It is an entertaining and rewarding experience to look at the reissue of Nina Bawden’s George beneath a Paper Moon immediately before her most recent novel, The Ice-House. A decade separates the two books. The text of The Ice-House bristles with those tiny signs of contemporaneity that remind us, all the time, that this is a chronicle of the Eighties, while its predecessor has begun to acquire the period patina of the early Seventies. In place of the still evergreen romance of package tours, we have the weary cavalcade of glue-sniffing, premature redundancies and confrontation between the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League. But once these indications of response to period and milieu have been discounted, there is a great deal in common between the two novels. It is not just that an occasional idiomatic touch creates an echo effect, as when a minor character brands himself linguistically by planning to ‘get the old pecker up’. For beyond these minor repetitions, and beyond the obvious recurrences of an attractive and idiosyncratic style, something very like a common deep structure emerges.
George beneath a Paper Moon revolves around the lives of George and Sam, friends from childhood, fellow students at the university and reciprocal tests for one another as their careers and characters diverge. The Ice-House revolves around the lives of Ruth and Daisy, friends from childhood and near-neighbours in the fashionable but vandalised London square which provides a diverse and lively setting for their intertwining familial sagas. By comparison with these two pairs of characters, each embodying a range of contrary attributes and inclinations, the additional characters taken on as wives or husbands play a more devious role, complicating the action and throwing a skein of misconception and illusion over the workings of the plot. Sam’s wife, Claire, has persuaded George that he is the father of her daughter, Sally; and George suffers from the guilt of being in love with Sally, his supposed daughter, while at the same time regretting that he himself has married Leila, an older woman, in a fit of misplaced benevolence. If we shift the scene to The Ice-House, Ruth has become convinced that her husband, Joe, is having an affair with another woman; Joe admits to the accusation and invents a mistress under the unlikely name of Eunice Pilbeam. Just as, in George beneath a Paper Moon, the dénouement is prepared by George’s recognition that Sally is in fact Sam’s daughter, so in the later novel it is prepared by Ruth’s discovery that the detested mistress was her friend Daisy all the time.
Nina Bawden plays delicately on the theme of childhood friendship, teasing out its mild homosexual undertone and tracing its transformations in later life. She is also expert in conveying the effect of inheritance across generations, showing us that a daughter or a son is not the same person as their father or mother, and yet not entirely a different one either. George’s childhood fascination with Sam is displaced into his love for Sally, whom he cannot admit to be Sam’s daughter until he literally sees Sam’s mother in her:
Saw, in that vividly remembered gesture, in the way her head was set on the unbroken sweep of her naked spine as she looked down at him, exactly who she was; without doubt, without question. Without, even, surprise ...
Recognition, not revelation. He had known this for so long and hidden it from himself for so many, convoluted, human reasons. Guilt at first, naturally. He had needed this living evidence that he had betrayed Sam. And fear of appearing ridiculous. He might act the fool but that was a self-protective game: you shout loudest what you fear most. Perhaps, in the end, that was the real truth of it. He had preferred to shelter behind the lie of this oldest taboo, rather than commit himself to his folly; jump with both feet into the deep end of an absurd, hopeless love.
In The Ice-House, it is Ruth who comes to a similar ‘recognition’. Her childhood has been dominated by the antagonisms of a brutal father. The spectre of Eunice Pilbeam brings out her latent aggression towards her husband, Joe, and causes a momentary sense of identification with the sadistic father (‘Perhaps I’m more like him than I had thought’). But the chance opportunity to save Joe from an accidental death purges her of guilt and aggression, and reconciles her to the truth that her childhood companion is also her husband’s ex-mistress: ‘ “Of course you know me,” Ruth said, with a soft, candid look. “You’re my oldest friend, aren’t you?” ’ So the novel ends.
A final word must be said about the device with which Nina Bawden prepares her scenes of ‘recognition’, and restores her matching sets of characters to a fine equilibrium. As with Forster’s Marabar Caves, the indispensable prop is an exotic, highly un-English location and a mysterious, enclosed space. In George beneath a Paper Moon, it is the ‘famous marble bath ... built by Atatürk under the dome of a Turkish hamam’ that offers the context for George’s discovery of Sally’s parentage and his own, buried motivations. In The Ice-House not only the dénouement but the renewed link with the early stages of the book are secured through the use of a similar location. The ‘ice-house’ of the title is a feature of the garden of Ruth’s childhood home. It is a huge, dilapidated structure, in whose sinister pit the young child was placed by her father (‘To cool me off’); it is also the place where the father was neglected and left to die, after a shooting accident, by his implacable wife. But when the ‘ice-house’ returns metamorphosed, as a tomb in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings which is visited by Daisy and Ruth and Joe, it becomes the scene of Ruth’s reappraisal. In helping to save Joe’s life, she breaks the bond of guilt and complicity which allies her to the father.
