Of these novels, the one with legs and a long finish, as the wine-tasters say, is Graham Swift’s Waterland, his third. The story – which is at once story and history, erzählung and geschichte – is sustained within, or threaded into, an intricate web of interlocking images. Or rather, to respect its prevailing metaphor, it floats and develops in an amniotic fluid of local, biological and antiquarian detail. The precision of this detail is hugely relished. The reader emerges dripping from his involuntary immersion, boasting better knowledge of the Fenland lock-system, the ecology of beer, and the life-cycle of the eel, than most people expect novels to supply. At the same time, there is no sense of self-indulgent Dickensian sprawl about these excursuses. They are properly canalised tributaries to the book’s total preoccupation with liquidity. The epigraph is drawn from Great Expectations: ‘Ours was the marsh country.’ But Heraclitus got there first with ‘Everything flows.’
As in the image structure of a poem or the tonal scheme of a symphony, words or phrases or sequences in the novel are simultaneously perceived as self-contained events and as transformations or modulations of earlier motifs. Ideas bleed into their neighbours. Almost every character in Swift’s Fenland lives by courtesy of the liquid element, as brewer, lock-keeper eel-catcher, dredger-man – except for the narrator himself, Tom Crick, a history teacher.
Crick has inherited a family or Fenland gift for storytelling. He refers to himself throughout, and a mite tiresomely, as ‘your history teacher’, but he has got himself into trouble with the administration for telling tales in school, instead of history. Also, his very narrative method, preoccupied with ebbs and flows, backings and fillings, is part of the underlying metaphor. It floats hither and thither, and under critical pressure floods at an irresistible pace, but it avoids any sense of steady current. Crick’s story is an apologia for history – a subject his brisk headmaster has no use for – but also for his wife, who is in trouble, indeed locked away, because she took a baby from its pram outside Safeway’s. But that was because – and your history teacher is away on a chain of stories which spread out the social, map of the Fen country onwards from the 17th century, when Cornelius Vermuyden and his Dutchmen cut the Bedford River, diverted the Ouse, and built the Denver and Hermitage Sluices: ‘They dug subsidiary cuts, drains, lodes, dykes, eaus and ditches and converted 95,000 acres into summer, if not winter, grazing. Practical and forward-looking people, the Dutch. And my father’s forebears opposed them; and two of them were hanged for it.’ Little escapes Crick’s annotation: murder, incest, drunken riot, arson, abortion. Even the Armageddon novel nudges its way into these less assertive pages through Tom Crick’s favourite pupil Price. Price is in trouble, like his master, because he has formed a club which insists that the point of history is that it is about to come to a stop:
‘You know what your trouble is, sir? You’re hooked on explanation. Explain, explain. Everything’s got to have an explanation.’
A human instinct, Price. A definitive trait. Goes with living.
‘Because explaining’s a way of avoiding the facts while you pretend to get near to them ... And people only explain when things are wrong, don’t they, not when they’re right? So the more explaining you hear, the more you think things must be pretty bad that they need so much explaining.’
Crick spends most of the novel explaining why, in his youth, his ‘potato-head’ half-brother Dick, fruit of an incestuous union between his mother and grandfather, kills their school-fellow Freddie Parr and dumps his body in the Leem, under the influence of the ancestral Atkinson ale and under the impression, planted by Freddie, that the baby in the womb of Mary Metcalf, whom both brothers in different senses love, is his, not theirs. Which goes to show that Swift’s style is infectious. If the novel is not a real contender in the Booker stakes I am a Dutch dyke-digger. But the judges will have to like, as I do, sentences like this (describing what happens in a juvenile strip-tease game when doomed Freddie Parr thrusts an eel, ‘a good three-quarter pounder’, inside the sturdy elastic of Mary’s school-regulation knickers:
Whereupon Mary, who has suddenly lost all interest in her skirt and even in the so resolutely maintained shielding of her breasts, spirals, hunches her shoulders, digs her elbows into her ribs, holds out two quivering forearms on either side of her, takes in breath but making no other sound nor any other movement to relieve her situation (not having encountered it before) freezes stock-still and wide-mouthed while something squirms, twists, writhes inside her knickers and finally (because eels are adept at extricating themselves even from the most unlikely predicaments) squeezes itself out by way of a thigh-band, flops to the grass and with unimpaired instinct snakes towards the Lode.
Penelope Livery’s Perfect Happiness is concerned with a woman’s bereavement: ‘Frances, sitting with hands folded and face blank, recollecting not in tranquillity but in ripe howling grief her husband Steven dead now eight months two weeks one day’. It says much for her unobtrusively appealing manner and deft touch with sequence that this novel makes much easier company than widowhood usually expects to be. For this reason if no other, it must be accounted a technical and emotional advance on her enjoyable first novel The Road to Lichfield,though in that one, too, a process of dying was intrinsic to the plot.
