Ante Antietam

Michael Irwin

  • Confederates by Thomas Keneally
    Collins, 427 pp, £5.75, October 1980, ISBN 0 00 222141 1
  • Just Above My Head by James Baldwin
    Joseph, 597 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7181 1764 6
  • Winter Doves by David Cook
    Secker, 213 pp, £4.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 436 10673 6
  • All Girls Together by Paula Neuss
    Duckworth, 141 pp, £5.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1454 1

Historical fiction is difficult to write, and often unrewarding to read, because it declines so readily into fictionalised history. Famous men utter quotations, strike familiar postures and reach predestined conclusions. Descriptions of uniforms, weapons and furnishings clog the narrative. The novel becomes a farrago of information.

In choosing to write about the American Civil War Thomas Keneally ran several additional risks. The potential subject-matter is dauntingly multifarious. How could so vast a tragedy be focused and individualised? It was a war that fairly compels the commentator to take sides. Can the novelist do so without telling a one-sided story? Above all, could any outsider – Thomas Keneally is Australian – hope to capture the atmosphere, the emotions, the idiolects of the region and of the period?

Confederates marvellously solves or circumvents all these problems. The author’s ideological sympathies are plainly with the North, but his novel is predominantly concerned with the exploits and sufferings of the Confederates. He neither simplifies nor moralises. He cuts down the scale of his enterprise by concentrating on the summer months of 1862, when the Confederate forces were in the ascendant. The climax of the novel is the battle of the Antietam which, though inconclusive in itself, marked a turning-point in the campaign. The movements of the opposing armies are carefully charted, but the reader is invited to follow, in particular, the progress of a score or so of sufficiently memorable individuals. These separate stories are alternated and juxtaposed with great skill. A British critic isn’t equipped to pass judgment on the aptness of most of the dialogue in the novel, but while I didn’t feel that the occasional Scottish or Irish voice was defined with any great precision, it seemed to me that at the very least the writer had devised a sufficiently serviceable Southern idiom to sustain verisimilitude and even to accommodate, plausibly, occasional flights of eloquence.

Obviously the writing of this novel was preceded by a great deal of research. A number of essential source-books are listed in a brief bibliography. Pages of notes, hundreds of filing-cards, seem to have been fed into the text; facts about food, ammunition, clothes, military tactics, sickness, communications, landscape – the list is endless. Yet somehow these materials don’t obstruct the surface of the narrative but have been assimilated into its very substance. Nor does the narrative itself ever dwindle into documentary: each episode has its proper imaginative life.

Altogether, then, Confederates exhibits a rare combination of range and control. The author’s mode of storytelling seems endlessly adaptable, endlessly readable, endlessly competent. If the novel is open to criticism, it is perhaps on the curious ground that the competence and control are somehow excessive. The story is a little too tidy, a little too even in pace and emphasis. The supple narrative method tends to incapsulate, and so to mollify, the very ugliness and chaos that the author is striving to dramatise.

To suggest a limitation of this kind is to judge the novel by the highest standards. The criticism seems ungrateful, since two of the other novels under review go significantly wrong through lack of the literary control that Thomas Keneally so abundantly exhibits. If one were to judge him simply on the evidence of Just Above My Head, one would have to say that James Baldwin’s talents, though striking, are notably incomplete. He is like an oarsman who powerfully thrashes out a circle because one arm is stronger than the other.

The starting-point of the story is the sudden death of a 39-year-old gospel singer named Arthur Montana. His grief-stricken elder brother, Hall, retraces in recollection the events of the Fifties and Sixties that seem to him directly or indirectly relevant to Arthur’s life and death. These memories involve much of Hall’s own past and the experiences of several close friends, notably Julia, a child-preacher who is raped by her own father, and Julia’s brother Jimmy, who becomes Arthur’s lover.