The richer and more integral development of this motif, compared with the earlier novel, helps to indicate that The Ice-House is not just ‘the mixture as before’. Nina Bawden has refined her already considerable talent, and produced a book which combines psychological subtlety with an elaborate and imaginative patterning of motifs and themes. As a piece of architecture, The Ice-House is the opposite of dilapidated.
I began Hugh Fleetwood’s A Dance to the Glory of God with roughly the same expectations, but in this case they were not satisfied. After the first story, ‘The Dance’, it is regrettable that we have to abandon Stuart, the ambiguous actor returning from Italy to grace a family party, since there seems to be a good deal of mileage in the character. The story ends abruptly, and its conclusion is all the more unsatisfactory for being oddly reminiscent of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of pity, where a tactless invitation to dance issued to a crippled woman is also used as a central plot device.
This is not to deny that Hugh Fleetwood is an ambitious writer: moreover, all of the stories in this collection, in their different ways, measure up to this ambition. Nina Bawden’s characters embark upon tourism for mundane reasons, and then find that they have been changed by the experience: Hugh Fleetwood’s have a cosmopolitan rootlessness which accentuates their existential unease. Pat Colagrossi, in ‘The Story of the World’, returns crippled from a spell in a Chilean prison to take up a one-sided relationship with a former friend living in Rome. Robert, in the story of the same name, is ‘a black American of indeterminate age with a rather grand manner’ who carries his paintings (and his desperate idealism) around with him in a black tin trunk. We catch our last sight of Pat as he stumbles pointlessly after a boy in a blue track-suit who has already disappeared from view in the Roman street; Robert, however, decides to waste away completely in his Manhattan apartment after his precious trunk has been stolen and (presumably) abandoned. In counterpoint to these gloomy but engaging histories, there is the more inspiring case of Stuart, as mentioned above, and in particular the story of the title, ‘A Dance to the Glory of God’. But the charm of this piece is marred by an apparently hasty revision, which leaves the writing discernibly less assured than in the other stories. There is even a puzzling reference to one ‘Wendy’ which cannot be explained away. Who is Wendy? Possibly a prior name for the protagonist, Sally, which has been expunged from the manuscript apart from this stray instance?
Hugh Fleetwood gives a strong sense of being capable of better things, and for some reason not quite bringing it off in this fine but flawed collection. John Harrison keeps well within his limits in The Ice Monkey, and Other Stories. Written over the period from 1975 to 1982, these seven stories have a sharpness of detail and a sureness of overall control that is wholly admirable. At the same time, Harrison does not settle for easy effects. When he chooses to do so, he can exacerbate his vein of fantasy and produce lengthy, sustained writing of quite remarkable resonance and power. The title story, ‘The Ice Monkey’, is an example of his more intimate manner, though it shifts gear towards the end when a certain amount of technical expertise is used to describe a disastrous rock-climb. With its deliberate exploitation of the ‘uncanny’ link between a dangling climber and a silver monkey pendant, it strays into Poe’s territory. But ‘Running down’, the most substantial story in the collection, changes from an equally sober memoir of old university acquaintances into pure Frankenstein. The accident-prone undergraduate has become a colossal embodiment of entropy, and the earth quakes at his passing: ‘He was almost invisible; but I can imagine him there, with his arms upraised, his raw wrists poking out of the sleeves of his tweed jacket: no more unengaging or desperate, no stranger than he had ever been among the evening mists of Cambridge or the broken milk machines of Holloway: except that, now, static electricity is playing over him like fire, and his mouth is open in a great disgusted shout that reaches me quite clearly through the still, haunted air.’ Maybe this story goes a little over the top. More recent stories like ‘The New Rays’ and ‘Egnaro’ are more restrained, but no less enigmatic. ‘The New Rays’ uses the hypothesis of a drastic new medical treatment to prepare us for the truly uncanny emergence of ‘blue bodies’ which strive (like Plato’s divided sexes) to reintegrate with the human bodies which have brought them into being. ‘Egnaro’ – ‘a country or city to which you have never been’ – retains its enigma till the last page, and beyond. Should I be attaching any significance to the discovery that it is ‘Orange’ spelled backwards?
