Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s The Slow Train to Milan and Clare Boylan’s Holy Pictures share a subject – girls growing up to a world whose language is new to them – which demands close attention to the register of words and sentences, a measure of novelty and an enactment of surprise. Many of their sentences glint with recognitions, giving back a fine pleasure out of the often painful misunderstandings and reverses they render. In their careful sense of a vanishing past, their evocation of innocences not quite departed with the loss of ignorance, the best passages of both books offer a firm, affectionate hold on formative passages of life.
On the dust-jacket of The Slow Train to Milan we are told of the author that ‘she and her exiled Venezuelan husband travelled for two years in Italy before returning to his family home in the Andes’; the book seems to be drawn from this period of travel, whereas her previous, much-praised novel was based on the time in Venezuela. Keepers of the House (1982) was narrated in the third person about Lydia and Diego; this one comes in the first person of Lisaveta, who starts the action as a schoolgirl, and tells of her marriage to the much older César and their travels in Europe with his friends Otto and Elias. The heroine recalls from Norfolk many years later the slow train of events running from her encounter with César in South London, via their driftings in and between French and Italian cities, to the boat which takes them, terminating a two-year limbo, to South America. César and his friends, political exiles ‘wanted, in varying degrees, during this time live and converse evasively, in a mysterious medium of false names, false passports, odd cheques, codes and guns. The book takes only vicarious account of the evident glamour of such an atmosphere: it is Lisaveta’s story, and the very cool Lisaveta is no ‘thriller’.
Early on in her relation to the three South American friends we find Lisaveta ‘examining their habits with the detachment of a sociologist’, and the growth of her affection for them never takes the mild chill off her sad observations – partly perhaps in tribute to the coming-on of something like the desolation conveyed by Keepers of the House, partly perhaps because the dialogue is mostly translated back into a language remote from the original Spanish or Italian. Events often repeat themselves into habits in Lisaveta’s retrospect – ‘We went from town to town so many times that it is hard to remember the first time as an isolated event’ – and many of her self-contained paragraphs note stratagems for order in the unstable behaviour of a group whose period of exile, as one of them sharply says, ‘is a waste of time’.
Lisa St Aubin de Teran is a fine writer, and her subtle prose looks best when it looks, unblinking, at the oddity of the dealings of out-manoeuvred men so courageous and ridiculous. Thus, of Elias: ‘He always dressed informally, except for his pale suede shoes which were, he said, de rigueur,’ where, cunningly, a strictly personal formality looks the same as anyone else’s informality. Or of César’s obsession with exactly the right watchstrap: ‘It often became a question of pride for a jeweller to produce the very one, to file one down, to have one made. But each time, César would take it or leave it, and toss it into a box that he kept for the purpose. They were never right.’ The indifferent phrase ‘take it or leave it’ jars back into perplexing life from its misfit with ‘and toss it’; ‘for the purpose’ mocks the illogic of the sentence and the procedure, the cross-purposes of action and attitude. The language here is twisted into a fine strain. We get a similar witty surprise from a quite law-abiding sentence in Chapter One, where Lisaveta has been trying to say goodbye to the foreigner following her. ‘When all my farewells failed, I gave up and shut the door in his face, only to find that he had his foot wedged in the frame.’ ‘And shut the door in his face’, like ‘and toss it’ above, gives the sentence a turn after the misleading ‘gave up’, a wry curl in the deadpan expression. She gives up, not resistance, just polite resistance.
Such enjoyable finesses are not infrequent in The Slow Train to Milan. Elias is arrested in Italy for a minor offence, but is sought by Interpol for great ones: his friends can thus find themselves grateful for a terrible prompt brutality. ‘The very police had punched his face to an unrecognisable pulp.’ ‘Unrecognisable’, usually a violent hyperbole, picks itself out here with delightful precision. Yet the charm and poise of a manner can become mannerism, and Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s attentiveness sometimes slips into an embarrassing self-attention, an allusive display of sophisticated intentions. A chapter starts:
Bologna, the basin of flames, secret and proud and neglected. Bologna, the hottest place in northern Europe, where the air blows up from the deserts of Africa and collects in the city. Bologna, smothered by the Apennines, and nowhere, not even along the Orinoco, are there more mosquitoes. Bologna, the only Communist town in Italy, and where the gypsies are not allowed into the city precincts ...
