the tip of his tongue between my lips and so mousled me – and I said I’d bite it. He’s a proper goodly strong man; ’tis hard, let me tell you, to resist him.’ Such boasts, as the gloating audience well knows, are not so reassuring to Messrs Pinchwife and Kurlander as their candid ladies think they are.
Mr Kurlander has a trustworthy old friend, Chaim Soroker, trying to slim down in Marienbad, and it is Mr Soroker’s duty to keep an eye on Mrs Kurlander, to make sure that she is not led astray by fashionable, extravagant Mrs Tchopnik. Mr Soroker takes the duty most seriously, eager to protect Beltzi from such beaux and rakes as Meyer’l Mariomchik, the Odesser Womaniser. The intrigues are observed by a ‘school for scandal’ of Warsaw holidaymakers, all watching each other for signs of misbehaviour. Will Sheintzi and Kreintzi, the wives of that unnervingly pious pair of husbands the Itche-Meyers, finally ‘cast off their wigs’ (Yiddish for ‘hats over windmills’)? All the scandals of Marienbad are whizzed back to Warsaw in ever-increasing circles of indiscretion and misdirection.
It must be hell being a Jewish fool, with all those Yiddish epithets flying around. A schlemiel (so Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me) is really the funniest kind of Jewish fool and may be easily distinguished from the mere schlepper or the schlimazel or the wretched schmuck. Less clever Jews and gentiles must rely on the Oxford English Dictionary which thoughtfully suggests that when the waiter spills soup on the customer the waiter is the schlemiel and the customer is the schlimazel. Most of the men in Marienbad count as schlimazels but the philanderer, Meyer’l Mariomchik, is a schlemiel with a touch of schmuck. (Aliza Shevrin has given an exotic flavour to his billets-doux, since he writes in his own curious blend of Russian and Yiddish.)
The incompetent wife-protector, Mr Soroker, is something of a schnob (to coin a word, perhaps) and sets the Marienbad social tone pretty well with his remark that ‘the Jewish Marienbad has gone downhill since the British King Edward died.’ But Mr Soroker’s social standing is toppled by an epistle in the most ceremonious and denunciatory Hebrew from the formidably orthodox Itche-Meyers, accusing him of paying Falstaffian attentions to both their wives: their letter (here translated into the high Jacobean of our Bible) shrivels Soroker, who ‘does not possess the fluency of the holy tongue’. The translation of all these Jewish languages into good English is a real achievement – and the charm of Sholom Aleichem’s comedy makes the reader long to buy a 1911 railway ticket to Marienbad.
A trip to Rome in the Thirties, the year XI of Mussolini’s dictatorship, has a different sort of appeal for the armchair traveller – more sinister, more rocky-horror. A Coin in Nine Hands is Marguerite Yourcenar’s expansion, written in the Fifties, of her Denier du Rêve, first published in 1934. She writes in her afterword: ‘One of the reasons that Denier du Rêve seemed worthy to be published again is that, in its day, it was one of the first French novels (maybe the very first) to confront the hollow reality behind the bloated façade of Fascism, this at a time when so many writers visiting the country were happy still to be enchanted by the traditional Italian picturesqueness, or to applaud the trains running on time (at least in theory) without wondering what terminals the trains were running toward.’ It is not difficult to imagine the pleasure that frivolous Tory plutocrats and plutogogues must have taken in Mussolini’s amusing revival of the old republican idea of dictatorship.
Best-known here as the author of Memoirs of Hadrian, Mme Yourcenar elegantly harps on pagan Rome in her modern story – partly about an attempted assassination of Mussolini, here called ‘Caesar’. She deliberately evokes the world of Julius and Augustus Caesar, where well-meaning, self-seeking senators slide nervously past the shadowy colonnades and smooth youths snatch bangles from the sleek arms of tempting girls beneath statues of Pompey and Hermaphroditus, while the street-gangs of Milo and Clodius achieve respectability by running wild. ‘As he drops the price of the roses into the old woman’s scraggy hand, half a dozen lictors dressed in dark shirts are taking up the width of the sidewalk with their excited movements.’ The Italy of Dante and the Vatican is also evoked, so that we may sympathise with Sir Julius Stein – a visitor from Britain, ‘his feet burning, his mind dazed by the patter of the guide so that he now confused Julius Caesar with Pope Julius II’.
