Once upon a time the novelist’s task was to be realistic and to tell a story that was lifelike, convincing and ‘sincere’. Today’s novelists are counter-Aristotelians, spinners of tall tales and colourful yarns, engaged, as it seems, in some eternal childlike competition to impress their hearers and see who can get away with telling the biggest whopper. Each of the three novels under review reads, at times, like a gigantic leg-pull. Yet all three are historical novels, set in the first half of the present century and significantly concerned with world war, its origins and aftermath. Garden, Ashes and Star Turn, though unlike in most other respects, share a preoccupation with the Holocaust.
Danilo Kis’s novel is a lament for the passing of the Central European petty bourgeoisie. In one scene a Jewish shopkeeper, a man who has been as comfortably entrenched in domestic life as any of Dickens’s small bourgeois, watches his household goods being inventoried and loaded onto the cart which is to carry him and his kin towards the death-camps. Foremost among his possessions, a ‘whole museum of the history of mercantilism’, is that symbol of pre-war middle-class comfort, a Singer sewing-machine. On another page eine Singermaschine is lovingly itemised, analysed, and illustrated by a line-drawing.
The design of the Singer machine, with its cast-iron body like the arch of a bridge, is a product of the railway age. So is the book’s central figure, Eduard Scham, a comic monster in Derby hat and frock-coat whose messianic delusions are recounted with horrified fascination by his son Andreas. Eduard had been the promoter, in 1930, of the first moddern bakery in Central Europe and the Balkans – or was this all a hoax, born of his unrequited love for a baker’s widow and for her daughter who smelt of fresh bread? Bankrupted by his venture into steam baking, he took a job as clerk on the railways, rising to the rank of chief inspector and author of a Bus, Ship, Rail and Air Travel Guide. The travel guide, his Urfaust, is the progenitor of ever more fantastic and unpublishable compendia, sketches for an ultimate timetable in which travel data would unlock the doors to all human knowledge. Scham’s Utopian travel encyclopedia, which owes less to Bradshaw than to Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pècuchet, is the ‘summa of a new religion’, the scriptural embodiment of the greatest-happiness principle of modern materialism. For what could be more commonplace, in the bourgeois world, than to interpret the injunction to ‘Live all you can!’ as meaning ‘Travel and see as much as you can’?
The ultimate timetable is an intellectual fantasy worthy of Borges or Stanislaw Lem: but Danilo Kis shows us not only Eduard and his brainchild but their devastating effect on Andreas and the other members of his immediate family. Eduard, like most geniuses, is comprehensively misunderstood. The publishers reject the new edition of his travel guide, he loses his job on the railway and is eventually stripped of his standing as a retired inspector. Or could it be that some more malignant and less personal agency is at work? As Eduard, distraught and dishevelled, changes from time-tabler extraordinary into magus and sage, he begins to wonder if his grandiose heresies have not called down a blight on the whole Jewish race. How else explain the pogroms at his door and the forced eviction of his shopkeeping relatives? For a time he takes to drink and then to roaming the woods, living off mushrooms and birds’ eggs and for ever intoning Pantheist prayers. Even then his enemies will not leave him alone, since superstitious villagers see his frock-coat and cane as the instruments of a black magician. Later he is deported in a sealed cattle-truck, leaving behind his Catholic wife and children. Later still, he makes periodic reappearances in post-war Yugoslavia (or so his son claims), disguised as a prosperous German tourist.
This splendid character undergoes almost as many mythic metamorphoses as Leopold Bloom, and, like Joyce’s hero, he is an embodiment of the Wandering Jew. Andreas and his mother and sister find consolation in humbler and less visionary aspects of the bourgeois ideal: no world-besotted travellers they. Andreas dotes on an illustrated Bible, while his sister amasses picture-postcards. As small children they discover the excitement of sampling new lands simply from the smells on their mother’s breakfast-tray. Much of the appeal of Garden, Ashes comes from its juxtaposition of the grotesque biography of Eduard Scham with these evocative moments of growing-up. Father and son make some efforts to understand one another, though their most intimate moment, in a railway-station buffet, is appropriately interrupted by the arrival of the train on which Eduard is leaving.
Garden, Ashes, first published in Yugoslavia in 1965, appears here in a ten-year-old American translation, printed in Great Britain but not otherwise Anglicised. William Hannaher’s translation is particularly effective in its rendering of the author’s virtuoso gifts of metaphor and simile. Kis’s style highlights not only Eduard’s grand visionary projects but the most mundane experiences and objects, from the chronic hunger of a boy in wartime Yugoslavia to the flashing of his mother’s knitting needles. The novel ends with Andreas discovering his poetic gifts, a fitting if conventional conclusion to a beautifully-imagined fat her-and-son fable.