This glittering, precious prose advertises nothing so much as its own knowledgeableness; it recalls the book’s unfortunate first sentence, which lets drop that ‘strangers still come up to me sometimes, in Paris, or London, or Caracas.’ The tedium of travel, most of us know, can be real enough: but the reiteration of its ordinariness and the casual mention of foreign facts (like the pests of the Orinoco) usually arouse a justifiable suspicion of designs to impress, and such doubts are never quite allayed in this novel. The length at which the itinerary is gone over, elaborately circumscribing a central emptiness (César’s misery in exile), seems to indicate a wishful reliance on the power of an oblique method to convey a state of genuine pathos – the predicament of heirs cruelly dispossessed of their country. The book tries to live off the same interest as Keepers of the House, but at such a distance from the South America powerfully gone into there that all the felicities it grasps – its moodiness and cross-purposes, its passages between motion and stillness, the fear always sensed under the lethargy and the perilous trust which cements the group – feel like broken promises of a true unity of impression.
The 14-year-old Nan, heroine (with her little sister Mary) of Holy Pictures, doesn’t leave the Dublin of 1925 and grows in that year from girl to young woman by force of staying at home. This strong, clever novel (Clare Boylan’s first) goes over much familiar ground of childhood – the convent school, pubescence, sex education, weak mother, aggressive father, bad-talking cook, skeleton in familial trunk – with a fresh and exciting tread. Lisa St Aubin de Teran has Lisaveta hear César’s introduction of himself as ‘C’est ça’ and the ‘carcel’ (‘prison’) he speaks of in Spanish as a ‘castle’. Clare Boylan resorts to nothing more foreign than the language of grown-ups, yet cogently finds it enough for the bewilderment of her Cantwell sisters, whose imagination of the adult world is alive with comic malentendus. The family servant is with the children.
Nellie’s moods altered quickly. ‘I wish,’ she cried out with vehemence, ‘I wish in vain, I wish I was, a maid again.’ She was singing. She was their maid. She always had been. Mary fervently hoped she always would be.
The old joke strikes its proper match here with the prosaic earnestness of youth; as in the same writer’s story ‘Appearances’, where a suffering girl, mocked by schoolmates for wearing the too-grown-up hand-me-downs pressed on her by her mother, triumphs by pointing out that they are not ‘woman’s boots’, but, as she was told, ‘kid boots’. There is a moment, emblematic in this respect, when Mary Cantwell innocently takes up the low French phrase of a widow who has coyly interrupted herself in lewd reminiscences of her late husband: the child pensively assumes the phrase was his name. ‘Mary backed off down the path thinking of the man in the locket who looked so lost and faded ... Paddy von Longfong.’ Such comic episodes minutely and touchingly plot out the pattern of puzzling blanks only gradually filled in by an aging child; the mildly baffled appropriation of words and phrases and bits of behaviour still to be fitted to their adult frame of reference.
Clare Boylan’s virtuosity patrols the successive borders over which children come of age alertly and with a mostly generous apprehension; she finds a surprising, appropriate story to carry her concerns, one which bears a sympathetic interest on behalf of her heroines. Her generosity does not extend, though, to the nuns at the school, or to the cardboard patriarchal father Mr Cantwell, a manufacturer of allegorically repressive corsets with a dramatically returning Raj past: he is heartless and indigestible for most of the book, until at last tenderised by disaster. The humour broadens, occasionally, beyond our belief, and the vividness of the writing flushes unnaturally at times with an effort of self-regard (‘Bright, acrobatic tears windowed her eyes, suspended,’ or ‘Curious words, frightening beat around them’). But this brief novel is paced and controlled with an intelligent discipline that mostly checks indulgence; it has learned from the practice of short stories, and takes in as it goes the moving accidents of word and look, yet always to constructive effect, always to a larger end. The final passages, tacitly gathering the accumulated sense of Nan’s unsteady transition, at once suspend and satisfy the clearly mixed ‘feelings evoked in us by this telling of losses and gains.
In Russell Hoban’s previous, much-admired novel, Riddley Walker, the narrator, ‘connection man’ for a Kent settlement far in the future which lies beyond some obscure cataclysm, agonises in his residual English about the problem of writing. ‘I dont have nothing only words to put down on paper. Its so hard. Some times theres mor in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it.’ Pilgermann, Hoban’s new protagonist, narrates from the ether, where he is ‘waves and particles’, long after his death in the Crusades at the siege of Antioch in 1098: yet this standpoint only increases his sense of the inadequacy of language, for he has even more big things to tell us than Riddley Walker. ‘Precision with words is impossible,’ he believes. This does not silence him; as he also says, ‘I talk and I talk and words come out of me in an unending stream.’