The characters in the novel are linked – in the familiar school-essay pattern – by the passing of a coin from hand to hand. They break into ‘interior monologues’ which (says Mme Yourcenar) are not intended merely ‘to show a mind-mirror passively reflecting the floods of images and impressions flowing past’. In 1947 she translated The Waves into French and this exercise may have affected her impressionist style. Her impression of screen-drama, when it was fairly new, is as fresh as Henry Green’s, in Living. An Italian girl watches a film in which the star, Algenib, is kissed by Lord Southsea in a smart uniform – and remembers that her own first lover was not English and wore no uniform, and how ashamed she was when she revealed the holes in her stockings as she undressed. ‘Griefstricken because Lord Southsea had left, Algenib threw herself at the feet of the Madonna, in a chapel full of nuns delicately made-up.’ The picturegoer remembers how she hated ‘the gray-faced nuns’ at her convent school. ‘The only difference between this movie and life was that here the public knew it was being deceived.’ She turns to her lover – ‘an ordinary man, less real than Lord Southsea’ – and hears him speak ‘Movie English, one of the secret slangs of love’.
With Stanley Middleton we must expect to be confined to a city in the English Midlands. A firm hand at the reins prevents his readers and himself from galloping away from this tranquil place. Entry into Jerusalem is about an admired landscape painter, just before he moves to London and the flashy world of international metropolitan art-and-journalism. The title is allegorical and so is the name of the painter, John Worth. The title is also the name of Worth’s controversial new picture, in which he depicts Jesus with a skinhead haircut, standing on the pillion of a motorbike, congratulating himself like a football hero, while the fans rip off branches from ornamental cherry trees.
The vulgar perversity of this idea, skilfully carried out by a famously chaste and discreet landscape painter, would undoubtedly attract the collectors and the media. ‘Where’s the humility?’ some would cry. Worth’s girlfriend, Ursula, a Militant type, complains that this vision of Jesus represents ‘a brainless job, uneducated, rough’. She has no time for Jesus, she claims – ‘but at least he was a thinker, an intellectual.’ That is exactly what certain Friends of the People would say. Worth’s picture would be easy meat for Sunday supplements and television culture shows. Anyone could proffer an opinion.
This deftly-told story starts with Worth listening to advice about his career from Turnbull, a rather patronising but admiring old friend, a teacher who has taken a new young wife, rather a temptation for Worth. Turnbull has in his time been a local hero. Worth admires him as a schoolmaster and he finds that even Ursula’s disagreeable old father has revered him as a rugby player. But Turnbull withers while Worth blossoms – soon to be overblown and run to seed. Stanley Middleton is good at suggesting the future. ‘Worth remembered this day when almost two years later he sold his parents’ house and moved, against his oath, to London. He could have kept the old bricks and mortar, but he refused to be sentimental.’ Worth, the reader feels sure, is making an entry into temptation, not into triumph.
The Jesus of Patricia Highsmith makes his menacing appearance in Chalmerston, Indiana. People Who Knock on the Door is the story of a sort of Christian martyrdom, observed with total lack of sympathy by the victim’s older son, Arthur. Miss Highsmith’s understanding of masculine thought and feeling (in such details as stone-throwing and shirt-buying) is as dazzling as ever. Her whodunnit talent for surprising twists still exhilarates: but this is a ‘straight’ novel, not a puzzle, and the reviewer need not be too shy of revealing the plot.
The martyr, Richard Alderman, is a dull, decent father, an insurance man with two sons, a wife and a chic, youthful mother-in-law, more classy than himself. (I visualise them as something like the families in Rebel Without a Cause.) Richard goes to church fairly casually in the normal Midwestern way. But when his younger son, Robbie, is nearly dying in a hospital, Richard prays to Christ and his prayers are answered. ‘I had a great experience last night,’ so he tells Arthur, his older son. ‘Maybe one day you’ll have one like it too. I hope you will.’ Arthur nods curtly, more pained than embarrassed. He can’t bear born-again Christians: they don’t even believe the revelations of Charles Darwin. Arthur was out with his girl while Robbie was in his agony and their father was praying so fervently. Arthur’s main interest in Robbie is as someone to tease. Maybe that is why Robbie is growing so eccentric, always out hunting and fishing, silently, with much older men.
Arthur is a good science student, preparing to go to Columbia. This plan is endangered by his girlfriend’s pregnancy. Naturally, her parents are ready to arrange a tidy abortion – but Arthur’s father is vehemently threatening, since he puts the embryo’s right to life above the woman’s right to choose. Arthur is harassed by his father’s Christian friends, the people who knock at the door, smiling in suits and shiny spectacles. The mother and the chic grandmother try to give Arthur some moral support, but they won’t come out openly against the Christian father. To Arthur this man’s behaviour seems artificial, unnatural: it’s not as if he were a Roman Catholic following tribal custom, to be understood by anthropologists.