Fortieth anniversaries are much in the air at present, and it is a safe bet that, by the time this review appears, you will not need to be reminded of the significance of the date at the head of the narrative in Nigel Williams’s Star Turn: 13 February 1945. The narrator of Williams’s third novel is an ex-journalist, now a Ministry of Information man and amateur cynic (he does not believe the early reports of the death-camps). His job is to sell the bombing of Dresden to the British public. During the 30 hours surrounding the Dresden raid, Amos Barking recalls his East End childhood and his experiences in the Great War and the London of l’entre deux guerres. History and grotesque invention are interwoven in what, since Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, has been the approved modern manner. Other writers come to mind as offering precedents for Star Turn, though the relevant fact is that almost none of them are English. Our older novelists seem to have felt disqualified from tackling epic themes, as if the experience of being English in the 20th century were somehow too marginal, in terms of world politics, to be worth the effort. Happily Nigel Williams feels no such inhibitions. His tragi-comic review of modern history from a Londoner’s perspective is as richly stuffed with outrageous performances as a Goon Show script or a night at the music hall.
Amos Barking, alias Henry Swansea (the name under which he enlisted in the Civil Service), is a professional liar who in some hard-to-pin-down sense is searching for the truth about himself: in other words, he is our old friend the unreliable narrator. His story, however, is a double act. From early childhood he has been in the position of a perpetual second-string, held in thrall to a Jewish prodigy named Zak Rabinowitz. Zak’s lifelong attempts to escape from his inherited identity are foreshadowed when, arriving at St Saviour’s Elementary School in the East End, he adopts the persona of ‘Tom Shadbolt’, a sporty young Aryan straight out of the pages of the Boy’s Own Paper. ‘Shadbolt’ stands for a lost paradise of English decency, manliness and moral responsibility that bears no relation to the actual world as Amos and Zak experience it. Adapting the boy’s-fiction device of the in-separable couple, Williams shows the gathering strains as Amos and Zak tag along well into adult life. Their role-playing, ‘Shad-bolting’, is told in the form of an autobiographical memoir beginning in the White-chapel of eighty years ago. At the same time Amos incorrigibly treats modern history and literature as texts to be rewritten for his own devious purposes. Has he, or has he not, rubbed shoulders with the great? Apparently he has, from a very early age. He came across Lenin watching a boy’s street-fight (‘Please ask yourself, my friend, for whom you are conducting this ‘fight’ of yours,’ the future revolutionary grittily commented). And who but D.H. Lawrence could have left the floor of the classroom at St Saviour’s littered with torn-up bluebells? There are further guest appearances by Proust, Freud, Virginia Woolf, Ramsay Mac Donald, Winston Churchill and other ‘stars’, and it is not every pair of Cockney youngsters who travel to France, as Amos and Zak do, in a laundry-basket full of General Haig’s underpants. All this is good fun, but the dialogue is sometimes inexcusably anachronistic. When Zak says ‘Stop crowding me so f--ing much, Daddy, can’t you?’ he sounds more like Holden Caulfield than anything Amos is likely to have invented in 1945 – let alone a turn-of-the-century Whitechapel boy destined for the battlefields of Picardy.
At St Saviour’s, Amos and Zak came up against the school bullies who were, as it happened, identical twins. Most of their subsequent antagonists also come in pairs. Some, like Communist Party guru R. Palme Dutt and his brother, are shown struggling as internecinely as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But in the end Zak no longer needs Amos because he has tragically grown into his own opposite. Cured of schizophrenia by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, he comes back to London and goes to a meeting of Mosley’s New Party, where he makes the fatal discovery that he is the split image of Sir Oswald. ‘In politics all that is required is a large and colourful lie,’ Zak tells the Mosleyites – whereupon Amos, who may or may not have had a Jewish grandfather, chips in with ‘Why not pick on the Jews?’ But it is Zak, not Amos, who joins the New Party and adopts the role of a Jewish anti-semite. I was Mosley’s double, a star turn while it lasts, ends with Zak’s being used as the Fascist leader’s decoy, only to be beaten to death by pro-Jewish demonstrators. History for Amos thereafter is nothing but a ghastly chapter of accidents; and Zak, unlike Scham, shows no signs of staging a resurrection.
And so to Dresden. Amos’s job at the Ministry of Information is to invent the legend of Bomber Command. Nigel Williams, born in 1948, belongs to a generation which grew up while ‘Bomber’ Harris and his boys were still busily winning the war on celluloid and in paperback. To Amos, however, Britain’s ‘just war’ is as morally ambivalent as every previous episode of his life. The concentration on 13 February 1945 as focal point is evidence of Williams’s serious moral purpose, though the means used to bring it about are rather contrived. We are to imagine that the whole of this 300-page text was written by Amos, sitting at his Ministry desk, during a 30-hour period which includes the narrator’s reunion with his ex-wife, the trip to Dresden and back in an RAF Lancaster, a visit to a film-set, and a car-journey from a Cambridgeshire aerodrome to London during which a Jewish refugee tells his life-story at a length suggestive of an unpublished novel by Thomas Mann (Amos,however, spares us its contents). All that and – surely this is the next-to-last straw – he has time to reread bits of his manuscript. But given the racy and pithy exuberance of Williams’s narrative and his crowded comic invention, maybe the Bloomsday feat that Amos performs is not too much to swallow. Star Turn is not a faultless novel, but a bold and enjoyable book giving a contemporary twist to what Orwell called the ‘deep, deep sleep of England’ in the earlier 20th century. For Williams it was not a sleep exactly but a lurid dream, an unbroken series of self-aggrandising and self-justifying fantasies.
