Perhaps because of its concentration on people’s circumstances and constraints, the novel is often concerned with freedoms under threat and forms of liberation. The generality ‘freedom’ is much bandied about in the world at large, of course, mostly with a bland or fierce prejudice in its favour: misapplied, it can lead to terrible blunders. An aspect of the value of the novel is therefore its power to examine the conditions of freedom in particular cases, to refresh our sense of what this tortured word can mean. In proportion as the novel brings us into contact with the pressures of a particular predicament, moreover, we may feel ourselves liberated from the generalising entrapments of ‘freedom’ into a consciousness of urgent special dilemmas from which catchwords can bring no real release. The freedom of the imagination is not necessarily greatest in imagining freedom: or rather, as in Ann Schlee’s novel and George Konrad’s, it is where social and psychological pressures are most intense that we get from art our purest expressions of freedom.
In 1981 Ann Schlee published her first adult novel, Rhine Journey, a closely researched account of a strait-laced English spinster’s emotional adventures in sailing down the Rhine in 1851. The book’s strength, a patient and cunning representation of the intimacies of a repressed and wasted life – Charlotte’s clergyman brother long ago – prevented her marrying – lies in its sympathy with the deep-rooted ambivalence of a woman accustomed always to submit to the will of others, but suddenly hard put to control a desire for a married man. Rhine Journey skirts some well-established prejudices about Victorians – that they were all pedantically devout, jingoistic, humourless, prim, double-lived, sexually troubled – with a chaste diction, a ceremonious and circumlocutory sureness of tone with the social voice of the age, which marks its intensity of engagement with the kind of experience it imagines. The impatience with oppression which modern attitudes generally involve is properly withheld in Ann Schlee’s narration, and this allows us access to a situation, a world, which we might not admit to be typically Victorian but are moved to accept as that of a maimed and struggling sensibility. The accurate historical reconstruction of social milieu comes to stand for the constant pressure of others on the dutiful individual, preparing the way for an excited loss of bearings when a day’s illness removes Charlotte from that scene: ‘Without the weight of those other personalities pressed against her she felt limitless, unreal.’ The sobriety of Rhine Journey’s approach – and its deceptive intricacy of plotting – make the emergence of this romantic idea of personal authenticity peculiarly potent.
Ann Schlee’s new Victorian novel, The Proprietor, ambitiously extends this earlier achievement of the historical imagination: it spans the years from 1836 to 1856, and two generations of two families. Its ‘proprietor’, the inflexible Augustus Walmer, obtains the lease on two neighbouring Scilly Isles (and the theme is isolation); the novel’s central concern, the unrequited love between him and Amelia Pontefract, the wife of a friend who regularly visits the islands, is reflected and refracted in the consciousness of other characters – Amelia’s daughter, his nephew, a girl adopted in the islands after a shipwreck. Ann Schlee’s scheme – with the first half on the islands and most of the second on the mainland – passes pleasingly between points of view, and back and forth in time, returning to the shipwreck or recapitulating a piece of action as it was for another participant. The narration’s special note, or the chord it sounds, emerges from a commerce between the tone and viewpoint of a historian or biographer (she invents and cites an extremely convincing body of documents) and those of the fully engaged novelist, whose ‘evidence’ is of a different, freer order – concerned with a truth of feeling. A foreword tells us that ‘the documentation on Augustus Walmer is slight,’ and that ‘his motives for going to so remote a spot are obscure, but it would seem he intended to devote his life to the conducting of an experiment to restore the islands’ economy along utilitarian principles.’ We are familiar from biographies with this obscurity of past motive, as we are with the mode of the educated guess (‘it would seem’) by which so many modern biographers try to dissolve it, and it is a dilemma of which Ann Schlee regularly reminds us. Thus: ‘Indeed no letters from Augustus to Mrs Pontefract are traceable until after the New Year, and it is tempting to surmise that none were written.’ Leon Edel has said that ‘a modern biographer ... is primarily a storyteller,’ and the common aspiration of biographers towards the authority of the novelist can irritate those who want to know why ‘X must have felt a or b.’ Ann Schlee takes the biographer’s predicament and uses it for her own ends. The evidence which survives those long dead usually leaves their buried lives guarded by the self-composure of letters: this intelligent novelist, pursuing the intimacy of relations between inner and outer selves, works out from the psychological freedom of insight which is her privilege, to incorporate the formally-determined behaviour, the strict social lacing, that makes her characters who they are. We are given access to Augustus’s ‘private images of death’, imaginatively rendered, and then shifted into another, public, key (‘None of this is apparent in the tone of his letters’) – one which tells us quite as much about the texture, the particular meaning, of his life.
