R.K. Narayan has the most godlike of the novelist’s powers: to know all his characters equally well – too well to love or hate them, except, perhaps, in a godlike way, as parts of the entirety of his larger creation. Malgudi, most real of imaginary towns, is that larger creation. Like the Gods, Narayan is a comedian: the smallest things, the most counter-dramatic lives, are within his compass. In The World of Nagaraj he shows how an ineffectual man lives with his ineffectuality. Only those who have never begun a project and dropped it, or thought the truth but failed to speak it, or acquiesced in a decision which went against their wishes in order to avoid embarrassment, can have no sympathy with Nagaraj.
The big house where he lives with his wife and mother – ‘only three in that vast household which stretched from Kabir Street to the river’ – is rather bare. Nagaraj is happily without financial worries; he has modest but adequate private means. His father left his property to Nag and his elder brother Gopu equally – unless, the will said, they came to another arrangement. Which is what Nagaraj, ineffectually, let Gopu insist upon. Gopu took the land and the coconut garden in the village along with the farmhouse and cattle, and more than an equal share of household goods. There is a classic ineffectual answer to that, of course: ‘Thank God the fellow wants them. I couldn’t have stood the smell of the cattle shed even for five minutes ... thought Nagaraj.’
The ineffectual are not necessarily idle. ‘Nagaraj fancied himself a man with a mission ... he was not quite clear in his mind about his mission, but always felt he must be up and doing.’ There are things to fill a day. While Gopu and his family still lived in Kabir Street Nag would take his nephew Tim to school. He has a daily appointment at Coomar’s Boeing Sari Centre, where he is an unpaid book-keeper. Coomar began his thriving business with a loan from Nag, who is careful to keep his services voluntary. He can come and go when he wants; he cannot be blamed. He and his wife Sita are ineffectual in having no children. Sita is sensible, but lonely.
The turmoil in Nagaraj’s world which the novel describes centres on Tim. His uncle and aunt are much taken with him, pleased at his truant visits from school. Then one day he arrives with his trunk, saying he has left the village for good. His father follows him; Tim refuses to go home; another school accepts him; it turns out he has given up even the idea of school for a job in the Kismet Club; later a marriage is arranged; Tim and his bride take over the room his father once occupied in the house in Kabir Street, and from it emerge his wife’s versions of film songs, accompanied by herself on the harmonium. Sita is rather glad of the liveliness. Nagaraj searches out lamp wicks to block his ears, for he has now identified his mission: a life of the sage Naranda. His excitement while buying the best possible notebooks and at seeing them filled with jottings, and his defeat when he finds the Life is not writing itself, that writing a book needs something more than desire or even determination, beautifully describe creative ambition as it stumbles.
Nagaraj is wonderfully irritating. As he is shown around his brother’s farm he tries to soften Gopu’s anger by admiring the improvements – the Gobar gas plant is Gopu’s great pride. But his complete lack of comprehension and placatory ‘wonderfuls’ irritate his brother to madness. ‘How green is this shade,’ Nag witters. ‘Banana is always green, what is there to wonder about like a baby?’ The conflict – which never comes to a head because Nagaraj avoids confrontation – between competence and incompetent vagueness, between angry energy and infuriatingly evasive inertia, is elemental. The exquisitely disinterested eye of God observes all. You the reader understand all, and hope those you see will forgive each other.
In novels Australians may think more than they say. What do Digger and Vic, in The Great World, talk about? Does Vic talk about the money he has made?
‘Doesn’t ’e talk to you about it?’ he asked Digger.
‘No. Why should ’e? I don’t know anything about business.’
Well ’e was never slow to blow ’is own trumpet – not in the ol‘ days. What’s happened to ’im?’
‘Nothing,’ Digger said. ‘I dunno.’
‘So what do you talk about?’ Doug asked after a moment, and his look was humorous.
‘Nothing much,’ Digger told him. It was the truth. He had to think. ‘Cars an ‘that,’ he added at last.
Digger Keen and Vic Curran, young Australian volunteers taken prisoner by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore, are held for a while in an amusement park called The Great World. The real Great World, as it exists in Digger’s understanding, is, like the park, an imperfect representation of reality: ‘Digger was dizzied by the world. He could never, he felt, see it steady enough or at a sufficient distance to comprehend what it was, let alone to act on it.’ He is a private man, his excellence, perhaps genius, well hidden by self-containment. Vic does act on the Great World, and becomes a player in the Australian post-war mining and property boom. As he lies dying he thinks back to his childhood:
He was in his own nine-year-old body again, standing barefoot in old serge pants and braces ... One of those occasions when, in the assurance that he had the power to leap out of himself into an imaginable future, he had stood still, and feeling the animal in him crouched, ready to leap, had let himself go with it.
