Howard Jacobson’s first novel, Coming from Behind, was published last year, and made one think that a new exponent of the comic academic narrative had arrived. Jacobson’s hero, Sefton Goldberg, Jewish and highly suspicious of his Gentile surroundings, is aggressive towards the literature he’s supposed to be teaching, to a degree that makes Leavis seem like a nice auntie. He’s also racked by consciousness of his own literary failure. To his misery, he finds himself stranded in Wrottesley Poly, where the enfeebled Liberal Studies department is threatened with a twinning with the local football club in order to revamp its decaying image. Goldberg sits in his office, envying the World Out There, which he imagines in the form of a mansion in Hampstead called Bradbury Lodge, where celebrated writers meet to have a good laugh at his expense. Meanwhile he puts down his own hopelessness as a littérateur to his incompetence in the matter of Nature. It seems to him that all Eng Lit is really about country walks, so ‘what the fuck did it have to do with Sefton Goldberg who was Jewish and who had therefore never taken a country walk in his life?’ Wrottesley Poly, however, is as much Tom Sharpe territory as a part of the Amis-Bradbury-Lodge world, and it is in the matter of comic plotting that Coming from Behind seemed to me to fail. Jacobson’s portrayal of Goldberg is flawless, but he seems to have little idea what to do with him, and the book tails off without any great comic debacle. One therefore turns to Jacobson’s second novel in the hope that he may have learnt something about construction.
Jacobson likes salacious titles – though Coming from Behind scarcely lives up to its sexual promise – and Peeping Tom suggests something in the same mode as the first book. So do the early chapters, for Barney Fugelman, the book’s hero, is Sefton Goldberg all over again, lacking only Sefton’s gnawing anxiety about failure. Actually Barney is a complacent sort of chap, living largely off the earnings of his wife Sharon, who runs a North London bookshop, near a tube station, called Zazie’s dans le Métro. Barney’s views about literature are much the same as Sefton’s. The most gratifying thing he can think of doing with a book is throwing it away, and later in the story he and his second wife Camilla indulge in orgies of this: ‘We consigned to the flames or the waves one Gunter Grass, two John Fowles, a Nabokov, a John Berger, three Doris Lessings, a Gore Vidal, two John Barths, and the whole of Jorge Luis Borges.’ This impatience with literary artefacts means that he and Camilla are also veteran walkers-out at the theatre. ‘Before ten minutes of the first scene had elapsed we were up out of our seats ... We just wanted somewhere quiet to sit where we could talk over the insult that had just been delivered to our intelligence.’
Barney also shares Sefton’s conviction that literary nature-worship is some sort of English Gentile plot against himself. Apart from giving Sharon some desultory help in the bookshop, his only professional activity is to write articles for learned journals attacking the English rural tradition: ‘I didn’t care for novels set primarily in the outside, on moors or under greenwood trees, especially if the outside they were set in was somehow also metaphorical, that’s to say was really the inside of something else.’ So it’s rather a blow to Barney to discover he’s a reincarnation of Thomas Hardy. The discovery comes about at a séance organised by Sharon in her bookshop, where, under the influence of a hypnotist, Barney finds himself recounting, in the first person, Hardy’s memory of watching the hanging of Martha Brown at Dorchester when he was an adolescent. Cross-examination reveals that he does indeed have all of Hardy’s consciousness in his head, and that he was born exactly a hundred years after Hardy, to the very minute. Sharon thinks all this will be good for business; she changes the name of her Hampstead shop to Eustacia’s on the Heath, and hopes to persuade Barney to go on a worldwide lecture tour in the persona of Hardy, not to mention possibly writing the odd novel on the old boy’s behalf. Meanwhile her attitude in bed might be summed up as ‘Kiss me, Hardy.’ But Barney isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t want this ‘miserable old shit’ inhabiting his body. For a start, Hardy isn’t Jewish. And he’s just the sort of person whose books Barney loves chucking into the bin – ‘a morbid superstitious little rustic who confused high peevishness with tragedy’. Barney’s attitude is to hope the whole thing will go away. That’s really his attitude to literature too. ‘Books are dangerous things,’ he tells Sharon. ‘Selling them is one thing, but the minute you open a page you have to keep your wits about you.’ ‘Oh, I just read for pleasure,’ she would reply, ‘as if a person might submit to assault and battery for the fun of it.’