There is a beauty in the book’s stilted, uncomfortably repetitive style. The characters’ oppression (by conscience and by fear), and the haunting sense of personal waste which is its counterpart, are given body in a formalised language whose redundancies are ingeniously functional. Adela is dispatched back to the islands from a London college for teachers when found walking with Augustus’s nephew: on the train, stunned, ‘she felt the weight of her hands in the lap of her skirt and, looking down, saw them lie patiently there. Her body seemed to have taken up an attitude of waiting.’ The carriage of sense from ‘weight’ to ‘waiting’ (a crucial pun in the novel), and the alienness to self discovered in the delay between feeling and sight, is characteristically indirect in suggesting Adela’s powerlessness to resist the forces drawing her towards social subservience and misery. Ann Schlee’s writing shapes for us the irritable tension between strong feeling and virtuous resolve: her characters want to be good, and believe that ‘no hour of the day should go unaccounted for’, yet often give themselves ‘no very clear explanation’ of what they’re doing. The book’s account of Amelia’s relation to her recalcitrant and bullied daughter Harriet is especially clear when conveying the perilous swayings between duty and impulse. Amelia reaches to smooth Harriet’s brow.
Harriet, seeing the movement of her hand, jerked back as if she expected to be struck. This gesture, so sudden, so exaggerated, was more than her mother could endure. She lowered her head to her hands, shielding her eyes, stretching the loose skin of her eyelids with the pressure of her fingers. ‘I did not strike her,’ she said to God. Then, ‘Let me not strike her,’ for as soon as her child had flinched she had wished to strike her.
Such a sense of motion and motive testifies to a rare imaginative grasp. Ann Schlee’s enabling faith in an essential continuity of experience (signalled in the first sentence, ‘Time cannot have affected the sensations of seasickness’) is disciplined and substantiated by her submission to the special historical conditions which dictate so much in her characters’ lives. This grounding in constraint yields valuable rewards: mysterious and frightening moments when people stand outside the restriction of their lives and are lost to themselves.
Slouching towards Kalamazoo by Peter De Vries, is about sexual liberation and the 19th century’s heritage: its first half jokily replays the situation of The Scarlet Letter in a small Mid-Western town in the late 1950s. The narrator is Tony Thrasher, the precociously witty and allusive son of a minister, who at 15 (not 13, as the blurb salaciously imagines) gets his teacher, Maggie Doubloon, pregnant: the anxieties this causes both of them while the fact can be concealed are tolerably convincing, though held at a too safe distance by the bright verbal tricks of the hero. De Vries’s tired leading idea is that Maggie Doubloon, ostracised by the puritanical community, then makes a fortune by selling T-shirts emblazoned with a scarlet ‘A +’. Tony watches this career with some ambivalence, with a nostalgia for the seriousness of sin, and shares some of the qualms of the character who laments: ‘Hester Prynne good in bed. Oh, my God. To what depths can we sink? Is there no shame?’ But this is itself a tired lament, and the conceit in the title that Tony is the Antichrist (from ‘The Second Coming’) is elaborated with a levity which is the flip side of despair. The supposed sexual revolution is paralleled with the decline of religious faith, but with a weightless inconsequentiality which can produce, to our dismay, a stand-up debate between an atheist and Tony’s preacher father in which each speaker is so eloquent that the other is converted. The motions gone through in the book’s second half, where Tony desires and finally catches and marries a decent but vulgar girl called Bubbles Breedlove, and the coda in which Tony preaches the senseless compromise of ‘Christian atheism’ (an institutionalised bad faith), have the saddening desultoriness of a game with counters that have lost their meaning and ceased to amuse. The chief consolation that remains to Tony is the ‘way with words’ on which other characters pseudo-ironically congratulate him: if we are not charmed by this, the deliberate vivacity of Slouching towards Kalamazoo, whose blasphemies are cosily half-hearted rather than ‘outrageous’ (the blurb’s word), will fill us with a gloom like that discerned by Martin Scorsese in the worn features of the aging funnyman played by Jerry Lewis in his splendid recent film King of Comedy.
