Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is a book about the mind electrically at odds with vacancy and repose; about the astonishing turbulence in the little grey cells of little grey people like you, and me, and Howie, who at lunchtime quits his office on the mezzanine floor and goes down the escalator to the street, to buy milk and cookies and a new pair of shoelaces. On the way we follow the movement of his mind through a conveyor-belt meditation, rigorous as a Zen discipline, zany as a Disneyland dance, on the everyday mechanics of things contemplated most minutely in particular. What things? Oh, just ordinary things, you know, things counter, original, spare, strange, spring-loaded, gear-driven, fully automated and packaged for your all-American convenience, that sort of thing. Howie’s central preoccupation is with the working life of shoelaces and the rival hypotheses (there are two contenders) which may be adduced to explain not only how they come to break but also how one shoelace will snap within days of the other.
This is the argumentative mainstream, into which, however, flow frequent tributaries in the form of disquisitions on earplugs, date-stampers, staplers, shirt packagings, milk cartons, and men’s rooms where you suffer the exquisite ignominy of keeping your water while all around you (especially the senior executives) are bountifully losing theirs. I should intone here a manifold and multi-conglomerate ‘et cetera’, because the foregoing list hardly begins to mention the things upon which the solitary Howie thinks, opines, and ungainsayably ratiocinates. He is falling-down-drunk with data, like a PhD student, and elaborates his observations with maniac footnotes which grow longer and longer, until they begin to outbalance the main text. As a conscientious reader, I had a great deal of methodological bother with these footnotes (which incidentally did my astigmatism no good at all), because I could not decide whether to read them as they occurred or save them up for second time round, as an alternative text. Probably Howie, or Mr Baker, would like me to do it both ways and test for differences.
Well, but the point? A point not to be overlooked is that one of the objects Howie carries with him on his lunchtime excursion is a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, in which he reads that mortal life is ‘transient and trivial ... yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes’. Howie denies this with an emotional intensity not apparent elsewhere in the book: ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong! I thought. Destructive and misguided and completely untrue!’ Wrong, wrong, wrong, we may assume, because for Howie everything in mortal life – shoelaces, shopping bags, escalators, et cetera, everything palpable and divinely unabstract – is of such peculiar and complicated interest that nothing can be trivial. Life is too full to be fobbed off with abstractions and aphorisms. Had Howie been a Romantic poet, he might have hymned the particular significance of daisies and lesser celandines: being a modern metropolitan man, he wanders lonely as a cloud, musing on vending machines and paper-towel dispensers. These blessed forms locate the mind’s unending, self-delighting play. This is worth thinking about, though whether it adds up to a novel I do not know. I found myself repeating Dogberry’s phrase, ‘most tolerable and not to be endured’: meaning, I suppose, that I congratulate Mr Baker on a brilliant performance and hope he will not want to repeat it.
Howie is an oddly elusive creation; his mind is recorded in every tremor of its movement, and yet – perhaps because his relationships with others are barely adumbrated – we miss a personality, and are thus obliged to forgo one of the pleasures of novel reading, the extension of one’s acquaintance through interesting situations, the amusing discovery of a how-d’ye-do as we come to know Him and Her. In the case of Robert Nye’s The Memoirs of Lord Byron, it is less a question of discovering an interesting personality than of retrieving or rehabilitating one. The basis of the fiction here is a historical fact – that after his death, Lord Byron’s Memoirs were burned by some of his friends who were anxious for his posthumous reputation (he had made decent amends for the notoriety of his life by dying in a good cause in Greece) and who considered his confessions to be, in the words of John Cam Hobhouse, ‘fit only for a brothel’. Mr Nye’s book is an exercise in literary reconstruction, and hence in the revision of a character. It traces the career of our Eurofornicating, boxing, boating, breast-stroking, Hellespontaneous, Missolonghi-bound bard from his loveless boyhood (bully-ragged by a fierce mama, deflowered by his Scots Calvinist governess) down to a certain August afternoon in 1822 when, on a beach near Viareggio, he supervised the cremation of his dearest friend, Shelley. The intention, it seems, is to present what the blurb calls ‘a more sympathetic figure than any of the versions of Byron which have appeared in the orthodox biographies’. Well, perhaps: but it seems to me that at the end of it Byron is where Byron was, poetry, pathos, penis and all.