It took off in a long arc. He went with it, and found himself suspended, outside gravity, at the high point, and with the new moment yet to declare itself. But he must have come down that time, one of those times, in the wrong life. That was the only way he could explain to himself the otherness he felt in himself.
Digger’s at-oneness and Vic’s otherness, the need they have for each other, and the points at which the need is and is not symmetrical, are at the heart of the plot of David Malouf’s (in two senses) exemplary novel. It answers, in almost Tolstoyan terms, questions about how we should, and do, lead the lives we are given. Returning from the war, from the prison camps on the Burma railway where life was cheap, Digger looks after his mother and Jenny, his ‘simple’ sister, and cultivates his talent for building and tinkering. He would seem smug if he said anything about it, but he doesn’t. Jenny, considering her brother’s silence, thinks that ‘she was a pretty good judge of silence: if you lived with Digger you had to be.’
Malouf is at his best with characters isolated, but also protected and dignified, by language which has been stripped of anything soft or decorative, like a saloon car prepared for a safari rally. There are silences – the prophylactic silences of things ‘better not said’ which ward off anger and offer no hostages to embarrassment; the silences of children who have feelings, but no words to express them; and there is the near-catatonic silence of those who have words but are governed by a code of laconic understatement which precludes easy fluency. (Digger is, although silent, a linguistic prodigy. His sister finds him not reading in bed, but telling over books he has by heart; he remembers anything once heard, can recite whole plays by Shakespeare; in the camps he becomes a living muster-roll which records the names and fate of the members of his battalion.)
But there is a place for fluency in the linguistic universe Malouf creates. Mac, who had worked on the Bondi trams and whose sister-in-law Digger takes up with after the war, is ‘a black stump philosopher full of all sorts of wild arguments and theories and extravagant optimisms that wouldn’t have worked in Paradise’, and Doug, who Digger first encounters in the recruitment line, is a joker. ‘ “This feller could talk right through a world war,” Digger thought. “The time’d pass pretty easy too.” ’ But jokes and politics are allowable men’s talk. When feelings arise, people keep ‘falling through holes in the conversation no bigger than single words’.
The experience of the war itself is, in Malouf’s way of storytelling, known both through the bare language of prisoners’ speech and the spare but poetic language of their thoughts. He acknowledges accounts by Australian POWs which gave him ‘information, hints and details for events and moral inspiration for this piece of fiction’. His war descriptions feel true, and ‘moral inspiration’ is probably just. His story shows the disease, violence, cruelty and humiliations of the prison camps testing both individuals and the values of the society which had bred them.
When Vic returns from the war, he eventually re-establishes himself with the family who had brought him up. His stepmother had inherited the family business, soap-making, and taken over its management from her ineffectual husband. Aided by war shortages, she has made it profitable. The instincts which kept Vic the prisoner alive make him, in turn, a successful manipulator of money. His stepfather retires from business into distinction – as a poet whose funeral is attended by academics and young men and women in strange clothes. Vic marries the second daughter, falls out with his hippy son, and as the end of the book (and the crash of ’87) approaches, is engaged in a great financial deal.
Things which cannot be said in the demotic modes which Australian speech promotes (terse obliqueness, comical understatement and facetious exaggeration, for example) can be said in poetry. The distance between the poetic and the prosaic becomes greater as verbal display is suppressed. To find poetry, Malouf has to get inside his characters’ skulls, behind the ‘dunnos’ of people who have, literally, very little to say for themselves.
On the other hand, you stay with Gordon Legge’s young, mainly unemployed Scots for their conversation. Even Archie, who doesn’t talk much, can think in his own words rather than the narrator’s. The action is desultory: a trip to Glasgow and a pub brawl are climaxes. For the most part, the book describes the days of young men without jobs, living at home or in council flats, with enough to eat and drink but held on a short economic leash. They talk about football, music, and themselves. The Mental Kid and Davie, who has a job with a council road gang, have known each other for fifteen years and talked only about football. Richard – who went to college for a bit and is deeply scholarly about the music press of the late Seventies – has ‘his records, his friends, papers, Dostoyevsky and a dream of owning a decent second-hand record shop’. Dostoyevsky is ‘that rarity of rarities: intelligent, a vegan, fun-loving, domesticated ... and a Doberman Pinscher’. The dog’s stream of consciousness is a translation:
While they were in the shop Dostoyevsky had outstared two pensioners, five skinheads, an Alsatian and an Irish wolfhound. He was currently working on two Yorkshire terriers. He imagined them revolving on a spit, greasy and fatty. Just put them in the microwave for five minutes and I’ll clean up the mess.