And now for the Whopper of the Week, or if you prefer, the clearest symptoms of what Williams’s Dr Freud (‘One of the things I most enjoyed about Sigmund was his sense of humour,’ says Amos) diagnoses as intense fabulative mania. Garden, Ashes and Star Turn are both pretty rich in fabulative mania, but (as Huck Finn might have put it) it is James Purdy’s On Glory’s Course which is the champion stretcher case. Purdy’s novel is set in Fonthill, an oil town somewhere in the Midwestern hinterland at the beginning of the Great Depression, and at first the small town’s peace and quiet is disrupted by nothing more unusual than an aging beauty heckling the preacher in the middle of his sermon. The novel proceeds in brief, dramatised scenes, and before long the tempo of bizarre revelations becomes so heady that it seems likely to overwhelm the deadpan narrative. And on and on it goes, in an immensely skilful stylised melodrama, a tornado of small-town gossip.
Adele Bevington, descendant of one of the founding families of Fonthill, is the deserted mistress of a millionaire who took away her illegitimate son at birth and plied her, instead, with jewellery from a safe distance. Mouldering away in solitude in her ancestral home (now opposite Fonthill’s ‘photoplay house’), Adele sees herself, and is viewed by others, as an abandoned movie queen. Her lifelong search for her lost son provides the formal structure of the narrative. Does she find him, or doesn’t she? Are all the young men of Fonthill, in a sense, her sons? And does it matter anyway? What can be said is that the novel is almost entirely populated by corrupt male authority figures, sex-starved widows who in more stringent times might have been burned as witches, ruined boys of whom one, Alec Cottrell, escapes from the suffocating town, and young and not-so-young women who are all, in one or other of the senses of a capacious word, whores. The men of Fonthill, according to crazy old Widow Hughes, ‘burn even in the grave ... the fire that is in them may indeed be behind the makeup of our entire universe.’ The widows and ruined boys burn mostly to read what the others have been writing in their secret diaries. God, it is suggested, would have to destroy Fonthill if he knew all its secrets: but if God didn’t know Fonthill’s secrets he cannot have been very adept at the techniques of walking uninvited into other people’s houses, steaming open letters, pumping one’s children and neighbours for what they have sworn not to reveal, and even reading the local paper – all of which Fonthill’s inhabitants avidly practise.
Purdy, whose earlier novels include 63: Dream Palace and Cabot Wright begins, once seemed tailor-made as a prototype of the self-conscious American novelist, playing with themes of writing and identity, and questioning reality and character-consistency. In On Glory’s Course the playful and self-conscious touches have declined to the status of mechanical mannerisms. Not only is Adele constantly described as behaving like a movie star, but whenever the dialogue falters it is liable to be compared to a ‘break in the film’. The dialogue itself would grace a museum of fictional rhetoric, so that Adele is self-consciously but truly described as talking like ‘some character out of East Lynne’. In the end, Purdy rings an ingenious change on Mrs Henry Wood’s most famous line, from the stage version of her deservedly forgotten Victorian weepie. In this novel ‘Dead! dead! and ... never called me Mother’ is (as T.S. Eliot said of emotion recollected in tranquillity) an exact formula.
Purdy, like many other American novelists, is noted for being haunted by a sense of entropic collapse. The sentiments released by his latest book are indeed those of loss, loss of sexual and emotional fulfilment, and the loss of youth and vigour. Brooding over Fonthill are the mutilated veterans of the Great War such as Keith Gresham (who lost his manhood in a battle in which he killed 27 Germans), and the shell-shocked physical and mental cases of the local Soldiers’ Home. Yet, thanks to a wealth of period detail, props and costumes, the reader is kept well-cushioned against these intimations of mortality. Fonthill exchanges its shocking secrets over delicious American home cooking (it is still the slow-food era), drinks of ‘medicine’, ‘Creole coffee’ or dandelion wine (it is Prohibition time), and between furtive puffs at Turkish cigarettes. The widows of Fonthill feel ‘like harlots waiting for a customer’ as soon as they light up. If there is a row, somebody’s irreplaceable pierglass or hand-painted china is bound to get broken. And no heart-to-heart talk, regardless of the participants’ sex or age, is complete without tears, hand-clasps and lovingly-described kisses on the mouth.
This hothouse atmosphere is, intentionally, pure Hollywood. Seeing the same movies again and again is probably the nearest that Purdy’s characters get to ordinary life. Only one of these movies is actually described, a film about a rancher dispossessed by thugs in the pay of a mining company, which bores Purdy’s protagonists to tears. Fonthill does not like social realism in the cinema, preferring instead the revelations found in other people’s secret diaries. These diaries, we are told, are like ‘expensive confections, jellies and jams hidden high on the pantry shelf’. And that is the trouble with On Glory’s Course. Superb confectionery, but there’s a lot of it, and in the end you’ve had a surfeit of jellies and jams.