The theme of William Trevor’s new novel – his ninth, and that leaves short-story collections out of account – is the murderous entail of Anglo-Irish history, in which, as a Cork man, he may fairly be considered expert. But unlike most experts, above all most specialists in Ireland’s past, he knows how little has to be told and how much is best left to the reader’s own memory and imagination. The point about an entail, as Mrs Bennet constantly complained to her long-suffering husband, is that it is buttoned up by law, invulnerable to grace. In Ireland, as in Pride and Prejudice, it follows the male line: only recently has an Amazonian tendance invaded Anglo-Irish contestation. The blood in this book is shed by the men, but the life sentences are served by their women, whose tragic warps still find their metaphor half a century later in the blackened, twisted beams of once-gracious country houses fired in the civil wars and never repaired. Such a house is Kilneagh.
Fools of Fortune opens and closes in 1983, with the Quintons of Kilneagh slipping gently away to genealogical extinction, and the Woodcombes of Dorset clinging precariously to their ancestral manor by charging ‘adults fifty pence at the turnstiles, children twenty-five’, to visit it. The families have drifted apart in our own time, but in 1918, when Willie Quinton opens his own story, the Woodcombes and the Quintons have already intermarried twice in the space of a century, and his cousin Marianne is about to become the third English girl to visit Kilneagh and fall in love. In Anglo-Irish relationships, Trevor observes, history tends to repeat itself.
Intermarriage never entailed mutual understanding. The first English Mrs Quinton alienated her Dorset parents by writing them hysterical letters in the 1840s, trying to radicalise them about the Irish famine. This time, Michael Collins visits Kilneagh, as a friend. The Troubles come. The house is burnt and Willie Quinton’s father is killed with his dogs and servants, not by Irishmen resenting his English connections, but by Black and Tans avenging the hanging of an informer from a Quinton oak. Willie’s mother takes to drink and slits her wrists. In the emotion of the moment, Marianne conceives shy Willie’s child, but by the time she knows and has cut herself off from her parsonic parents, Willie has gone to hack off the head of the Liverpool greengrocer who used to be the Black and Tan sergeant, and has fled into a 40-year exile. Their daughter lmelda, brought up with mother and eccentric aunts in Kilneagh, and too imaginative for her own good, achieves happiness at the expense of communication, as a ‘touched’ Irish saint. The story winds down, more in exhaustion than in reconciliation. The reader, not the writer, supplies the sound of distant gunfire: the plague has moved north: Cork sleeps – until the next time.
Convents and boarding-schools are significant backdrops to this Irish stage, absorbing characters who are either not ready to play adult roles (Willie at Mr Scrotum’s Llanabba-like college in the Dublin mountains; Marianne at genteel Mrs Gibb-Bachelor’s finishing school in Montreux), or else are counted among the walking wounded (the servant girl Josephine, sheltered from her memories by matter-of-fact nuns). Perhaps these episodes, short or long, would fit another book as easily as this one: Mr Trevor’s capacious notebook travels with him everywhere, and he must now be able to borrow from himself, like Handel putting together an oratorio for the Dublin market. But there is an enviable deftness about this novel and its leitmotiven: the scarlet drawing-room, the flickering flames, and the crimson-dripping mulberries which will take a week to pick, ‘longer if rain interrupts’.
The Quintons’ bondage to the murderous entail began at the oak from which Doyle their servant was hanged. Jorge Semprun, at the opening of his autobiographical novel, is discovered half-way through his own troubles, standing in the snow, delighted by another tree, ‘so ein wunderschönes Baum’, as he remarks when he realises he is not alone. The place, after all, is famous for its trees: Goethe and Eckermann carved their initials on one. The place is Buchenwald. The SS warrant officer, not a tree-lover, waves a revolver and asks him what he thinks he is talking about.
