Four titles, and an abstract noun apiece – well, Melvyn Bragg has two, but it’s the well-known coupling as in (exactly as in, that’s rather the trouble) a fight for love-’n’-glory. Salman Rushdie’s word is a real operative concept, indeed a kind of virtue insistently contrasted with shamelessness. A.N. Wilsons term is more ironic and oblique, suggestive of the British public in a fit of morality: you get the sense that maybe too much of a fuss is about to be made of something. Sylvia Murphy’s knowledge is, to start with, not abstract at all, since it refers to a kind of encyclopedia or dictionnaire des idées reçues. All of these titles point to something about the book in question, I suppose, but none quite hits its central merit or interest. And it does play into the hands of that slack critical cliché, where a work is always found to be (weak copulative) about (weaker preposition) something. Half-baked analysis may cry out for ‘Themes’, but creators who know different shouldn’t go along with this reduction.
Shame is a shorter and rather more linear narrative than Midnight’s Children. The earlier novel confronted the history of the subcontinent, but its first-person telling and its appetite for raw experience swamped external chronology. It was best on growing up in New India – the sights and sounds of Bombay, the remnants of John Company and the Victorian Raj, the displaced image of the American West on Eastern cinema screens. Less packed and less subjective, Shame translates the author’s consciousness (‘I have been borne across’) to the other side of the cultural divide. The story concerns Pakistan at the time of its birth, its years under Ayub Khan, its loss of Bangladesh, and its recent fortunes under Bhutto and Zia. These leading figures appear beneath the most transparent disguise, and though Rushdie insists with a certain overemphasis that this is not a ‘realistic’ novel, the facts of history make up the skeleton of the book.
The events begin in the 14th century – that is, according to the Moslem year (‘I’m using the Hegiran calendar, naturally’). But the Medieval overtones are deliberately left hanging, and though there is a strong whiff of fairy-tale, there is in addition the knowing folksiness of Zadig or the Persian Letters. At times, it’s as if Rushdie has performed the curious feat for an Indian of writing an Oriental tale. We move up and down the Indus valley, off to a frontier town that is and isn’t Quetta, with constant echoes of the Moghul empire, glimpses of Islam. An aging divine has visions of Mount Hira as he stumbles round the new capital (‘the biggest collection of airport terminals on earth’) set almost on top of the old city of Rawalpindi with ‘the confident provinciality of its years’.
The story appears to be going to concern a doctor named Omar Khayyam Shakil, but he is soon reduced to the role of ‘our peripheral hero’. Despite his name (matched in potency by Pinkie Aurangzeb and Farah Zoroaster), Shakil is altogether prosaic: fat, banal, marginal, treated by the author a little like Leopold Bloom, only with less affection and greater contempt. More central in the end are the stand-in politicians, notably the Zia figure, who is finally brought low by means of a diabolus ex machina. This man’s retarded daughter turns into a revenging beast and exposes the secret shames which the shamelessness of political life has not managed quite to kill. The fable is powerful, but it isn’t helped by some intrusive editorialising (‘I insist I have not made this up’).
There is some of the self-regarding tricksiness of Midnight’s Children, though there is more of the mainstream American novel in Rushdie than one could see there. Like Tristram Shandy, the work begins ab ovo, or ab semine, and Rushdie can’t resist some glances back: ‘There are some mistakes for which one should not be able to blame one’s poor parents.’ The inner message seems to be: Pakistan should blush over its birth and adolescence. ‘All stories are haunted by the ghosts of the stories they might have been,’ says the narrator, and there is some intellectual padding caused by Rushdie’s desire to tell all possible stories in the best of all possible fictional modes. Still, the novel confirms his astonishing gifts of eloquence, verbal energy and narrative imagination.
A.N. Wilson had raised the issue of political scandal in an earlier book, Who was Oswald Fish? (1977). But he got put of the situation by ensuring that his Honourable Member was too dim to be dishonourable, so that the heroine Fanny junked him by the end of Chapter One. This time Wilson addresses the matter head-on – that is to say, full-frontally. At the centre of the story stands Derek Blore, ‘next Prime Minister but three’, an unimaginative careerist who happens to have a sexual kink and an understanding wife. ‘She found herself saying that she was proud of Derek ... It was not untrue; it was merely odd that she should have wanted to articulate these sentiments.’ She is loved by Hughie Duncan, who is treated more seriously than any other character: ‘He was neither a mystic nor an artist. He was merely a man with an overdeveloped inner life. He was a junior disciple of Romance, he knew it.’ We witness Blore’s downfall, as a slightly less sinister and more commonplace Widmerpool, whilst Hughie pines in vain and Priscilla innocently wrecks her husband.
