In English nurseries little boys are known to be made of frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. Little girls, as in my childhood I knew to my cost, are made of sugar and spice. And all things nice (which was a small consolation). Prickly, the infant protagonist of the sixth story in this collection of 14 by Michel Tournier, would agree. Maleness repels, femaleness attracts him. Papa is grizzled, tobacco-smelling, stiff and, above all, stubbly: rebarbative, in fact. Mama – soft, creamy, sweet-scented, supple Mama – summarises all things nice. Much else in the adult world reinforces these categories for Prickly. Including the public conveniences in the park which he goes to some afternoons with Marie his nanny. On the left, the Gents: foul-smelling and incommodious; on the right, the Ladies: perfumed, decorative and sumptuously furnished; in the middle, Mamouse, the large lady caretaker who sits ‘like the dog Cerberus’ at the gates of hell, watching over her pourboires and her pot of simmering chicken-giblet broth. Prickly’s chief aim in life is to sneak past Mamouse into the Ladies, where behind closed doors, and without having to stand up (a position which inhibits him), he can pee in peace. When Mamouse gets wise to this Prickly seeks advice from his friend Dominique, who is older than him and who passes in and out of the forbidden zone with mysterious immunity. At the centre of the park maze Dominique reveals how this can be: ‘Next, opening them wide, he pulled down the red underpants he had exposed. His smooth, white stomach ended in a milky slit, a vertical smile in which there was just a trace of pale down.’ The logic of the situation begins to dawn on Prickly. The vexatious problem of peeing like a man, Marie’s threats to have his willie cut off if he doesn’t stop wetting his bed, the curious statue in the park of Theseus and the Minotaur where Theseus, dressed like a girl, is apparently about to cut off the Minotaur’s willie, the hideous vision of a man’s genitals glimpsed one day in the urinals (‘the quantity of swarthy, flabby flesh he was trying with difficulty to cram back into his fly was incredible’), those chicken giblets in Mamouse’s pot ... it all adds up. Prickly no longer wets his bed. His mind is made up. He takes Papa’s cut-throat razor and pre-empts the inevitable. He cuts off his willie himself. The outcome of ‘Prickly’ is a shock because it is unforeseen, but also because it is not unforeseeable. Prickly’s self-mutilation precipitates the sudden recognition of an awful congruity in everything that has led up to it, and we experience a sudden rush of meaning to the brain. This effect is typical of Tournier’s control of the short story form.
When Prickly’s mother goes out for the evening, Prickly begs her to leave him her black kidskin gloves. ‘They were as supple and warm as fresh, living skins, and the child swathed his body in their empty hands, Mama’s hands, and fell asleep under their caress.’ This is a solace that Martin, the fetishist, would keenly appreciate. It is in a glove, so to speak, that he experiences his first sensual encounter with Antoinette, the love of his life: ‘that little fabric hand that I could squeeze in my hand, put in my pocket, Antoinette’s hand’. But his romance only really takes off with Antoinette’s panties, which a comic and curious turn of events brings into his rapt possession. We meet Martin long after this fateful occurrence. He is on day release from the mental hospital where he has been an inmate for the past twenty years. While his attendants are having a drink in a nearby bar, he talks to us for an hour.
Martin’s monologue (described as a ‘one-act one-man play’ and performable as such) is structured around five narrative set-pieces: how Martin acquires Antoinette’s knickers, how he fails to escape from prison camp in the war because of his aversion to men’s underwear, the trauma of his wedding night, his ‘adultery’ with the mauve satin bra of Mlle Francine, cashier at the Majestic Cinema, and the catastrophe of his life’s drama: his ‘rape’ of a black nylon suspender belt glimpsed fleetingly in the Paris Metro at the end of a Christmas shopping expedition squandered in the ecstatic purchase of mountains of decorative lingerie. These vignettes are linked by more discursive narrative material, in which Martin explains his tastes as well as the joys and sadness they have at different times brought him.