What James Baldwin does well he does very well. Many scenes, especially those set in the American South, are forcefully dramatic and emotional. Few living novelists can convey so feelingly the taste of love – whether between friends, lovers or relations – and the taste of fear. There is some fine rhetoric in the book: passages of sharp polemic or shrewd social diagnosis. A reader presented with selected fragments of the text could reasonably suspect that the work might be a masterpiece. But read as a whole the novel is frustrating, often irritating. The various sub-plots aren’t adequately related, whether by plot or by theme. The narration is intensely episodic: characters who go off-stage are lost in oblivion. Arthur himself seems to be forgotten through long stretches of reminiscence. Too many important aspects of the story are stated rather than realised. Julia’s preaching is brilliantly demonstrated, but it isn’t easy to believe in her career as a model, or in Hall’s as an advertising man, or – more crucially – in Arthur’s as a singer. Too often the style strains for effect and achieves weak hyperbole, or trite sentimentality. A paragraph that begins, ‘But there was, astoundingly, beautifully, a great deal left of Christmas… ’and ends, ‘there was something inexpressible in it, the fragile moment which lasts forever,’ is not, unfortunately, atypical. Delicate accounts of love reach an unsatisfactory climax of laborious eroticism, whether heterosexual – ‘her hands on me, her mouth against my chest, my nipples, all the hairs of my body itching, tingling, one by one, her mouth against my navel’ – or homosexual: ‘Arthur, with a kind of miraculous understanding, kissed Crunch’s nipples, slid down to kiss his sex, moved up to his lips again.’

How does a good writer come to write so badly? Repeatedly in Just Above My Head there is a sense that James Baldwin is trying too hard, and that he is trying too hard because he has resolved that the problems and sufferings of his characters must stand for the problems and sufferings of all black Americans over the past thirty years. The result is stylistic inflation. It is one thing for Hall to be terrified in Atlanta, quite another for him to be ‘terrified’ when he falls in love, terrified when he is happy, terrified even when opening a Christmas present. It is as though the author’s passionate anxiety to convey certain truths causes him to distrust, and therefore to respect too little, the story that was meant to embody them.

Winter Doves is a most peculiar novel in that it changes direction several times. It begins with an account of an attempted suicide. June, the unhappy woman concerned, is revived, and is temporarily consigned, to a mental hospital. The next stage of the story is seen largely from the point of view of Walter, a middle-aged man who has been in the hospital for 19 years. Walter (the subject of an earlier novel by David Cook) has been emotionally damaged and mentally stunted by childhood sufferings. He speaks rarely and reluctantly, knowing that his voice sounds like ‘a fart in a bath of soapy water’. But he is a complete human being, fully capable of thought and feeling. June is attracted by his gentleness and passivity. A strange alliance develops between them, which turns into love – on Walter’s side, an intense and helpless love. At the instigation of June, who is a capable, intelligent woman, they escape from the hospital and head for London together. This section of the novel is related with extraordinary vividness, understanding and tact: it promises great things.

But when the couple reach London the intense, intimate mode of narration is abandoned in favour of a facile brand of satire. There is a good deal of emphasis on the fact that this is Jubilee year, and that London is, or has been, ‘the hub of Empire’. The couple make an Orwellian tour of the services available to the destitute. Policemen are brutal, the Samaritans inadequate, some nuns kind. All this is well enough, but it has almost nothing to do with the absorbing personal story that has gone before. The narrative does eventually double back to Walter, but far too late. David Cook’s novel is in part original and memorable, but it is broken-backed.

Paula Neuss tackles with unobtrusive skill the difficult task of writing a short novel about life at a boarding school. The thirty-odd pupils and teachers named in a preliminary cast-list are neatly placed and related, and represent a fair range of temperaments and interests. The story is in outline a simple one: the heroine, Hetty Slater, goes through a period of bewilderment and unhappiness when an officious mistress forbids her the company of her best friend. But the author finds ample opportunity to revive lapsed memories of an enclosing world, to evoke the sights and sounds of school life. The narrative voice is agreeable: shrewd and amusing, yet sympathetic. The only serious flaw in the novel is a rather contrived and unconvincing conclusion. All Girls Together is a small undertaking gracefully accomplished.