‘No, you can’t eat them. You’re a vegan.’ said Richard.
‘What did you have for dinner, Dostoyevsky?’ asked Archie.
Baked potatoes. They were okay. They looked like cats’ brains. Made a change from beetroot, though. I’ve ate more beetroot than Poland.
Richard and Archie talk about pop music. For those who know about that the book has an extra dimension. It is used as a cultural shorthand, and is doubtless as useful as middle-culture ones (which deal in Turner sunsets, Kafkaesque situations and so on). Music is also a source of happiness: ‘I played “Slippery People” and “Lady Marmalade” three times each,’ said Archie. ‘The thing that bugs me about listening to my records is that nobody ever sees me when I’m happy, and if they did they wouldn’t understand.’
Archie, age 24, is still a dependent. He gets along well with his parents unless marriage or employment come up. He occasionally goes berserk, for admirable reasons – mad Archie takes over from Mahatma Archie. When this happens he does a lot of damage because he is a fit and dirty fighter. He likes boxing, but not people drinking champagne while they watch skinny kids hit each other. He is entirely in favour of Marvin Hagler. ‘Archie looked at one of his pictures of Marvin Hagler. There was no footballer’s pose, no athlete’s zeal, no rugby lad’s worldliness or Hun’s player’s pose. Hagler looked like the first few seconds of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” come to life.’
The flavour of the book is set by the clever, privately hilarious talk of people beginning to feel the opinions they ride hit their stride; people who have ceased to be the crucible of the hopes, anxieties or ambitions of parents and teachers. Archie’s father thinks in terms of ‘home rather than holidays, relatives rather than friends and work rather than play’. Unemployment cannot serve as a rite of passage into that world. A ‘culture of unemployment’ is a failure of organisation; the ‘culture of the unemployed’ is a different matter. I remember reading a caption in the Museum of Mankind about hunter-gatherers. Getting what food was needed was not time-consuming (although, if my memory serves, it was women’s work), so the men spent a great deal of time gambling and telling stories. Subtract work from our culture and that may be what is left. Legge’s book is funny and sympathetic in the way Bill Forsyth’s films are.
Trying to grow is, on the face of it, and by contrast, foreign not only to readers in this country – its hero Brit Kotwal is a Parsee, living in Bombay – but to the experience of nearly all readers: Brit is so nicknamed because he was born with brittle bones, will never grow much bigger than an eight-year-old, and is confined to a wheelchair. Fictionally, however, it is entirely familiar – or rather, the shape of the plot, the gratifications it offers and the tone of the dialogue are. Amy’s crooked smile is ‘so gorgeous I wanted to kiss it right off her mouth’. ‘You’ll make your fortune writing pulp romances,’ she tells him. Trying to grow takes more than a little of its colour from pulp romance, but from other genres of gratification too: the novel, for example, which describes some wonderful, eccentric family (a touch of Rumer Godden here perhaps). Mother, for all the ‘more than twenty centuries of Persian blood in her veins’, is a mother ‘any little Jewish boy from Brooklyn would have recognised as his very own’. The fondness for nicknames, the nostalgia for the days of the Raj, the English middle-class language of the Thirties preserved like a faded snapshot, give a prettily stilted accent to conversations: what is mockery and what not, whether the heart is in the mouth or the tongue in the cheek, is not always clear. When dreadful things arrive, when Tina the deaf girl runs away or is abducted, when father dies in a traffic accident abroad, it is sad, nothing worse: perhaps because, in Brit’s narrative, physical suffering – 11 fractures before he was five years old, the ‘bone deep fear of pain’ – is handled lightly. The question, ‘Are you sure you are not just putting on a brave face?’ is raised by characters of each other: in the end, the reader also puts on a brave face. There is a lot of teen-movie sex: a lot of silky hair and well-muscled bodies, of male and female prettiness, of giggling about pictures in Playgirl, and of boy getting and losing and getting boy and girl. Brit’s problem in reconciling sexual need with his crippled body is solved when it turns out that pretty bodies are not the only things pretty people find attractive.