The last Buchenwald survivor whose book I reviewed later became my friend, and although Eugene Heimler’s Night of the Mist (1959) was an autobiography written in English by a Hungarian poet, and What a beautiful Sunday! arrives as fiction by a Spaniard who originally wrote it in French, they are beyond question describing the same place, the one from below the salt, the other from above. Heimler, a Hungarian Jew lucky enough to have been exported to Buchenwald from Auschwitz in 1944, quickly realised who was running the place: not the SS, exactly, though they still exercised and enjoyed the power of life and death and kept the little crematorium busy, but the Party, meaning not Hitler’s but Semprun’s. As Heimler put it, ‘it was the Communists who were in charge of the offices, kitchens and barracks; here, as elsewhere, these jobs involved certain advantages. These comrades constituted the élite of society at Buchenwald, with their secret cells and secret meetings – which were known to everybody.’ After the élite came the ‘middle class’ of non-Communist political prisoners, social democrats, bourgeois lackeys and churchmen. The ‘lower middle class’ consisted of rank-and-file gaolbirds, from criminals to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The ‘proletariat’ consisted of the prisoners brought to the camp solely because of their Jewish origin.
Semprun belonged, it is clear, to the élite. He had been captured and sent to Buchenwald under his nom-de-Résistance, Gérard Sorel. His fluency in German helped him to a safe job as clerk in the office of the Arbeitstatistik, with access to the prisoners’ card-index and occasional influence – but only in the interests of the Party – over their life-or-death destinations outside the camp. After 1945, as Frederico Sanchez, he resumed his former Spanish Civil War personality and plotted against Franco. In 1964 he lost his Communist faith and was kicked out of the Party and into literature, where his identities at last coalesce round Goethe’s tree and the legend that greeted all who passed beneath the portals of Buchenwald, Jedem Das Seine, ‘to everyone his own’. The motto was apt: in the camp, you lived or died according to the national and ideological label you wore: Buchenwald was the continuation of total war by other means, although as Heimler – and Bruno Bettelheim – discovered, cunning, moral fibre or luck could always raise you into a life expectation not shared by the rest of your group.
Semprun’s untidy, repetitive, but refreshingly combative book about Buchenwald also exemplifies a belief of Heimler’s which he later elaborated as a theory of social-work practice: that a person’s present functioning in society can be used to repair past psychic damage which Viennese orthodoxy might consider beyond reach; that it is given to men to reshape not just their presents but their pasts. Buchenwald obviously fell into place for Semprun only when he read Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Gulag and matched it to the terrible, ridiculous moment near the end of the war when a group of Jews from the Polish camps arrived in Buchenwald and with the very last of their energies gave Semprun and the other comrades the Nazi salute – because it had made sense, if you were Jewish in Czestochowa early in 1945, to ask the Germans to take you west with them rather than to await your Russian ‘liberators’. In unifying his own personalities, Semprun unifies his conception of the two deforming systems, Nazi and Soviet, and mischievously quotes Hegel for the most succinct account of what they have in common: ‘To consider men and to command them, according to cold reasoning, sometimes as labouring, productive beings, sometimes as beings to be improved, becomes the most terrible tyranny.’ No wonder, he adds, 250 pages later, that ‘the Russians were so perfectly at home in the world of Buchenwald, because the society from which they came had been a perfect preparation for it.’
Stephen Vizinczey – another Hungarian, another survivor, though at a younger age, of both Nazism and Communism – has a system more formidable than either in his sights, a system which never for one moment supposes that men can be improved. It is a system for which capitalism is the wrong name, for the essence of capitalism is that money is a tool waiting to be used to make more, while the premise of An Innocent Millionaire is that it is for its devotees an end in itself, waiting to be worn, like a coronation robe or a cloak of darkness. The wounded surgeon plies the steel: seldom has a promising writer’s failure to write a convincing second novel after the huge financial success of his first – Vizinczey’s first being In Praise of Older Women – seemed more plausibly attributable to a restlessness, accidie, and elephantiasis of the fantasy life, induced by money itself.
