The narrator and protagonist of Answered Prayers is one P.B. Jones, failed writer and competent sexual athlete, a scurrilous charmer who – to lift a pithy phrase from the poet Martial – tantos et tantas amat. Latin allusions are appropriate to the style of a book which oddly suggests the libertine rhetoric of some later Roman text: in the sly elegance of the syntax, the jaunty terseness of phrase, the not infrequent obscenity of the lexicon (there are words like ‘muffdiver’, which you will not find in your Funk and Wagnall’s); most of all, in the calculated scabrousness of some episodes. Truman Capote’s title, which is also the title of a book his hero has written, is taken from St Teresa: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’ What this may foretell – other than, perhaps, that couplings will end in comeuppances – we cannot readily judge, because what Capote has left us is only a sample, in three chapters, of a novel begun more than two decades ago, published in piecemeal extracts, and never finished.
PB’s versatility in the sins of the flesh secures him employment as a peripatetic stud on the books of an agency called Self Service. The agency is run by a butch lady called Victoria Self, who wears hausfrau braids and a blue serge suit, and who hints at painful punishments awaiting those who infringe the rules of her exotic craft. This is one apparent strand in the plot. Another is that PB, an operator so unabashedly mercenary that he can describe himself as a Hershey Bar whore, has seemingly contrived to fall in love and to taste some of the torments reserved for venal souls who stray into sincerity. From such indications we might predict the development of a story, but of course the clues may be misleading. All that really happens in the three chapters is that PB is set free to travel, to tattle, to be a man of discriminating parts (I’ll pitch,’ he tells his employer, ‘but I won’t catch’), to be privy to all manner of miching mallecho, to betray benefactors, and to reveal the unlovely, possibly fictional, secrets of known persons on life’s real stage. It is not surprising that the third chapter (called ‘La Côte Basque’, after a well-known restaurant in New York) should have alienated some of Capote’s best friends. What is surprising is that he was surprised.
Capote could write, not a doubt of it; he was never boring; he had the enviable rapidity, the stride, of a powerful wit; and like all good bar-companions, he could compel amusement. Armed for morality, and determined to read with a visage as crusty as Cato’s, I am nevertheless forced to laugh at the voluble impudence of some passages, the suddenness of the comic assault. But there is very little innocent laughter in this book. The prevailing tone is the giggling of the vicious, beside which the crackling of thorns under a pot is a pleasantly musical sound; and it is a melancholy thing to see, in the space of a hundred and eighty pages, a writer become a raconteur, a raconteur become a gossip dishing the exclusive dirt. The reader looks on at the shameful spectacle, a wincing outsider, a visitor to the privileged unenviable zoo, where all the animals are deluded and lonely monsters.
Monsters and delusions of a more agreeable kind lurk in the stylish, elaborately skilful pages of Michael Dibdin’s A Rich Full Death. Ostensibly this is a detective story, a species of Holmesian charade penned by a paranoiac Dr Watson: yet even at this level it teases the reader with mysteries that go beyond the conventionally mysterious. The story is set in Florence, in the year 1855, and the narration takes the form of letters written by a young American, Robert Booth, to his friend Professor Prescott, an authority on Theoretical and Practical Ethics. Booth, in retreat from rejection in love and a sense of his own failure in literature, has known at least one stroke of luck: he has become, he tells his friend, ‘the confirmed acquaintance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband’. It is, in fact, the lesser luminary, Robert Browning, who catches Booth’s interest from the outset, and in a strange way: for on the very evening when Booth is introduced to the poet, news comes of a horrible death, a suicide, and it is coincidentally the death of the lady with whom Booth has been in love. Browning is not willing to accept the death as a suicide: his acute and busily observant mind detects the marks of murder. This is the beginning of an association between the two men, a relationship as of master and disciple, growing – at least on Booth’s side – more intimate as further deaths occur. These deaths are unmistakably murders, performed by someone who leaves taunting clues in the shape of cryptic references to Dante’s Inferno. Reading cryptograms is Browning’s game, and his associate watches admiringly, though not without a sly amusement when the master’s ingenuity draws a blank.
For indeed Booth is disposed at times to be critical of Browning. He applauds his prodigious mental and physical energy, wonders at the diversity of his reading, greatly admires his poems – but, as an upright Bostonian moralist, deplores Browning’s preoccupation with the psychology of the deranged and the maimed in spirit. He treats Prescott to a two-page exposition of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (a poem which sends eerie sonorities quivering through the whole narrative), expressing the strongest moral indignation at its depiction of a grotesque murder which is allowed to take place with a ‘total lack of censure on the poet’s part’. By the time the reader reaches this delicious exercise in literary criticism he has become accustomed (thanks to Mr Dibdin’s extraordinary mimetic flair) to the rhythms and rhetorical devices of Booth’s discursive style, and it has begun to dawn on him that Booth talks like a Browning character. It is as though one of Browning’s poor world-rejected monsters had stepped out of his secure poetic frame and come alive to worship and mock the master. At about the same time, the reader also starts to suspect that the whodunnit is not such a mystery, because, surely, Boothdunnit. There is no better candidate than Booth, admiring Browning, hating Browning, taunting and testing him, proving him with his own literary weapons. The reader murmurs self-congratulations on these shrewd insights, and is only occasionally assailed by the uneasy thought that if Booth in this book is a Browning character, Browning in this book may be a Booth character. Is Browning like this? With these acts does Browning unlock his mind? If so, the less Browning he.