John Harrison specialises in making the familiar strange, whether it be Manchester, the Lake District or ‘that warren of defeated streets which lies between Camden Road and St Pancras’. For the English reader, Denys Johnson-Davies’s extensive collection of Arabic short stories ought to have something of the opposite effect. Here are no less than 24 stories by different authors chosen from the entire Arabic-speaking world: Egypt in particular, but also the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia. Even the biographies of these authors make extraordinary reading: every conceivable variety of educational background is cited, from the Moroccan who ‘had not known how to read or write’ until the age of 21 and his fellow-countryman, doctor of the University of Paris and professor of Arabic, to the Libyan graduate of the Moscow Gorky Institute who now presides over the Libyan People’s Bureau in Warsaw. It goes without saying that the literary affiliations of these writers are as diverse as their educational and political connections. One has produced Samuel Beckett on Cairo radio; another is ‘widely read in Egyptology, mythology and mysticism, including Sufism’; a third ‘acknowledges a debt to the detective story and to The Thousand and One Nights and other folk literature’. Yet, in spite of this diversity, the collection as a whole conveys a distinctly unified effect.
There is, for example, a whole series of stories in the collection which turn on the issue of social justice, and relate especially to the differences of wealth and condition in contemporary, largely Westernised Arabic-speaking countries. Alifa Rifaat records the loss of an emerald ring by the wife of a civil servant, and the unjust dismissal and police inquisition of a servant girl who is accused of stealing it. When the ring is found, the civil servant will not exculpate the girl, and the complicity of the wife in her husband’s unjust, autocratic behaviour is the message which lingers. In Hanan Shaykh’s ‘The Persian Carpet’, injustice is ascribed to a divorced mother, who has evidently removed a carpet of great value from her former home, while allowing suspicion to rest on an old man ‘who used to go round the houses of the quarter repairing cane chairs’. In this case, the moral revolution of the child who perceives the imposture is conveyed with a scrupulous intensity:
Her husband was not there. As I stared down at the floor I froze. In confusion I looked at the Persian carpet spread on the floor, then gave my mother a long look. Not understanding the significance of my look, she turned and opened a cupboard from which she threw me an embroidered blouse, and moving across to a drawer in the dressing-table, she took out an ivory comb with red hearts painted on it and gave it to my sister. I stared down at the Persian carpet, trembling with burning rage.
In form, if not in feeling, these two stories provoke Western parallels – perhaps with the work of Kipling, or Katherine Mansfield. But a story like Nabil Gorgy’s ‘Cairo is a small city’, though still intimately concerned with justice and injustice, employs the magical, repetitive form of the folk-tale to bring Engineer Adil Salim to a sticky end: he perishes as the guilty victim of a ritualised murder, administered by a Bedouin community on the outskirts of Cairo. Other authors attempt equally ingenious hybrids of the traditional and the contemporary; Yusuf Idris opens the collection with what is really an extended fable, ‘The Chair Carrier’, in which the vision of an ancient Egyptian carrying a vast chair seems to connote the unwieldy burden of past Egyptian culture for the contemporary author. And besides these self-conscious invocations of history and tradition, there are stories which attempt a deliberately experimental, modernist approach. Mohammed Barrada’s ‘Life by Instalments’, one of the most exciting pieces of writing in the collection, has obviously been touched by the author’s Parisian experience. Mohammed Chukri’s ‘Flower Crazy’ suggests American sympathies: the fact that much of his work has had to remain in manuscript because of its ‘outspoken’ language is a reminder that there are still very definite public limits to literary expression in the Arabic-speaking world.
