The 19th-century novel was the great forum for writing about life – from sanitation to the condition of women, from politics to love. All the novels reviewed here are very much of the 20th century: whatever else they are concerned with, they are always about writing itself, that curious, aberrant occupation which the writer above all needs to explain to himself. One might be able to write oneself into a new way of life, more amusing than the old: in this sense (which is Anita Brookner’s sense) writing is a penance for not being lucky in love but also a way of being livelier than life. Words also preserve memory ‘which would have vanished utterly had he not enclosed it in a fortress of words’ (Christa Wolf). Writing is facing the truth, which cannot be unknown but only forgotten: it is ‘the enemy of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory.’ This is something Look at Me painfully reiterates. But writing is also, like everything else, subject to change according to circumstances. The illicit book which has sent A., the hero of The Viaduct, to prison no longer seems of any significance to him. For Kleist, as imagined in No Place on Earth, ‘the passion which swept him away ... was the seduction of words far more than the need to communicate with any particular human being.’ In Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange, stories are a currency like any other, paper fictions: but for Bradbury’s novelist Katya Princip they are also a way of learning ‘a certain sense of existence’. Even after betrayals and devaluations her message for the hero remains: ‘I mean to give you a better sense of existence.’ But the manuscript that bears her meaning gets blown up. Maybe Brookner’s view, which holds, like Thomas Mann’s, that to be a writer means dying to ordinary life, is less discouraging. Wolf’s Kleist feels something of this kind, but struggles at the boundaries between ideas and writing and life.
Boundaries are important, too, in connecting these novels, since they are concerned with traveling, and strange countries. Slaka, Bradbury’s imaginary East European country, is constructed by means of signs and notices which undergo a linguistic revolution in the course of the novel; without them, and the commentary offered by the hero Petworth’s interpreter, the place would be much the same as other places, we’re told – just as the breakfast is the same, whichever form the menu follows, whatever order is made. The Viaduct takes travelling as the process and condition of life, not just one of its varieties – travelling, in other words, as a quest. No Place on Earth, Milena and, arguably, Look at Me recall and depend on the past: this is their kind of traveling, undertaken to discover something important to the writer through the meditative recovery of past persons, or at least their texts and records.
The Viaduct won the Triple First Award offered by The Bodley Head, Penguin Books and Book Club Associates. It doesn’t take us anywhere much, except, as we expected, back where we started. It doesn’t move or stir, or warm the heart: it’s careful not to. Both hard-edged and indefinite, it prohibits certain kinds of involvement. Neutral in tone and point of view, it takes nothing for granted (except that circumstances will colour judgment) and gives nothing away – a position which tends to suggest something withheld.
Title and narrative track are provided by the railway – one of the major historical facts of the second half of the 19th century. But this railway, stretching across a plain with a city somewhere and hills in the distance, is disused, at least by trains, and there is no sign of modern technology, until, near the end, an official takes out a pocket calculator. There are only two ways of life: the railway track where an ever-increasing number of travellers walk, and villages or towns just off it, with local dignitaries, mayors, magistrates and pastors. It is a Kafkaesque world, except that there are no twists or shocks. There is little communication, and what there is is unreliable and confusing. To live in a settled community is to be known, and to have judgment catch up on you, your story told by others. But even the travellers, escaping this, are at the mercy of words, repeating stories of themselves and the past whose truth is questionable, explaining their way of life in contradictory superstitions. Even though they try to be disenchanted, A. and his first companion, a tall man, have on their minds the myths attaching to the railway: it is cold, and that means they are getting near the hills, the destination. But that conceals another truth: that it is cold because winter is coming on – the journey is hopelessly long.
The moments in which we pass from a particular journey to awareness of allegory can intensify unease. Some images and encounters are precise, even compelling, especially when A. recognises the destination: ‘“I know this place!” ... He knew that, by the very superstitions that the railway and its travellers possessed, he would be left alone now.’ The scene where he recognises the familiar as the end of the quest for the unknown recalls Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’, but that poem has a sense of evil quite lacking in The Viaduct. The tightness and withholding of the novel leave the reader trapped in the meaninglessness of paradox, as when the tall man, making the utmost effort to convince, advises A. to mistrust anyone who really wants to convince him. The novel warns against generalisation: everything is local and immediate, to be taken as it comes. A. says to the magistrate who is trying to estimate relief needs: ‘I can give you a guess ... You’ll need as much food as you can get and as much grave space as you can spare.’ But what could be more generalised than this allegory? At the other extreme from this intellectual decentralisation is the suspicion that a more totalising metaphysic is being smuggled in: a lost Catholic faith perhaps, surviving only in signs such as the dominance of the cathedral in the city, in the sense of helpless mortality unable to explain itself to itself, in the prevalence of pastor figures to whom A. is repeatedly returned for kindly interrogation and, finally, judgment.