There is the usual excellent feeling for place: Wilson, who can make artistic sense out of Birmingham, gets the unreal atmosphere of Westminster here: ‘The light burnt in his large panelled room to be glimpsed, high Gothic shapes of gold, by the duty policeman in Palace Yard.’ But there isn’t so much comedy as in earlier books, and the novel lacks the underlying metaphor (the profession of healing, Victorian architecture, Medieval legend) which has sustained its three predecessors. Again though the author shows his habitual skill in the union of knowing social observation and hidden spiritual exploration, there is a little too much of his weaker side – for example, patronage of those who like Somerset Maugham. This time the model for an anatomy, of Britain seems to be Bleak House:
The Parliamentary Summer Recess had begun ... And England, Scotland and Wales stewed, with the Province of Northern Ireland, beneath the thunderous haze of early August. In London, the Dean of Westminster, in collaboration with those members of the Chapter who were not on Hellenic cruises or cooling themselves on the Norfolk Broads, continued to aver that he, and they, had erred from divine ways like lost sheep ... Beneath the heavy heat, sin went on being committed, in thought, word and deed. The sea mist which enveloped Bognor Regis could not cloak it, nor could the inhabitants of Bognor dissemble before the face of the Almighty.
Good stuff, with the parodic urge just held in check, but overdone when repeated. ‘Out at sea, the east wind stirred up the Channel into a fury, and all down the south coast of England foamy cascades roared up and down the shingle beaches. The wind that shook the besieged pier at Hastings howled triumphantly through the ruined ironwork ... of what had been the pier at Bognor Regis.’ It is not hard to see what people dislike in Wilson: his basilisk eye on human weakness, his super-efficient plotting, his grim affection for the melodramatic. Yet he is surely the most talented novelist of his generation in this country, and his J.T. Edson scale of productivity confirms rather than negates his ability.
Love and Glory centres on a fairly interesting character, a producer of television documentaries who specialises in making obituaries of public figures. Unfortunately Willie Armstrong is trapped within a prose style full of media cliché, and it isn’t entirely clear how far his creator is judging him when allotting him jottings along the lines of this: ‘For a short while, I believe, Ian had quite enjoyed what, mutatis mutandis, could be referred to as the nouveau aristo embrace – but only for a short while.’ There is some flatly unattractive writing: ‘He would have enjoyed discussing the frustrations of holding the Presidency without being able to use or even experience the heroic virtues which had traditionally accompanied leadership, the cipher and cynosure syndromes in a democratic land of the media which demanded its own reflection to be distorted to a fantasy normality.’ This could be referred to, mutatis mutandis, as language pulped down to a pudding.
At times things perk up, as in an evocation of a jet-lagged stay in New York, and in the depiction of Ian, a hell-raising actor with concealed anxieties. But then Willie and Ian are described in a cab: ‘two people who had watched each other ... for all these years – the forties frozen in war then lavished with promise, the fifties perceptibly shifting to change, out of the cocoon of Empire into the thaw of optimism and change, the operatic extravaganza of the sixties, the retribution of the seventies.’ Surely no one who lived through those years could see them in quite such Forty Years On encapsulations, so tamely reduced to a TV film of Cavalcade, one reel for each decade, and nemesis incarnated in punk.
The best passages concern a final trip to Cumbria, where Bragg is still (twenty years on) most at home imaginatively. Willie’s journey back with his dying mother, as they drive out west from Newcastle along the Roman wall, and then make a detour for an elegiac circuit of Derwentwater, lives in the memory. At such a moment Bragg’s syntax untangles, his words stop falling over one another, and one perceives the truth of his vision of ordinary experience. If he is to achieve what he could as a novelist, he will have to forget about the nouveau aristo embrace and the turgid social commentary. He is a describer, not an analyst.
Finally to Sally Fry, who is living in a rented cottage in Cornwall with her mother and assorted relations whilst trying to finish a thesis – this, she believes, will give her ‘her own department’ in a college, and from what the novel tells us about sociologists it’s probably true. Sylvia Murphy has invented an arresting way of telling the story – sharp definitions leading into a further snatch of narrative. It works well, and as with Sterne the apparent distractions generally serve to forward the plot. The author could have rested on that single achievement, but she packs a lot into the definitions – scraps of half-forgotten knowledge jumbled with smart wisecracks. Some of the cracks are a bit too smart to be wise (‘Anyway, I learned to play my good ideas close to my chest, and that’s not hard with a 32B’), but Ms Murphy has a capacity, rare in first novelists, to spread the interest over a wide range of characters, headed by Sally’s ex-junkie son, a gloomy Swede, a promiscuous woman cricketer, and a pompous colleague in social studies who steals her best idea for the thesis. It all constitutes a lively A to M of contemporary manners at the heterodox end. Why not A to Z? Well, everything ends with Mother, and that only leaves room for an epilogue on Zygote.