However, the chief technical problem that Penelope Lively confronts this time is not death but happiness. Journalists invited by the Pope to concentrate their energies on good news will sympathise with the difficulty. Happiness is not an event or a relationship to be explored and transformed – or deformed – at the writer’s will. It is more like a personally inscribed gift which cannot be either passed on gracefully, or insured effectively. It can hardly be described, except tangentially or in passing, or (as here) reminiscently, against a backdrop of present anguish. This is perhaps the fictional reason for the death, before the book opens, of Frances Brooklyn’s husband Steven, a successful commuter between colleges, television studios and international conferences. The story watches her readjustment of roles within a circle of family and friends whose own problems shape the action. Her feature-writer friend Zoë’s man walks out, her son Harry is blown up in Venice, her daughter Tab has to be told – rather belatedly – that she is not Frances’s daughter but Zoë’s, and an amiable musicologist would like to be a surrogate Steven but cannot quite measure up.
The trouble is that Morris, the musicologist, does not quite measure up fictionally either. (Tiny details betray the author here: does the English Chamber Orchestra ever squeeze itself into the Purcell Room?) The twisted school enemy of Steven’s who screws her to spite his memory is no better. The book fades as Frances loses her own total recall of her husband and of the time when ‘she thought of this man for much of every day; his moods and his requirements dominated her life not by reason of selfishness or arrogance but because she wished it so. He was her centre.’ More obviously, feminist writers of less obvious talent would be unwise to dismiss an authentically feminine novel whose most convincing character, other than the heroine, is nevertheless both male and dead.
William Cooper, in his occasional series of Scenes from ... novels, began staking out his territory as a Whitehall wanton – less pure than the driven Snow – over thirty years ago. He is too canny a pilot in the shallows and rapids of ‘ordinary’ life to pause long over metaphysical issues about happiness, even though his irrepressible Joe Lunn, novelist and civil servant, has called his own new novel Happier Days. The novel-within-the-novel is about an affair between a 62-year-old doctor and a 22-year-old girl, and the Evening Standard reviewer upsets the author by suggesting that after the age of 45 all sex is disgusting. Joe’s engaging wife Elspeth, whom he met and married in Scenes from Married Life, is more seriously upset wondering what Joe has been getting up to. Reconciliation is achieved: Cooper quarrels, like Cooper chapters, never last long; Old Mrs Lunn dies not too distressingly in a home. Joe has his hip fixed and it goes wrong. For happiness, as such, we must wait for Lunn-Cooper’s next novel, promised as Scenes from the After Life.
Methuen’s reissue in paperback of the Provincial, Metropolitan and Married volumes of what has now become a tetralogy is useful but in context perhaps unkind.It reminds us how a hard-edged sunniness of temperament and tone dissolves into soft-focus chirpiness as old age sets in. If Joe Lunn actually had been sleeping with that 22-year-old, and had had his usual trouble knowing what precisely to do next, Later Life would read less like a guide to the Costa Geriatrica. As it is, there is some slackness of detail – ‘a fresh air-letter’, for instance, and a surely expensive illusion that cheap telephone calls last till nine in the morning. Cooper’s former casual, mischievous accuracy is tending to splay the target. The best passages are Joe’s brushes with the medical and kitchen-fitting trades, Elspeth’s common sense about money and moving house, and the appallingly prosperous Tom’s return from America to patronise his old friends in the Carlos Restaurant (a portrait of the Connaught). But let us go hospital visiting instead:
At lunch-time I had been given a decent meal. Now I was approached by a smiling, Chinesey little nurse with a basin and a spoon. ‘I’ve come to feed you, Mr Runn. So you get used to it before the opelation.’
A delicious little creature with large flat eyes and shining teeth. I prepared myself to be fed by her ...
I began to find spoon-feeding inordinately slow, and was suddenly visited, across twenty-odd years, by remorse – I’d done my younger daughter an injustice! When she was a baby, being spoon-fed, she’d given up eating after a while apparently out of boredom, and we’d been impatient with her. She was right. I’d been very unjust. Being spoon-fed really is boring and I felt inclined to give up. ‘Some more, please, Mr Runn.’ Virginia hadn’t had the encouragement I was getting.
Not that old age, whether as topic or circumstance, is any bar to the craft of fiction. Katharine Moore started Summer at The Haven when she began to feel overtaxed by travel to research libraries, and ‘her first adult novel’, as the publisher describes it, finds her aged 85. It is an account – imaginative, not reportorial – of a few months in the life or death-in-life of eight elderly ladies in a small private home. The warden – ruthless as Clytemnestra – and her cat, and the ‘touched’ young handyman who acts as catalyst, are observed with the same affectionate or caus’tic restraint. It diminishes the book to say, though this is true, that it should be pressed upon anyone who ventures on to the voluntary committees which usually supervise such homes. More to the point, only a skilled craftswoman who has swum in English literature throughout along working life could juxtapose so simply and movingly Gloucester and Edgar in King Lear – ‘Alack I have no eyes’ ... ‘Ripeness is all’ – with a near-blind old woman’s venture down the garden and into the copse, her last flight from dependence.