There is a story, of sorts. The castrated Jewish hero makes a fantastic pilgrimage, full of rapes, visions and disgusting deaths, from Germany to Antioch, where he and a Moslem friend design and build a ‘pattern’ in order to see potentiality become actuality. Narrative line is not, however, the focus of attention here. Pilgermann informs us that ‘I can’t tell this as a story because it isn’t a story; a story is what remains when you leave out most of the action.’ Where the action is, for Pilgermann and Russell Hoban, is in pseudo-philosophical consideration of ‘what is called time’ and ‘the nature of things’, couched in a self-perpetuating jargon that circles around ‘the law of the allness of the everything of which each of us is a particle’. This law, not very particular, apparently licenses Pilgermann’s speculative prose.
(Yerushalayim; spinning domes of gold in the sea of the one mind that is God. Ineffable.
It is the Jerusalem of the heart that must not be forgotten because in the Jerusalem of the heart is the heart of the mystery where lives the idea of the Unknowable that is God.)
The speculations alternate, until the decently-researched account of the siege of Antioch in the last fifty pages, with Russell Hoban’s lurid imaginings of sex, violence and decomposition.
Answerable for much of the nonsense is the novel’s inspirational self-importance, its grandly religiose version of what constitutes authorship. Russell Hoban’s style (with none of the constraints of an invented language which partly anchored Riddley Walker) is a sustaining vehicle that transports him to a telepathic meeting of minds with the waves and particles of Pilgermann. This is a meeting to which Pilgermann himself often refers: ‘By now I am only the energy of an idea; whoever is writing this down puts the name of Pilgermann to the idea, says, “What if?” and hypothesises virtualities into actualities.’ The workings of the imagination, so invoked, are then taken to give an authority to Pilgermann’s trans-historical eye-witness accounts of anything in history. Hieronymus Bosch (centuries after Pilgermann’s death) paints a remarkable effect of light: ‘I have flown beside that creature with the ladder ... and I can testify that Bosch experienced that sky by quantum-jumping to the strange brilliance of total Now.’ The torrent of random Zen wonderings – ‘Could the siege of Jerusalem have been painted by Vermeer?’ – and of big questions and big answers – ‘What is the nature of things? The nature of things is that what can happen will happen’ – justifies itself by an aesthetic of irresponsibility. The writer does not know what he is doing, and this makes his intuitions more valuable. ‘I describe what I do not understand because I am lived by it,’ Pilgermann claims at one point. A wise man says: ‘Although I said those words and know them to be true I have no idea what they signify.’ The same condition is ascribed to a much greater Author: ‘It is my belief that God is of an artistic temperament and has therefore chosen to let his own work be beyond his understanding.’ That ‘therefore’ may well give us pause. The corresponding attitude for the reader is perhaps stated when Pilgermann and his friend discuss the tiled design they have built in Antioch: ‘May it not be that the best way of conducting oneself with this pattern is simply to take it in without any thought and to enjoy in it the presence of the Unseen?’ Such an invitation to abdicate judgment and plunge into the worldlessness of ‘all’-inclusive superstition needs to be declined.
Ptolomaeos Tunne, hero of Simon Raven’s September Castle, remarks somewhere that ‘I like seeing patterns in things.’ This ‘Tale of Love’ involves, like Pilgermann, a modern relation to a journey and death in the Middle Ages, and also goes some way with the supernatural: but elegantly and with an urbane equivocation, working through narrative detail rather than floating above it. The medieval story concerns the Greek princess Xanthippe and her mysteriously horrible fate, revealed by ‘Ptoly’ in a succession of increasingly ingenious retellings: the present-day action traces the quest of Ptoly’s upper-class friends for the body (and possibly soul) of the dead princess, and for the treasure buried with her – a jewel-encrusted golden shrimp. Simon Raven obviously does good research, but he invents it even better, and the scholarly apparatus of the investigation has the charm of a consistency that excites our desire to know more. His handling of this desire, what’s more, might have pleased Roland Barthes, for the novel’s construction candidly runs the reader’s curious pleasure in a story up against the extended pleasure of controlled foreplay. Ptoly recounts the story of Xanthippe to his 16-year-old niece-mistress Jo-Jo over gourmet meals and long sessions of various interpersonal fiddlings – fiddlings which never quite come to a climax because, as Ptoly believes, that ‘leads to satiation and hence to indifference and hence, very often, to disgust’. Not that Ptoly doesn’t have – like Simon Raven – a sense of the ending needed to resolve such suspense: ‘After waiting a month a fellow goes off like a firework.’ This pleasantly weightless book closes with the strange sadness of a doomed pastoral: the in-turned indulgence of its English élite is felt passing. ‘There’s not so many of us left, you know. The old gang’s dying, my friend,’ someone remarks, and Raven’s attention, with a bizarre transition, moves onto the magic shrimp and its music of the past. The prose perplexingly rises, under the pressure of some obscure emotion, to its oddest moment, a profane epiphany on ‘lust ... lust that knows no limit, no frustration, no prohibition and no death’.