Now it is at this point, when a reviewer should really begin to enjoy a walk through a wonderful warren of literary devices, drawing attention to the significance of this, the curious pattern of that, and the sheer diabolical cleverness of the other, that he has to halt, hard by the church of St Mustadunnit and all the Royalties. To go farther would be to spoil the telling of a tale that combines the sweaty excitement of a chase, the intellectual challenge of a seminar, and the wounded pathos of all our sad days and deathbeds. Let prospective readers therefore take notice: leave no admonition – epigraph, heading, allusion – unobserved; take nothing for granted; and above all, resist the temptation to peep unseasonably at the ending.
The end can wait its turn, for the book is full of pleasures, a box of comfits – which Mr Dibdin would perhaps have me call confetti. Foremost among them is the style. A pastiche running to two hundred pages, immediately characterising the English of an educated 19th-century American, and more distantly yet pervasively evoking the speech-style of Browning’s monologuists, is no mean achievement. The lapses in accuracy, as far as I am able to judge, are very few. I doubt if the expressions ‘not to bat an eyelid’ and ‘glad rags’ were current in the 1850s, or the phrasal verb ‘to dream up’; and I am reasonably certain that the construction of ‘convince’ with an infinitive clause, as in ‘I had convinced Beatrice to leave Florence with me,’ is a quite modern development. But these are trivial matters, costume details. What is totally pleasing is the ingenuity of the book as a literary game with ethical consequences. It is a gift to structuralist critics, out of whose bony, mirthless clutches, however, may it be safely kept. For the rest of us it raises, in the most engaging way, such problems of mind and matter as were formulated by the mandarin who, waking from a dream, said he did not know whether he was a man dreaming about a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming about a man. Behind the detective fable are such tremulous questions about this dream of life, this life of dreams – leaving the reader, as he closes the book, to ponder on the meaning of its title.
A lesser Victorian than Browning, a minimus poet called Arthur O’Shaughnessy, said that the dreamers of dreams are the movers and shakers of the world for ever. Perhaps they are; and perhaps Dorothy Parker was also right, who sang that authors and actors and artists and such never know nothing and never know much, and who concluded:
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
God, for a man who solicits insurance!
Either view could be supported from the pages of P.H. Newby’s Leaning in the Wind, in which one of the principal characters, as it happens, is both a poet and an insurance man. Edwin Parsler, poetic and foxhunting Englishman, works in the legal division of an insurance company, in order to keep his gadding wife Harriet in the state to which she is accustomed. Theirs is one of the seminal relationships (if that is a proper expression) in the book. The other is that of their country neighbours, Aston Hart, ex-colonial farmer and soldier of fortune, and his wife Lisa, who is of German-American extraction, and who is convinced that her husband is descended from the sister of her favourite poet, Shakespeare.
This description of what I take to be the framing partnerships of a complex and sometimes rambling narrative ignores the surrounding dance of other partners, the husbands and wives or parents and children, the gossips, the plot-fillers, the bearers of theme and variation, whose collective busyness gives the novel an air of Forsyte Sagacity. If the book were simply a social and personal chronicle, it would be a dull and watery specimen of the genre: say what you will about Galsworthy, his soap made a creamy lather. But the story is not, after all, about marriages and adulteries and childbeds and neurasthenic girls and bad plumbing and folk who fall off their horses and jigger themselves; nor is it about the folly of planting Shakespeare forgeries, even in jest, nor yet about the menace of Idi Amin. If I understand it aright, it is about people who are haunted; who are in one way or another spooked, and a little crazy with it; who perceive the realities of life in principalities that are not of this world.
Of the four main actors, only Harriet Parsler, thoroughly realistic in her appraisal of the occasionally conflicting claims of bed and board, is not ‘spiritual’ in any sense of the word. For this she has her reward: she is able to live without terror or despair, without much aggrievement, perhaps without much enlightenment. She repeatedly describes herself as ‘a bitch’, but perhaps ‘a hard case’ would be a better description. Each of the three remaining principals has a belief in immaterial powers which invade and in some way condition their lives. Aston Hart, bluff, pragmatic, quite unimaginative, takes witchcraft for granted and believes that a man must watch his back for demons. (You turn your coat collar up, because they go for the nape of the neck.) Lisa Hart, the Shakespeare enthusiast, comes to believe that she has inherited psychic energies, the protective and regenerative powers of a white witch. The poet Edwin Parsler sees in Lisa the embodiment of his Muse, the joyous and angry goddess who awakens him to creative life. All have a conviction of spirituality. ‘There’s something else out there,’ Lisa tells Edwin at the close of the story. ‘Spirits. Some of them bad. But all leaning in a great wind.’