Arabic writing opens up a world which is still radically different, and yet comprehensible in its difference (or so it is the property of imaginative literature to persuade us). The court literature of 12th-century Japan comes about as close as possible to being irreducibly different. Reading the classical Japanese court tale, The Changelings, in Rosette Willig’s lucid and usefully annotated translation, is like scrutinising the other side of the moon, so pervasive is the sense of cultural distance and technical dislocation. This is not merely because The Changelings takes for granted an exceptionally minute hierarchical organisation and an implacable system of public behaviour. We can find exact parallels in Western literature to the convention by which the reader is taken to be a fellow member of the author’s exclusive social group: ‘One can imagine what the ceremonies after the child’s birth were like, even if we do not speak of them.’ The fact that we cannot imagine such ceremonies is a comparatively minor disability, in reading The Changelings, beside the real problem, which is a disruption of the Western regime of names, genders and pronouns.
The outline of the plot may be simply stated, though its capacity for generating complexity will also be apparent from the outset. A Japanese nobleman has two children, a boy and a girl. In their early years, these children start to adopt the demeanour and pastimes of the opposite sex, with the girl excelling at outdoor pursuits and the boy choosing to remain in more domestic surroundings. The father determines, therefore, that he will consider the girl as a boy, and the boy as a girl. And both children are launched upon the Japanese court in this guise. Being both of them quite exceptionally attractive and competent, they attract both offers of elevated positions and passionate protestations of love. But the fact that the boy is really a girl and the girl really a boy results in inevitable and increasing complications. Eventually they take the decision to swap roles once again, each sibling taking on both the public role and the private attachments which the other has acquired during the period of imposture. Obviously, this reversal of roles creates yet another series of problems and misunderstandings.
The burden imposed on the reader may be gauged from the following brief paragraph, in which Chunagon’s personal pronoun shifts with the point of view:
‘How odd Saisho must find this,’ thought Chunagon as they looked at each other. Feeling the colour of his complexion change, Chunagon firmly composed himself. Saisho wanted some opportunity to speak with Chunagon and learn her feelings. With this thought alone in mind, his eyes remained fixed on her. But Chunagon understood what Saisho must be thinking, and he saw to it that Saisho should have no chance to stop and speak, pretending not even to recognise him; and when the conference came to an end Chunagon left quickly.
Now Saisho, being passionate and indiscreet in his behaviour, has actually discovered that the original Chunagon was a girl masquerading as a boy; he has even had a child by her. How can he be expected to know that this Chunagon is not the girl pretending to be a boy, but her brother, who had formerly pretended to be a girl? How can he be expected to know that this is the former ‘Naishi no Kami’, or Principal Handmaid, who had already been ‘unexpectedly cold’ to him when he pressed his inconvenient suit upon her (him)?
Such a personalised formulation should not, however, blind us to the point that The Changelings is singularly deficient in anything that might be called psychology. ‘Transexuality’ is certainly not the issue. Instead, the book is like the demonstration of an extremely elegant hypothesis. Given the existence of two siblings of unsurpassable talent and beauty, let us explore the difference between them in terms of two related oppositions: boy (really girl) against girl (really boy), and boy (who has lived as a girl) against girl (who has lived as a boy). Infinite nuances of expression will be possible if we seek to explore the precise way in which the girl’s beauty differs from the boy’s beauty, or the girl as boy’s from the boy as girl’s. A luckless outsider like Saisho will be brought in to convey, first of all, the unexpected womanly capitulation of Chunagon to his desires, and then the inexplicable coldness of a new Chunagon – who seems both the same and different.
In effect, the reader’s task has been greatly facilitated by the translator. For not only the confusions of gender but also the inconstancy of names is an integral feature of the original text. ‘Chunagon’ is not a proper name, but an indication of rank at the imperial court. Sensibly, Rosette Willig spares us this additional complication. For as the protagonists of the story are continually achieving new heights of the cursus honorum, so they are obliged in the original to jettison one name and adopt another. This elimination of the proper name is a telling sign of the entire absence from this work of the individualist notion of ‘character’ – could we imagine a Western novel, for example, in which the hero was simply referred to as ‘Lieutenant’, ‘Captain’, ‘Colonel’ or ‘General’ according to the stages of his ascending career? For a final indication of the fascinating strangeness of this engaging Japanese text, we need only take the conventions of courtly dialogue. Communication takes place, when the situation is most convoluted and obscure, through the exquisite indirectness of the short poem. These Japanese courtiers do not so much express their feelings as play upon the multiple coded possibilities of the Japanese poetic tradition, which allows them to hint at a meaning through variation and allusion. It goes without saying that, when they send these messages, their calligraphy is superb.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.