The problem with historical reconstructions is that they deny the liberty of fiction, the right to choose particular consequences arising out of general possibilities. The story is given; we know the immutable facts of Byron’s life and death, so that there is nothing left for the novelist to invent, beyond – in this case – a commentary couched in a characteristic style. It is indeed as a stylistic performance, as sophisticated pastiche, that Nye’s book is most successful – though to know how adept a Byronist he is you must first read your Byron. The format of the volume – its old-fashioned type-face, the pagination in Roman numerals – highlights a sustained and skilful act of mimicry, in which Mr Nye inventively blends the things Byron said, in letters or poems, with things that Byron might have said. The characteristic quality of Byron’s wit, its vivacious darting from the sententious to the scurrilous, is nicely captured, though perhaps Mr Nye is too anxious, in places, to inflame the gentle reader. For example, although it may not lie beyond the bounds of Byronic possibility, I am not wholly convinced that the man who wrote ‘She walks in beauty like the night’ could also observe (of a different lady, naturally): ‘Her cunt tasted of anchovies.’ However, the remark brutally typifies Byron’s relationships or misrelationships with women, whom he treated very badly. Observing him, in Nye’s version, democratically dropping his breeches for cooks or countesses, I found myself hankering after a novel written from the woman’s point of view – a free invention of the case for Lady Caroline Lamb, say, or better still, for Anne Milbanke, his contemptuous lordship’s ‘princess of parallelograms’, a gifted lady who would have been better-off keeping house with an affectionate algebraist than shacking up in marital misery with a soda-swilling, sodomising monster. Speak as you find, of course.
The point of view of the woman speaking very much as she finds is what we are given in Elaine Feinstein’s All you need and A.L. Barker’s The woman who talked to herself, two lovely, sly, sad, comic accounts of depressed housewifery. Feinstein’s story is the triumphant tale of Nell Bolton – ‘Little Nell’ to those who do not really know her, meaning her closest friends and relatives – a nice, literate, idealistic, Newnham-nurtured bluestocking, content to reside in deepest Royston among her Russian texts, all ignorant of the world’s inveterate capacity to forsake the righteous until her husband, Brian, who is something nasty in the City, gets in with a very untrustworthy class of yuppie and is thrown into jail for reasons at first not apparent to Nell. What follows is her struggle to fend for herself and her recalcitrant daughter Becky, to shed her dangerous innocence and become street-wise, to acquire the knowledge that begets the power that secures her husband’s release. As events unfold she learns, in ways hard and hilarious, that all you need is not love but a carapace of cunning self-reliance; and she ends up with a husband, a lover, and a woman’s hard-won place in a man’s world.
The tale is grim in summary, because it is about someone always near the end of her tether, but its happenings are recounted with a satirical gusto that makes a cheerful pantomime out of this everyday story of Thatcherfolk. (A typically bold, almost Pythonesque, piece of comic invention is the account of Nell’s experiences at a feminist theatre workshop, in which the sisters progressively deconstruct and re-script the story of The Magic Flute, to take in themes like motherhood, the family, sexual harassment and – via the character of Pamina – abortion.) Throughout the narrative we take Nell’s point of view, and because of this the reader is solidly on her side and solidly inclined to plant a solid boot or bunch of fives in the appropriate too-too-solid end of her husband, her brother and sundry metropolitan stinkers who bully and patronise her. It takes a while for the suspicion to sink in that Nell’s critics may occasionally have a point, that innocence is next to self-absorption, that ignorance is no excuse for not knowing the score: a perception which, when it arrives, rescues Nell from the glum role of victim and qualifies her as a woman capable of recognising problems and doing something about them.
Winnie Appleton, A.L. Barker’s kitchen-crazed heroine, deals with her problems by transmuting them into the most compelling and tantalising fictions. She tells herself stories; and because she is lonely and unvalued and in the world’s eyes good only for baking pies and making the occasional scene, she fantasises a little and imagines herself a nationally-celebrated diseuse, reciting her tales to the fiction-famished thousands huddling into Wembley stadium. We all need these consoling dreams, Winnie more than most. Her children are secretive and apparently regard her intermittent efforts to supervise their lives as the thoughtless intrusions of a silly old fusspot. Her husband, who has advanced in years to the dreaded middle age of the long cardigan and the baggy pants, is trying to retrieve lost romance (the daft ha’p’orth) by consorting with a young woman who operates a word-processor. It is partly because of her rival’s occupation that Winnie, mistress of the word, or at least of the word inwardly spoken, the phrase rounded in silence as one rolls the pastry or cleans the oven, paradoxically declares a dislike and distrust of words. The ‘word-processor’ is a metaphor for her frustrated sense that words process your life and print out remorselessly assured falsehoods. In such word-processing Winnie is almost inarticulate. The articulation of her uncertainties, transient perceptions, guesses at the truth of things, takes the form of little fables, humorous and disturbing, each of them a self-contained short story, all of them related, as myth is related to the commonplace or as daydream is related to the dull event, to the incidental facts of Winnie’s experience. The sequence of stories makes up the sum of Winnie’s story: for which reason, Barker has given her book the subtitle ‘An Articulated Novel’. But oh, how Winnie can talk. It is all a rueful, stringent, mischievous delight from beginning to end. It levies no toll of admiration for historical research, for scholarship, for the masterly handling of technological tantara: everything is in the writing, its economy, its tart intrusions of wit, its delicate management of intonations and emphases, its tremulous sense of what is funny in those breathless moments of cliffhanging over chasms of embarrassment and sorrow. Here is Winnie’s husband, the fool, grubbily making a clean breast of his infidelity to a wife who already knows what is going to say:
Arthur has taken something from his pocket. If he says it’s a leaf or a toffee paper I won’t ask to see it. A dead mouse I will look at. He says ‘There’s someone else,’ and holds up a black silk glove.