Malcolm Bradbury is sharp on state planning and rationalisations. Luckily the speech of his characters breaks the rules:
I hope you have tried all our nice foods, very good in Glit. There is a typical thing, a cream of cucumber made with the chords of a yog, or do you like perhaps to eat a brain? I hope you try our things. And how is your monetarism? ... Of course our disasters are more rational, we plan them better.
Rates of Exchange begins in pure play, a burlesque of travel guides: not just schoolboy-silly names for state organisations (Cosmoplot the tourist agency, MUG the department store) but an extended, delighted brio, urging, questioning, engaging, informing the reader. There is, for example, a founding saint, whose minced-up body was restored to the nation for its weight in gold: ‘Yes, there are times in Slaka when it seems life is nothing else but making a trade, finding an equivalent, striking a bargain, forging a value, putting so much person into one pan and seeing how it matches up with so many goods in the other.’
This early funniness is characteristic of Bradbury’s writing; the narrative quietens down later, though there’s a series of running jokes, puns from a smuttily stammering diplomat, mistranslations (‘The Ministry of Strange Affairs’), which may start a giggle or a groan, as when we’re told yet again that Petworth, a visiting lecturer in linguistics, was ‘not a character in the world historical sense’. Jokes about women’s bodies ‘are quite outstanding, one immediately remarks it’ – when it comes to exploiting our sex, every country has a saying and they’re all much the same. Women are considered as objects of men’s desire, or so it seems from one of Katya Princip’s stories. She herself is both fairy princess and witch for Petworth, and the final impression is that he may find this magical mixture waiting for him at home in Bradford. A solemn earnestness moves uneasily beneath the jokes, reminding us of ‘the sadness and solitude behind the public spaces of society and exchange’. Travel alienates Petworth even from himself: ‘The soul empties, the familiar goes, especially in those who have not much soul to start with.’ He is treated as an object as much by the novel’s style as by his hosts, moved about not entered into, registering in his mediocre person the pressures and contradictions of history, remaining always in the capable hands of women who can be his guide like Marisja Lubijova or who have courage like Katya Princip. But for all their lecturing, Petworth’s active identity doesn’t grow. The book’s success lies in its satire of public surfaces rather than in its smuggled defence of liberal individualism. Bradbury remains where he started: a niggling rather than an angry young man. So he describes himself in the introduction to a pair of essays written twenty years ago and now reissued.
Maggie Ross is the author of The Gasteropod, a novel which won some fame in the Sixties. Her second novel is engaging but disappoints the promise it offers of questioning the relations between the novel, biography and autobiography. It celebrates Milena Jesenka, the writer who translated Kafka’s work into Czech: ‘It was a strong face and a real one; the face of a woman who was courageous enough to stand up on her own. What beauty there was in it came from its sensitivity and its lively look. One could tell from looking at her that the world had gained something from her existence.’ It is a work of love by one woman for another, but between the writer and her subject there is a mediator called Amy, an illustrator whose work on a triptych in celebration of Milena is used to build up an impression of her life. Amy knows her subject by knowing herself and knows herself by knowing her subject. This is interesting as long as it relates to Amy’s work and the comic bitterness which arises from her husband’s need both to neglect her and to have her attention: but relationship demands difference, and Amy’s life is too close a copy of her subject’s. Where there is a significant difference it is damaging. Milena Jesenka was involved in politics and ‘world history’; she worked as a journalist in Czechoslovakia before and after the German invasion, helped refugees, and was herself interned in Ravensbrück, ‘risking death for the luxury of conversation ... forging medical cards to save the lives of women with venereal disease automatically condemned to death’. Amy is not situated in relation to history any more than A. is in The Viaduct, so that she matches Milena only in dangerous exuberances and intensities, in emotional dependence and drug addiction. Maggie Ross describes a city where intellectual bohemians can sniff cocaine in cafés. But where is this city? Certainly it is only a pale shadow of Prague in the Twenties. The confusion obscures where the writer stands now. Instead of a productive interplay between novel and biography, we have too much reliance on a form that offers information but doesn’t make inquiries.