In other words, while life without the insurance man would be a very leaky vessel, without poets, magicians, believers, and attendant spirits to swell the sails and puff the gales, the voyage would be pointless and unrewarding. Only those who feel what is blowing in the wind are truly alive. If the book has a paraphrasable meaning, I take it to be something like this: but I am not sure, and I am not sure for various reasons of style and narrative structure, the most important of which is Mr Newby’s apparent reluctance to lend an interpretative hand now and then. I do not expect him to buttonhole his reader with directives and admonitions. I mean that he describes unwearyingly, but less often appears to ascribe – an interpretation, a pattern, a connection – through the page-by-page management of the text.
A minor instance may help to illustrate the point. There is an episode in which a piece of Edwin Parsler’s verse is quoted, a stanza which any reader of modern English poetry will recognise as an imitation, and not a very good one, of a poem by W.H. Auden. Parsler composes it while he is lying supine and fully clothed in a stream. We are told that ‘it took some minutes of playing with words and rhymes until he arrived at something he could accept and then forget about.’ In fact, Auden has supplied two out of the three rhymes, with the rhyme-words, and has provided the syntatic structure and most of the vocabulary. The ‘playing’ requires no more than the substitution of one or two new words for old.
It does not especially matter that a character fakes a poem, but still the episode raises a point of authorial etiquette. Mr Newby, who in other instances is scrupulously careful to supply facts that may have eluded his reader – explaining who the Mau Mau were, for example, or what Oxonians mean by ‘gaudy’, or the sense of the expression ‘drag hunt’ – gives no indication that Parsler’s ‘poem’ is mimetically framed upon one by Auden. The omission creates a real difficulty. Does Mr Newby assume that his readers, unprompted, will recognise a parody, and will possibly correlate the eccentric verbal act with the deviant behaviour of a man who – at this point in the story – is possessed by disturbing emotions? Or is this too elaborate a fancy? Is Parsler’s verse-exercise meant to be accepted as the genuine article, an authentic specimen of the poet at work? I lean to the supposition that I am intended to recognise a parody and understand what it implies, but I am not finally certain how the ‘poem’ is to be read. Perhaps Mr Newby would like to have it both ways.
This is one instance of a problem with diverse occurrences: the problem of having to choose between the purely descriptive reading – one that treats the book as a social chronicle with a few peculiar happenings thrown in for spice – and an ascriptive reading that detects a unifying significance in its catalogue of events and destinies. To have it both ways is of course perfectly possible, but in the end the reader looks to the author, the master of ceremonies, for a casting vote, and this note of authorial conviction is what I miss, perhaps obtusely, in Leaning in the Wind. The book is not to be lightly put aside: but I am left with the impression that Mr Newby has raised a theme which he has not completely grasped and realised.
For Anne Devlin there is no problem in seeking a theme. Her problem, by her own confession, is to escape from a theme – from Ireland, from the troubles, from Belfast, and indeed from haunting visions known to so many of us, whether we are Irish or not, of the tented terraces of grey slate, of mothers and fathers and lugubrious aunts, the grave-breaking cry of kindred, the passions that squat sullen and famished in the heart. You do not have to be Irish to understand this: but you do have to acknowledge that it is uniquely Ireland that makes Anne Devlin a writer. There is no getting away from it. Of the nine stories in The Way-Paver, only three have no narrative root in Ireland and the family. The title-story is beautiful, made like a lyric poem, round the complementary images of the newborn infant slipping into the world like a seal, the seal as it breaks the surface of the sea, the Irish girl who looks across the water to her future – the way-pavers.
Anne Devlin has a remarkable power of dispassionate narration, which is at times almost bleak; her characters can give you the impression that their hands are always cold. They live a lot of the time in dreams and memories, but their creator allows them no indulgent sentiment. The narrative method is often abrupt, relying on significant cuts and juxtapositions. Like any good artist in the short story, Devlin demands unwavering attention from her readers, at times relying on it to achieve extraordinary speed of narration. Take a brief example from ‘Sam’, the only piece in the collection that could be called a comedy. The narrator, having just met Sam, discovers that he is writing a novel:
‘What’s your subject-matter?’ I asked. ‘Or am I not allowed to ask?’
‘War,’ he said firmly.
I decided to ignore this. I invited him to come on a peace march with me. After the second peace march I decided to seduce him.
‘I’ll go to bed with you,’ I said.
In barely six or seven lines we have made a fine comic skedaddle from the first meeting through two peace marches to the bold Irish girl’s offer of her body. It is the sentence beginning ‘After the second peace march’ that marks the turning of the trick, of course. Of course. Things like that always look easy. Anne Devlin ought to attempt more in the comic genre. She has a sense of the absurd, and the mordant gift that makes the Irish such formidable humorists; and perhaps among the drifting ghosts that haunt her particular imagination there is a kindly spirit that will allow her to find her own green place and innocently laugh.