I have to wonder how Arthur can be so thick as to prefer his word-processor to delicious Winnie, but then he is merely a fictional example of the general rule that in affairs of the heart boys will be buffoons.
A buffoon is the central figure of Rose Tremain’s Restoration: a clever buffoon, a buffoon of many curious parts (one of which, after the libertine fashion of his time, he is inclined to exercise too vigorously for his own good). Robert Merivel is the son of a glover, a physician and anatomist by education, a dabbler in painting, music, astronomy; restless, profoundly shallow, brilliantly diverse, a man so various that – to crib an apposite couplet – he seems to be not one but all mankind’s epitome. Merivel climbs into the resplendent and capricious patronage of King Charles II (here portrayed as the all-knowing fairy-tale autocrat) and for a time lives Persarum rege beatior, the purring recipient of gifts, favours, honours, the King’s loving confidant and clown. The highest honour is a knighthood and an estate, but these come with a condition. The King, for whom woman’s place is in the background, obliges Merivel to marry one of the royal mistresses, stipulating that he is by no means to exercise the more intimate functions of a husband, but merely to keep the wench available for seasonal excursions to Whitehall. This constraint at length proves too hard for Sir Robert, who makes the mistake of falling in love with his allotted partner and thus falls out of grace with the King, who frowns on the disobedience of subjects presuming beyond their place. Deprived of his land and exiled from the source of all light and comfort, Merivel takes refuge with an old friend and fellow-student, John Pearce, practising medicine and holiness in a Quaker community at New Bedlam, a bleak Fenland asylum for the insane. His sojourn here is a season in purgatory, a time of regeneration which ends with the death of the irascible, saintly Pearce (revered keeper of Merivel’s conscience, as Charles is the adored trustee of his aspirations), and in a second fell from grace, a carnal liaison with one of his patients, in consequence of which he and she are obliged to leave the community and return to London. Now at last he accepts the honourable, unflinching role of doctor and common citizen – during the Plague, during the pitiable childbed death of his ‘wife’, when he is obliged to save his child by performing a Caesarean operation, and during the Great Fire, when a courageous action brings him once more into the notice of the King. We see him at the end redeemed, restored, a buffoon no more, a serious and broken man rapt in the happiness of holding his little daughter in his arms.
The book’s title is of course deliberately ambiguous. At one level, the purport of the narrative is an imaginative reconstruction of a historical era, the Restoration. Tremain projects extremely well the personality and posture of an age, and does so without having to write Warner Bros walk-on parts into the script (‘John Dryden, egad!’ – ‘Odds lid,’tis Sir Christopher Wren’). Merivel’s unresting speculations – his anatomical studies, his reflections on painting, his musings on the treatment of the insane, his empirical curiosity – represent an intellectual temper, just as his wanderings from jewelled court to excremental madhouse to pestilential city project the literary splendours and historical squalors of what could be called, in the spirit of the old Chinese curse, interesting times. It is perhaps this element of historical representation that requires the book to be richly farced (or heavily egged) with episodic ingredients which appear to be there more for the flavour and texture than for the particular sustenance of a theme. Primarily, however, the book is not a historical novel, but a kind of myth, in reference to which the title takes on a difference colour. Restoration is a spiritual condition. Merivel is restored to the benevolence of his sovereign. He is restored to mental health. He is restored to his proper profession. He is restored as father to his only child. But even while I read the tale in terms of Merivel’s regeneration, I wonder uneasily whether I should be taking this baroque fantasia to heart, as an exemplum of the follies and sufferings and strange redemptions that enter every life.