Mark Niven, as a young boy, knows poverty, even hunger, in half the countries of Europe, because his father is a persistent, talented, but – until late in his career – unrecognised actor. (For actor, read freelance writer perhaps: it is a related talent, or disease.) Mark sincerely wants to be rich. A Spanish treasure ship, traced to the correct Caribbean reef after a self-educating search through the libraries of two continents, gives him his desire, and on the way, the women – still somewhat older than the hero – that seem appropriate to his education. In the second half of the book Mark, who seems to have learnt less about human nature than close study of the 19th century’s Spanish American fortune-hunters ought to have taught him, is systematically robbed of £300 million by their 20th-century inheritors. A bungling Mafia assassin employed by his mistress’s herbicide-manufacturer husband finishes him off. It is hard to care about the fate of people, good or bad, who have never come to life, and even the sexual passages of arms lack the naive domestic presumption that made In Praise of Older Women that modern rarity – an erotic novel, controlled by a gifted miniaturist.
Younger writers can afford more wrong turnings. William McIlvanney, for instance, whose first three books won serious fiction awards, need not be reproached for The Papers of Tony Veitch, his second shot on the trot at a crime novel with the accent on the novel. In spite of its obvious vigour and professionalism, I found it hard to read – Chandler-by-the-Clyde, with all the similes hit slightly too hard.
Sasha Moorsom and Bapsi Sidhwa are both professional women with families publishing their second novels, and their chosen settings are what blurbs used to call ‘exotic’. The important link between them is that they are both identifiable as storytellers with a gift for leading the eye over the page, and with an unforced expressiveness in their own very different kinds of English. Each book, too, derives most of this narrative impetus from pitting a heroine’s vitality and free will against forces – other types of entail, if you like – that look likely to overwhelm her relatively fragile resources of know-how and physical strength.
Sasha Moorsom’s In the Shadow of the Paradise Tree exhibits an Africa which, like William Boyd’s, vibrates between the perilous and the preposterous. She comes on as a campus novelist, the Malcolm Bradbury of the bush. Jessica Miles, academic daughter of what sounds like a Scottish Baptist family, brings the gospel of media studies to the emergent middle class at Zunia’s university, and has to fight for her own typewriter, just as though she were back in Sussex. However, a Chicago ethno-musicologist, more diffident than he appears, takes her ethno-emotional education in hand, and what with a really dishy tribal lover and a really messy dictator’s crackdown on liberal heads, she is soon shedding illusions and conceiving fresh respect for her mad missionary Aunt Faith, who appears to have made out in Zunia before her. (Moorsom’s witty mastery of Nonconformist epistolary and church magazine style, which I know about, inclines me to trust her rendering of Zunian officialese and popular panegyric.)
In other words, for a girl with the smallest breasts in Africa she does pretty well, and one-party-state politics provide the storyteller with her ending: when real trouble pends, Jessica and her friends contrive to get out by the first plane, rationalising their departure by organising a defence committee for the black they leave behind. There is enough in it all to suggest that Sasha Moorsom must be missed by her own former pupils in Africa, judging by the fieriness of anger when her best student’s work is burnt and scattered by policemen – the kind, as the class explains, who have to come not just in pairs (one to read, one to write) but in twenty-sixes (one for each letter of the alphabet).
Didacticism obtrudes very seldom in The Bride, though the author’s English is so simple and lucid that the book would be a good one to put in the hands of an adult or adolescent literacy class – if it were a class otherwise receptive to the story of a Kohistani tribesman who adopts an orphan Punjabi girl during the Partition massacres, and as a matter of honour, when Zaitoon grows up, marries her off to a young man of his own, by now alien, people. Sidhwa’s close observation of the physical world, from rocks and streams to the female body, made me wonder what English books she has read – William Golding’s The Inheritors, perhaps? Her touch is less sure with the bored American wife of a Pakistani officer, but she makes up for the slack patches with the swift pace she develops at her dénouement, and the almost convincing way she slips out of the final awkward choice between killing the girl off and rescuing her for a love-match with another man.
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