No Place on Earth is terrifyingly and nobly inquiring; like its protagonists, it ‘takes life so seriously that it is dangerous’. The most adequate response would be a confession of how its dreams, parables and aphorisms speak to one’s own condition, or a responding philosophical fiction. It takes the form of a conversation in the Rhineland in 1804, between the writer Heinrich von Kleist and a poet, Karoline von Günderrode. Kleist, cruel and self-lacerating, his mind ‘a machine which is made to run at full speed while at the same time the brake is being applied’, is unable to place himself within Prussian bureaucracy and militarism, but is ambitious, eager to challenge Goethe. Günderrode, though she understands his position and is ready, like him, to kill herself in order to escape humiliation, nevertheless offers hope, courage, honesty: ‘only that within us which wishes to be destroyed is destructible.’ The dialogue seeks to wear away divisions – man/woman, science/imagination, state/individual, ideas/action – thus bringing Christa Wolf, modern, East German, socialist, together with these Romantic idealists.
Frances, who begins to write her own story (which we have just read) on the last page of Look at Me, is tougher than many reviewers have made her seem. Her melancholy retrospect shows a bravery of wit. More than this, she has her revenge. ‘Look at me’ has two ranges of tone: sad (‘just look at me now’) or demanding attention with the gaiety of self-assertion. What Frances is denied is not simply love, but good manners. It is the public devaluation of her by the group she so admires that devastates her. When she regains composure, she will seek them out again, apparently meekly, but with an undeclared purpose: ‘I needed them for material.’ This is not how a well-mannered person should treat her acquaintance, but look at the previously admired Alix Fraser: ‘Alix stubbed out her cigarette in the remains of her yellow custard and smeared red over her wide mouth.’ This is not a novel of scenes but a meditation on experience in the French tradition.
One problem is how far Frances is presented ironically. The sharpening of her self-knowledge often seems excessively depreciatory, while her bedazzlement by the aura and gusto of the Frasers can hardly be shared by the reader: we can’t look at them, and the author doesn’t give them marvellous things to say – they are just abominable. It is hard to know whether this is because the writer’s early experience of them is constantly attended by the sadism of revenge or whether she just cannot capture in words what makes them so fascinating. A useful point of comparison would be Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, also a more solemn work written after ‘light, bright and sparkling’ successes. The glamour of Mary Crawford lies in her disenchanted wit, the way she talks: from this we can fill in everything else about her. Isn’t Anita Brookner in fact reconsidering the theme of Mansfield Park – modern, role-playing, self-seeking and profligate breach of convention against the affections of the honest heart? There are coincidences of naming: the Frasers were old London friends of Mary Crawford, there’s a Maria here whom James (Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram) goes off with, and there’s Fanny, as the Frasers call her, although she tells us at once that she does not like to be called this. What Fanny Price wins is what this Fanny desires: love that is open, innocent and simple and that can be felt to be so because it is acknowledged in society, not another illicit, complicated and humiliating affair. She had wanted to be a bride, approved by the good wishes of friends, ‘the daughter of the house once more’.
Of all these books James Kelman’s is the one I’m most likely to put in my pocket and read as I go on my way. The title, Not Not While the Giro, seemed so precious I nearly didn’t read it, the first and last stories so grim I nearly didn’t go on. But the writing has the vitality which can come only from economy, and a grim Glaswegian humour that surmounts helplessness and dereliction. ‘Wee Horrors’ begins with fleas infesting abandoned mattresses among which the children of the area make their dens, and ends abruptly as the father discovers the children sharing a barbecue with a couple of winos. It is a brief terror. Not all the stories quite come off but ‘Nice to be Nice’, for example, is perfect in its outrage at the imperfection of life in these islands now, a tour de force of mimicry. Written in the accents of a middle-aged Glasgow lorry-driver disabled by bronchitis, this monologue ironically exposes both the value and the inadequacy of the generosity and tolerance which he assumes, in spite of the facts, to be normal to humanity.