The stories in Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo (1963), a collection of 20 urban fables occupying a point in his work midway between the massive collection of Italian Folktales (1956) and Invisible Cities (1972), may have conceits allegorically pointed at the times, often involving mirrors and reflections and inversions (like Peter De Vries’s debate) – but the fantasy at least presents itself as fantasy, and at its best has the urgency of a wit responding to the oppression of circumstances (though too often this is an oppression generally conceived, a countervailing reality taken for granted). In the Introduction to his folktale anthology, Calvino remarks that ‘the “realistic” foundation of many folktales, the point of departure spurred by dire need, hunger or unemployment, is typical of a large number of Italian popular narratives.’ The criteria he adduces, praising the power ‘to fashion a dream without resorting to escapism’, and insisting that we should feel ‘the force of reality which bursts forth into fantasy’, in principle compel agreement: and the first 12 tales in Marcovaldo, written in the 1950s (the other eight date from the early Sixties), with a poverty-driven and city-bound labourer as their pastoral-obsessed comic hero, are certainly intimate with basic needs (for food, sleep, health, warmth, fresh air and, in the 12th, escape from the city). Calvino’s sophistication makes the risk of the cutely faux-naïf, given his none-too-bright protagonist, all too real (especially in the later tales, where Marcovaldo’s needs are less basic). The neat irony with which some of the stories contrive to wrap themselves up may irritate. In the fifth Marcovaldo reads of ‘a method of curing rheumatism with bee venom’, and sets up a home surgery for his neighbours using wasps. One of his sons is chased home by a swarm and the cure is tidily worse than the disease: ‘the rheumatics performed wonders of agility and the benumbed limbs were released in furious movements.’ But insofar as we feel these to be stories about escapism their procedure meets Calvino’s requirements about ‘the force of reality’; and the way in which their ends usually return the fantasist to the real world he has tried to replace enforces our sense that they possess such a value. Marcovaldo’s imaginings are repeatedly chastened by disappointment: seeking fresh air for his sickly children, he climbs with them into the hills and looks down on the city where he lives, feeling ‘the sadness of having to go back down there’, and thinking of the happiness of living at a height; then the hillside turns out to be the grounds of a saatorium, whose sickly inmates, victims of urban industry, look longingly down on the city. Alarmed and distressed, Marcovaldo rushes his children down again. Calvino is adept at such confusions, at showing Marcovaldo’s inability to want anything which will do him any good.
The request put by Kublai Khan (the audience) to Marco Polo (the storyteller) in Calvino’s later Invisible Cities – ‘tell me another city’ – has its bearing on Marcovaldo, whose hero equally generates a set of versions of a single city (a Northern industrial city). When snow falls, for instance, things are transformed and ‘he could remake the city’; or he seems to get the city all to himself and sees ‘a whole different world’ only to be brought back to reality: ‘the everyday city had resumed the place of that other city, glimpsed for a moment, or perhaps only dreamed.’ Less a work of theory than Invisible Cities, which refers plangently to a ‘reality’ it leaves pretty much implicit, Marcovaldo for the most part gives agreeably prosaic shape to Calvino’s ambivalent sense of the necessity and danger of imaginative sorties from the world one really inhabits. As the second story has it, ‘once you begin rejecting your present state, there is no knowing where you can arrive.’