The Watcher by Charles Maclean, an Englishman’s novel set in the United States, has again to do with patterns. As in Pilgermann, they are huge patterns of cosmic significance centred on an individual life, discerned with excitement by a first-person narrator. This disturbing work, however, is a psychological thriller, and explicitly deals with them as a function of paranoia. The title of its first Book (also an epigraph to Stephen King’s The Shining, an evident and superior precursor) alludes to Goya’s warning that ‘the sleep of reason breeds monsters’: the premise of a genre which knows the dangers of the Unseen.
Martin Gregory is an unreliable narrator of the unhappiest kind – one who can’t trust himself (his psychoanalyst’s reports give us at intervals a small purchase on reality). A compulsion from his past overtakes his ordered domestic life, and he finds himself committing a complicatedly grisly atrocity which is yet not a punishable crime. His mental life sinks, in the proper style, ‘down through a seam in the mantle of darkness that covers the face of the unknown, down into the depths of my subconscious’ – hallucinations and a giddying amnesia take him over without his knowledge. The most frightening part of the book is the queasy middle section, where hypnotic regression therapy (in which Gregory is encouraged to tell – actually, invent – stories of his past incarnations) goes out of control and he starts to chase up the cosmic pattern. The action occupies an oppressive no man’s land run by nightmares, where the delusion-forming illness itself usurps the reality-tests by which it might be combated: those who are themselves absent-minded, who sometimes can’t remember if they have paid a bill or left a note for the milkman, may be unpleasantly affected by Charles Maclean’s workmanship in plotting such horror out of forgetfulness.
John Le Carré’s new book, The Little Drummer Girl, has an unhappy English actress with radical leanings recruited as an agent by the Israeli intelligence service in order to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist network attacking Jews in Europe. The process of recruitment is lengthy, and the task of impersonation asked of her immensely detailed, but Le Carré, who has said of spying (though it would apply to thriller-writing) that ‘it’s plotting problems,’ organises the business with lucid efficiency. His information, moreover, is impressively topical: the woman Charlie’s extended stay among the Palestinians around Beirut has the vivid circumstantiality of good journalism. The novel’s mediation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict takes pained account of the political and human predicaments on both sides – though Le Carré apparently expects ‘flak’ for his sympathy with the Palestinians.
This novelist may be said to have expressed for his generation its illusion of being disillusioned. The Little Drummer Girl is at many points rightly distrustful of the insidious power-games of its Israeli spy-leader, who reassures and entraps by ‘a friendly mastery of the proceedings’; it is alert to the abjectness in people which responds even with gratitude to bullying attention: ‘He had the authority to talk that way. He had the answers children long for.’ Yet the novel itself, allowing us ‘no faith in the official version of events’, exercises over the reader a knowledgeable authority and mastery in some respects reproducing the spymaster’s manipulativeness.
The Israeli spymaster’s name is Kurtz. ‘Others made laborious comparisons with Joseph Conrad’s hero. Whereas the bald truth was that the name was Moravian.’ Le Carré’s tone here has the laconic matter-of-factness of the gloomily omniscient narrations in many of Conrad’s quite differently directed novels. The book abounds in small reminders from such a viewpoint of the irony of things. A terrorist about to be captured jumps a queue, ‘thus hastening his own destruction’. He nearly doesn’t approach the girl who is bait. ‘But lust, or nature, or whatever it is that makes fools of us, had its way.’ The terrorist’s car has smoked windows which make his seizure invisible. ‘This was the first of many instances of the way in which Yanuka became the fatal victim of his own plush lifestyle.’ Taking this incident as if it were real, one might turn onto Le Carré the self-doubts of his insecure English actress: ‘Faced with such bald reality, her flip phrases had a schoolroom cheapness.’ In other words, an easily pretentious phrase like ‘the fatal victim of his own plush lifestyle’ pays too cheaply for the literary authority it assumes. The businesslike language of ‘bald’ reality plays its part in the power-games both of Le Carré’s fictional spymasters and of Le Carré as author. His experience of the world in action is not in doubt, but the success with which The Little Drummer Girl aims to penetrate to a Middle Eastern heart of darkness should rather be judged by his knowledge of hearts. When friends ask Le Carré’s wearily battle-scarred Israeli protagonist Becker about the future of Israel, we have to decide whether the resonance of the prose is hollow or profound. ‘They could not know – not at first, anyway – that they were speaking into the void of his own soul.’
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