Properly speaking, Martin is not a fetishist but a synecdochist, since his speciality of mind is to discover the whole in the part – a woman in her underwear, a person in his shoes, a man in his wallet. Instances of synecdochism and related mechanisms of cathexis crop up all over Tournier’s stories. In ‘The Lily of the Valley Lay-By’, for example, it’s an articulated lorry that gets charged up with emotional energy; in ‘Tristan Vox’ a radio personality is displaced by his voice; and in ‘The Red Dwarf’ a woman identifies her lover as ‘a walking penis’. Synecdoche, Tournier shows us, is a standard figure in the rhetoric of consciousness. It is only the intensity of this habit in Martin that marks him off from his fellow men.
The form of ‘The Fetishist’ as a one-man play accentuates an essential characteristic of Tournier’s creative personality: his generosity towards his characters, his willingness to grant them full autonomy. Tournier justifies Martin by letting Martin justify himself. Even the subsidiary characters in Tournier’s stories are given the freedom to exist in their own right, so that we often get the sense that it is merely chance that has allotted them a minor role in the action. Viewed from another perspective, we feel, the story could be theirs. This has the effect of making the stories replete with possibilities, while in no way disturbing their tightness as dramatic actions. As Friedrich Schlegel said of that favourite Romantic form the fragment, a Tournier short story is ‘complete in itself like a hedgehog’.
A female Father Christmas, a concert pianist who ends up playing an exploding piano in a circus, a dwarf notary who runs amuck, the self-mutilation of an infant boy, a photographer who kills her model by photographing him to death, a young girl who dies laughing at the sight of the miniature guillotine she has commissioned for the consummation of her love affair with death, a fetishist: distilled from their embodiments as stories, Tournier’s subjects may appear outlandish and bizarre. The fact that in their worked-out form the stories have the credibility of things discovered and merely mediated is partly due to the way Tournier incorporates into them experiences familiar to us all, experiences we recognise and can identify with: watching a cat jump onto a wall (‘she ran at it as if it were flat on the ground’), eating breakfast early on a spring morning in the dark (‘he gazed at the black rectangle of the window in front of him’), padding around the bathroom in a bathrobe or trying to make one’s way along the top of a slippery wall. By locating the normal within the abnormal Tournier renders the force and tyranny of these concepts redundant.
The expressive range of Tournier’s language is as wide as his facility with genre, so he must be tricky to translate. His way of playing with words makes it impossible to find an exact equivalent in English for certain passages, while others have a sonority that cannot survive uprooting: ‘Dans les branches poussiéreuses des platanes, entre les pavés inégaux des places, sur les murs lépreux questionnés par la lumiére, émergeait la face blême et bouffie de l’ennui.’ Barbara Wright surmounts the biggest problems in translating Tournier with idiomatic ease and inventiveness, so it’s odd to find her lapsing now and again into un-English Latinisms like ‘inexistence’ for inexistence, ‘marmoreal’ for marmoréen, or ‘malefic’ for maléfique. The basic strength of her translation became clear to me when I saw ‘The Fetishist’ performed in the theatre recently. The language sounded authentic through and through. Returning from this performance, I was astonished to remind myself how the whole thing only occupies 20 pages of text. ‘Meaning,’ says Flannery O’Connor, ‘is what keeps the short story from being short.’
‘A Return to the Glens’ is the strongest story in J.I.M. Stewart’s collection My Aunt Christina. Andrew Pringle, a retired barrister and widower, on a walking tour in Scotland, revisits the scene of an early love affair. He pictures to himself the possibility of a lasting reunion with Elspeth, whom he had abandoned long ago when she was a girl. But Elspeth disabuses him of his cosy expectations and mocks him for sentimentalising their past: ‘It was no more than the bare sudden fumbling down of your breeks in the corner of the playing field at school!’ Making a humiliated and hasty exit from the wreck of his self-respect, Andrew is lured by the young man Ewan into a second fumbling in the heather, in an embrace which re-enacts in a grotesque parody the awkward passion of his youth. It is left to the baleful labourer Younie to reveal who Ewan is and to pass judgment on Andrew.