The ‘state’ being rejected by the narrator of George Konrad’s spellbindingly urgent The Loser is the Hungarian state, and in such a country where you can end up is certain: ‘If you leave the culture in which you are immersed up to your ears, where the hell do you go? The insane asylum.’ The hero of this remarkable and courageous novel recalls from that asylum his thronged political life. His obstinate retreat into silence on arrest has brought him there. His retrospect, erupting oppressively in a lurid and proliferating montage of incidents, bursts from the unstable calm of a madhouse cell, from ‘a mind that’s filled to the brim with images one minute and is cold and empty the next’. Given the censorship imposed by the state, such a point of view, not just alienated but aliéné, alone offers the detachment of complete irresponsibility from which the tumult of Hungarian history can be contemplated: ‘the irony of the mental ward lights the way past dictatorships.’ The novel is not autobiographical: but certain parts, notably ‘House search, 1973’, are particularly resonant with the author’s own experience. After his gruelling novel The Case Worker (1969), Konrad, a sociologist, wrote in 1973 with his friend Ivan Szelenyi a polemical account of the relation of the intellectual to the state, called The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (published in English in 1979). They wrote the book in retreat in a peasant cottage to escape police surveillance. Szelenyi’s introduction, written from Adelaide in 1978, evokes the combination of fear and recklessness with which ‘we consciously prepared ourselves for committing “scholarly suicide” ’ (in The Loser it’s ‘a study I knew to be a self-denunciation as I was writing it’). Szelenyi and Konrad ‘started taking precautionary measures, burying our unfinished manuscript in the garden every evening to make sure that the police could not seize it in an early-morning raid (we naively assumed that police raids take place only in the early-morning hours). Those were the strangest months of my life. We lived in a constant state of euphoria.’ They were arrested and, since it could not be proved they had subverted anyone, offered the chance to leave the country. Konrad accepted, then changed his mind.
The Loser takes an overwhelming range of life and lives into its five long and ingeniously plotted sections. The first, in the asylum, interweaves the beginnings of reminiscence with accounts of the miserable careers of the other inmates; the second recalls the narrator’s parents and his eventful youth in a bourgeois Jewish family; the third takes him, in the Communist Party, through arrest and torture and World War Two to 1956, after which he is rehabilitated as a respected academic till his final arrest; the last section returns to the present, to his failed marriage and to the treacherous brother whose career has shadowed his own. The book runs over with excesses of sex and violence, politics and betrayal and torture: and yet somehow its pressing seriousness of tone, its wonderfully resourceful wit before intolerable atrocities, and the relentlessness of its story’s forward drive, convey an extraordinary unity, a singleness of concern, to the most wildly divergent of its parts. The novel’s subject, moreover, is the difficulty of holding together a coherent identity in so chaotically oppressive an environment; it attempts to see a continuity in a well-intentioned life appallingly responsive to contrary pressures, misspent to others’ harm.
Most admirable in Konrad’s novel is its air of truth, the unavoidable force of reality which grounds the most fantastic of its outbursts, and the intelligent candour with which it turns to face the dangerous solicitations of dissidence (‘You keep bragging about being followed ... in the meantime your banned books get published abroad’). In prison for two years, waiting to be hanged at any time, the narrator reads classic novels, which give him ‘a fresh sense of aesthetic integrity’: this testing proximity of art to violence and death brings out a virtue in it that inspires awe, an adherence to the truth under great pressure which we might regard as an exemplary achievement of artistic freedom. Like Ann Schlee’s The Proprietor, The Loser holds its readers by its generous fidelity of engagement with the recalcitrant matter of an oppressive society and a world of waste; we find a lively consolation in the free submission of the imagination to the task of expressing the particular truth – a truth from which fantasy would only seem to emancipate it.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.