But Barney has to admit that there are affinities between him and Hardy. Physical, for a start: each has a prominent lower lip, ‘a hot little protrusion of wet flesh’, which seems to say something about their sexuality. And sex is where they have real common ground. From the novels, Barney deduces that Hardy got a real sexual kick from ‘complicity in his own cuckoldry’. Henchard sells his wife, Angel lets Tess go off into the blue with Alec, and so on. As it happens, this is Barney’s particular kind of fun too. Even in the days before his bar mitzvah, Barney would thieve topless photos of his inappropriately-named neighbour Mrs Flatman, not in order to gloat over them himself, but to get a sexual thrill from displaying them to another male. Barney likes to share his women, or rather, he likes the exquisite pain of arranging to be cuckolded and then looking-on at the results. He and Hardy, he decides, are just a couple of peeping Toms.
He begins to do something about it – and at this point Jacobson’s hold on the story loosens. Extreme sexual eccentricity in a first-person narrator may present problems if that narrator is also meant to have and keep the reader’s complete sympathy, and it is hard to achieve much identification with Barney, however wryly he tells his story, when he devotes huge effort towards luring a Science Fiction expert (with the Hardian name of Fitzpiers) into bed with Sharon. Harder still to feel much kinship with him when he runs away from Sharon to the Hardy village of Castle Boterel, there to immolate himself with the man-eating Camilla, marrying her merely in order to be betrayed again. Jacobson seems to have got out of his depth. He – or rather Barney – drops the odd allusion to Lawrence and D.M. Thomas, and the book seems to be trying to become a critique, not just of rural fiction, but of the English novel about sex. But it doesn’t manage it, and peters out. All the same, Jacobson certainly isn’t a novelist to be dismissed. His forte is character-drawing of a lovingly vicious kind. Take the wonderful Lance Tourney (alias Lionel Turnbull) in Peeping Tom, village eccentric, author of Lad of Destiny: a Boy’s Guide to Health and Confidence, who enthrals the Castle Boterel tourists by stripping naked on the beach each morning, and indulging in a careful examination of each part of his body. ‘I had never before,’ says Barney, ‘seen an adult male standing on agrillaceous rock and rolling his balls minutely around the outstretched palm of his hand.’ Howard Jacobson doesn’t yet know what to do with characters like these. When he does, he’ll be a novelist to reckon with.
Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge sells his wife. J.S. Watson, at the beginning of Beryl Bainbridge’s new novel, buys his. John Selby Watson was (for this is historical fact) the headmaster of a South London grammar school. He had humble, Hardian origins; his parents had given him away in infancy, and he grew up with no experience of family life. He became a good scholar, got a degree at Trinity, Dublin, and by middle age had built up a very successful school at Stockwell. But, though outwardly steady and persevering, inwardly he was all adrift. He decided that he should get a wife, so he wrote to an unattached lady in Dublin whom he remembered from student days, proposing marriage. She hadn’t the faintest recollection of him, but she was living in dire poverty with her sister and took up his offer at once. They married in 1845; twenty-five years later, one quiet Sunday afternoon, he bludgeoned her to death with the butt of a horse-pistol. Beryl Bainbridge has set out to investigate the causes of this domestic outrage, which, because of Mr Watson’s respectability (he was a clergyman as well as a headmaster), caused a considerable popular frisson at the time. The result is that old cliché ‘a small masterpiece’ – small-scale in that Bainbridge presents the story for what it is and doesn’t try to enlarge on its tragic possibilities, masterly by virtue of the credibility of her reconstruction of the contradictory emotions that accompany the case. She writes in a tone that is at once dry, like a newspaper report of a crime, and at the same time crackling with life. Tame events, like the departure of Mr Watson from Stockwell to Dublin to fetch his bride, are endowed with sinister and inexplicable significance:
Mandell had offered to go with him to the station. ‘It would give me pleasure,’ he said, ‘to see you safely aboard the train.’ He had fluttered his fingers in the air as though waving a handkerchief. Watson had refused his offer, perhaps churlishly, but it was not yet five in the morning, and bitterly cold, and he was sure that Mandell, who took the Modern class, didn’t possess an overcoat. When they left he had shut the door so firmly on them that the fox terrier in the cellar had woken and set up a howl
Beryl Bainbridge hasn’t any great disclosures to offer as regards motive. The marriage was in many ways a failure from the start. Neither partner was capable of achieving love, though both wanted affection. What the book succeeds in showing is the element of failure in all relationships. Strange as the circumstances of the Watsons’ marriage may have been, they become, in Bainbridge’s hands, a symbol of everyone’s inability to get beyond the bounds of self. Perhaps for this reason it is the ordinary things in the story which stand out – Watson as headmaster, for example, dealing querulously with the problem of dust and horseflies in the playground, while dust in a chest of drawers is a cause of contention between husband and wife. Indeed there is a kind of dustiness covering the whole story. Anne, the wife, desperately hoards an oyster shell which is her only physical link with childhood. Watson struggles to write an endless Latin letter to the Bishop of Winchester to prove his sanity. There is a terrible reality, too, in the abruptness with which the crises occur. Watson’s sacking from Stockwell School seems almost as inexplicable to the reader as it is to him. And when his mind finally cracks, Bainbridge conveys this in a chillingly matter-of-fact way, through the eyes of the servant:
She said, ‘I’m glad to see you well, Sir,’ and all at once he gave her a ferocious smile, his lip curled back over his teeth. It was a terrible smile. She was shaking so much that she splashed hot water on to the cloth. She left the room as quickly as possible and whimpered as she ran down the basement stairs. She wanted her mother.