The subtlety of this story lies in the way it counterpoints the manifest against the latent, the top-text against the sub-text, Andrew’s conscious intentions against his subconscious ones, his overt interest in Elspeth against the covert growth of his attraction to Ewan. A dovetailed action is handled with equal assurance in ‘Tea with Mr Montacute’. Iain, cramming Greek for Oxbridge, goes to Mr Montacute for extra tuition. Their ensuing relationship takes a low trajectory: from terse exchanges on the mysteries of the Greek optative, rising through a more than usually lively discussion on the morality of beating little boys, to peak just after tea one Sunday afternoon. As the story progresses towards this modest apogee, Stewart skilfully shifts our attention from Iain to Mr Montacute, so that Mr Montacute’s intimate disclosure of the contents of his wardrobe – lots and lots of little boys’ clothes – coincides with his maximum exposure before the reader. We experience Mr Montacute’s vulnerability through every movement of Iain’s confusion.
Alumni of the British private school will recognise in Mr Montacute a familiar type, and applaud Stewart’s accurate evocation of the world of Liddell and Scott, Kennedy’s Latin Primer, the exploits of Cotta, Labienus, Vercingetorix et al., the dubious pleasures of early-morning Greek. But nuances of this kind are likely to be missed by many of his readers, for whom the OTC and Responsions are assumed, unwisely I think, to be concepts not in need of a gloss. Stewart’s planet is a very British one, created from the not so primal sludge of two hundred years of fictionalising, and spinning in a literary universe well advanced towards heat death. It is peopled by post-Sawston man talking, more often than not, a debased dialect of Henry Jamespeak. If you take too deep a breath while reading Stewart, you’re likely to get a lung full of periphrases or a litotes up your nose. This effect is mostly germane to his purpose, which is to convey the feel of a dense, over-lived-in social milieu.
As Wyoming is to Weybridge, so Gail Godwin is to J.I.M. Stewart. Not that she writes about nomadic mores in the mobile home, or love among the Grand Tetons, but after the stuffy drawing-rooms of Stewart’s Edinburgh and Home Counties bourgeoisie, the air we breath in Godwin’s fiction seems thin and fresh, the atmospheric pressure light. Her prose style, accordingly, is sparse to the point almost of being nondescript. Purged of the figurative, this pure, colourless medium is well adapted to its unspectacular subject-matter. Godwin’s strengths and weaknesses are fairly represented in ‘Mr Bedford’, the short novel which occupies half the present volume. Set in the early Sixties, this is the story, not in fact of Mr Bedford, but of Carrie, a young American woman visiting London for the first time; and of the Eastons, two aging expatriate Americans who keep digs in Chelsea for an assortment of substitute children. Carrie, in her mid-twenties, divorced but still ingenuous, finds the ‘family’ at Tregunter Road a welcome comfort in a strange city. As the months pass, however, she discovers that the parental attentions of her landlords are not without sinister undertones. A lengthy and furtive psychological battle follows, which neither side wins. The Eastons remain an enigma both for Carrie and for the reader.
In ‘Mr Bedford’ Gail Godwin is interested in possessiveness and its relation to power, which could be said to be the preponderating theme of all the stories in this collection. She is also preoccupied with being a writer and the problems of writing (five of her six main characters are, or have aspirations to being, writers). So it is interesting to observe that her attitude to her characters is itself quietly possessive, and that this has to do with her undisguised self-consciousness about being a writer. In ‘Mr Bedford’ this comes out in her refusal to grant full humanity to the Eastons: ‘One of the fascinating aspects of fiction is that, inside its boundaries, you can keep people alive for as long as you like. That’s why I don’t want to hear anything bad or sad about the Eastons, even if it exists, “out there” in life. Not until I’ve come to the end of my last page and safely preserved my Eastons as they were to me.’