Next, the father must needs try to help the poor. He brings home for Christmas lunch a low-class, unattractive prostitute and her hideous fat sister. One night he comforts the unwanted prostitute in her bed, and a little brother or sister for Robbie and Arthur is on the way. You may guess what young Robbie, who has taken up anti-sex puritanism, will do with his shot-gun ... Still, the martyrdom is soon over, Robbie is locked up with other juvenile delinquents, and sensible Arthur can live his comfortable, cold-fish, atheistical life with his mother and his girlfriends.
This severe novel may be read as an anti-Christian homily or as a political argument against the ‘Moral Majority’ or as an entry in Father Brown’s casebook of American religious enthusiasms. Patricia Highsmith’s moral ‘ambiguity’ and ‘ambivalence’ seem to derive from her preference for tidiness as against messiness. Her hero, Arthur, is as neat and tidy as the talented Mr Ripley.
Emily Prager, a New York fantasist, seems less keen on social conventions. A Visit from the Footbinder, the first story in her collection, is about Pleasure Mouse, a small girl in ancient China, having her feet squashed into ladylike deformity. Older women are nostalgically sad at the ritual. Her father doesn’t like this ‘women’s work’ at all. ‘Is it the man who pulls the binding cloth to cripple a daughter’s feet?’ he cries. ‘No man could bear it.’ The book’s cover attempts a contemporary point, with a surrealist picture of a modern woman kicking off her high-heeled shoes, to reveal grotesque, heel-shaped warts of flesh growing on her bare feet.
In Miss Prager’s other tales the infliction of physical pain is discussed more sportively: but the last, a plaintive, quite realistic little conversation-piece, concludes that emotional pain is probably worse. There is a similar sketch about the agoraphobia of an apparently outgoing New York socialite, struggling to a party, her tension relieved by the arrival of a famous journalist, Russell Baker, over whom she gushes. Miss Prager thanks Mr Baker for letting her put him in her story; and she also thanks the novelist, Jerzy Kosinski, for not objecting to his presence in her tale, ‘The Alumnae Bulletin’ – an account of a group of New York graduates who wear wooden phalluses at their reunions (to represent their penis-envy) while they discuss the men they have had lately. One of them boasts of having been whipped by Mr Kosinski – and he turns up at the party to claim her and to be asked excitedly about his books.
Longer and yet more horrid is ‘The Lincoln-Pruitt Anti-Rape Device’ – about a surgical gadget fitted to American army women in Vietnam for the purpose of castrating the enemy.
Captain Zinnia Jackson shifted manically on the metal aircraft seat. Her Leopard, as the platoon fondly called the Lincoln-Pruitt Anti-Rape Device, was pinching again ... ‘Uh-uh,’ she muttered, shaking her great bald head and fidgeting, ‘this is not what I had in mind, no way ...’ She had pictured herself as the first black American woman in the high-class spy business.
Miss Prager likes to pack her sentences with surprises, in the manner of Firbank and Waugh (‘With Oriental resignation, Father Rothschild SJ ...’). Her jokes have the flash-and-filigree of early Terry Southern, with his ‘What’s My Disease?’ quiz programme, before he went rather too far, in his tale of L.B.J.’s necrophily with the assassinated J.F.K.
Still, whatever her disease, Miss Prager’s sick jokes can raise a laugh. Nothing funny about Dusklands. Opening it at random, the first sentence I saw was: ‘The ear I had bitten off was not forgotten.’ On the same page, the narrator complains of ants biting ‘my tender anus, on to my weeping rose, my nobly laden testicles’. J.M. Coetzee is a South African, educated in the United States. The biting of ear and ants occurs in the second of his two monologues – the narrative of an implausible 18th-century explorer called Coetzee in Hottentot territory, a very nasty piece of work. Mungo Park he’s not. The other monologue, ‘The Vietnam Project’, is about a 20th-century American researcher planning implausible methods of defeating the Vietcong: he is under the control of a man called Coetzee, whom he fears. (‘Coetzee is the kind of man who notices symptoms. As a manager he has probably sat through a one-week seminar on the interpretation of gesture.’)
The researcher goes mad and stabs his own child. In the madhouse he researches upon himself: ‘I have high hopes of finding whose fault I am.’ The explorer in ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’ also seems to be mad. A Hottentot woman tells him: ‘You have mutilated this child. Do you not know how to play with children? You are mad, we can no longer have you here. You must go.’ Maybe this lady could be offered a job as a publisher’s reader, or a fiction reviewer.
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