One scene is pure Hardy. Hearing that his mother is dead, Watson sets out from London Bridge to find his surviving brother. He makes the train journey with his mouth streaming with blood – he has just had all his teeth extracted. It is bitterly cold, the brother isn’t there when he arrives, and he learns to his horror that his mother died in the workhouse.
The narrator in David Plante’s The Foreigner is a peeping Tom – twice in the book he experiences orgasm while watching or listening to other people making love – and he tells his story in a detached, remote style which at moments has echoes of Bainbridge’s accomplished monotone. But the book has neither the outrageous energy of Jacobson nor the wisdom of Bainbridge. It is a self-regarding experiment in narrative that in the end just seems to disappear into itself.
Plante has some reputation. His novel The Ghost of Henry James and his trilogy The Francoeur Family, about a household of French Canadians in America, have found plenty of admirers. In the trilogy, which Chatto have just reissued as a one-volume paperback,he employs a deadpan, frame-by-frame manner to build up the complexities of his picture: objects, events and emotions are described in the same flat, unreflecting voice. This makes a likeable contrast to the sheer size of the canvas, and the concentration on small detail transmutes the domestic setting and subject-matter into something truly ‘other’:
Julien put a berry on the end of his tongue Daniel simply watched him, Julien bit it in two with his front teeth, then chewed it, his face expressionless, even when he said, ‘It tastes like mint.’ Daniel chewed a berry. It did taste like mint.
But the balance between precision and bathos is precarious, and in The Foreigner Plante tumbles, alas, down a slope of his own making.
The title is presumably meant to echo Camus’s L’Etranger, and Plante’s narrator is as isolated as Camus’s protagonist. But whereas Camus is writing about the whole human predicament, Plante portrays someone who really is an outsider in the sense that his detachment from other people seems eccentric, wilful, autistic. It is the other figures he encounters, grotesque, inexplicable and violent though they may be in themselves, whom the reader is likely to regard as normal by comparison. This estranged narrator is, like others among Plante’s protagonists and like the author himself, a French Canadian from Providence, Rhode Island. The Foreigner describes his first journey to Europe as a student in 1959. He vaguely hopes to experience Paris as Hemingway did in the Twenties, but quickly retreats into stunned passivity when confronted with the challenge of communicating with his landlady, his college friends, and a black girl named Angela. Eventually he shifts to Barcelona, where Angela is involved with an unstable American, Vincent, who shoots himself. The narrator then wanders off to Almeria to deliver a letter that has something to do with the anti-Franco underground, and at the end of the book he shows signs of coming to terms at last with the external world. All this is narrated in a manner which recalls that of The Francoeur Family, but which has now been refined to the point of self-caricature:
I felt totally seul ... The doorbell rang The daughter went quickly and came back into the dining-room with six or seven people, men and women, whom I was not introduced to. I picked up my books and left ... In my room, I wrote in my diary how seul I was.
Possibly Plante is trying to express the linguistic isolation of someone who isn’t at home anywhere – in America he seems French, and in France he feels American. If so, the trick doesn’t really work, and one longs for the poor fellow to break out of his self-constructed shell.