When Dr Johnson charged John Donne with scoring a ne plus ultra in absurdity by likening a man to a pair of compasses, he hadn’t reckoned on Lisa Zeidner, who, in the space of only 15 lines, manages to compare a man’s penis to the soft, hot forehead of a sick child, to ice-cream (not, note, an ice-cream), and to a Jew’s harp. Strictly speaking it’s Alexandra Freed who does this. But then there is no suggestion in the book that we are to distinguish this zaftig young Jewish princess from her creator. The penis in question belongs to Walter Danner, and has not been erect since 1976, when 31-year-old architect Walter split up with his wife Judy. In an unsuccessful bid to shock himself into potency, Walter attempts to rape Alexandra under the ginkgo trees in a Philadelphia park. Since his nose is also dysfunctional, he can smell neither the ginkgoes nor Alexandra (which is a pity, since the smell of rotting leaves and ‘the interesting fungal smell of women’ used to be among his favourites). Alexandra soon gets over Walter’s manner of introducing himself, and it’s not long before she’s nuzzling his soft, hot forehead tenderly, thus stimulating the aforesaid forehead (or ice-cream) to hum merrily like a Jew’s harp. Meanwhile, Judy has taken up with Alexandra’s brother Theo, which disgusts practically everyone, quite unnecessarily as it turns out, since Judy soon gets pregnant by Walter, leaving Theo to be mopped up by Pat, and Alexandra back where she started. At this point, late in the novel, Alexandra and Pat play a game: ‘I patted her knee. She patted mine. We crossed arms to knee-pat ..., then slipped into a game of patsy.’
Everything about this novel is pat: the plot, the characters, their taste, but above all their wisdom. Alexandra is the worst. She can’t open her mouth without something hip, quippy or flippant popping out. Like her similes and metaphors, the truth of her sententiae is unerringly approximate, which is sometimes harmless (‘everyone everywhere has always felt trapped in one way or another’), occasionally disturbing (‘I had often compared the prettiest parts of Philadelphia ... to Treblinka’), but mostly just plain wearying. Talking of herself, Alexandra confesses: ‘I was all pretty much on the surface. By this I didn’t mean to say that I was superficial.’ Anyone wanting to know how a thing can be deeply on the surface should read Alexandra Freed.
Alexandra Freed is a knockabout book with an indestructible feel to it. The Coffin Tree has the delicacy of cut glass: if one could flick it with a finger it would sound a pure, unearthly note. The action moves back and forth between Burma and America, the distant and the more recent past. It is the story of how a brother and sister struggle to survive in an alien and indifferent world. The brother goes mad and dies. The sister attempts suicide, surviving to be rehabilitated in a mental hospital.
As its title suggests, Wendy Law-Yone’s book is about the presence of death in the midst of life, about human nature quavering between the will to live and the will to die. ‘Living things prefer to go on living’ is as far as she is prepared to go, and she only reaches this point after setting out the argument for death, what the narrator calls the ‘peculiar logic’ of suicide, with dispassionate clarity. The suicide attempt takes place on a secluded bench in a snowbound Chicago park: ‘I sat down in my coat, pulled my arms out of the sleeves, reached into the pocket for the Exacto knife, and with one swift unfaltering motion opened up a gash on the inside of my left arm. The spurt of blood ran down my fingers and pocked the snow, leaving small craters around my feet.’ An Exacto knife: the mention of the brand name is both grimly humorous and figuratively telling; what better instrument for an exact death, for an exacted death. ‘Exacted by thy fate on the just day’, as Jonson said of the death of his first son.
Exactitude is the shining quality of Wendy Law-Yone’s sensibility. It governs her use of language, allowing her to venture into metaphor without stumbling: ‘She clung on for three full years. Her body was a shrunken vegetable; but strong roots had taken hold in her indestructible head. You could see them on the sides of her forehead – a network of blue-green veins beating angrily away.’ It is the exactitude of her understanding which generates in less than forty pages the most believable portrayal of life in a mental hospital that I have read.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.