Flowering and Fading

Michael Irwin

  • Wrinkles by Charles Simmons
    Alison Press/Secker, 182 pp, £4.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 436 46490 X
  • Devotion by Botho Strauss, translated by Sophie Wilkins
    Chatto, 120 pp, £5.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2421 0
  • The Followed Man by Thomas Williams
    Sidgwick, 352 pp, £5.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 399 90025 X
  • Reverse Negative by André Jute
    Secker, 264 pp, £5.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 436 22980 3

Two of the novels under review consist of a series of fragments that the reader is tacitly invited to relate. This elliptical mode carries certain obvious advantages: it makes for tautness; it does away with irksome problems of exposition, verisimilitude and consistency. The reader is likely to be particularly alert, apprehensive lest he miss the point: it could be that something deucedly sophisticated is going on. But there are risks. The attentive reader will want an adequate recompense for his attentiveness. The white gap that follows each fragment is a space within which its significance will reverberate: an elliptical novel can subside dolefully into a series of flat notes.

Of the two, Wrinkles is the more original and interesting. It consists of forty-odd biographical sketches, each about three pages in length, of an unnamed middle-aged man. Each moves from childhood through maturity to old age, beginning in the past tense as a record of fact and ending in the future tense as projection or speculation. Each deals with a single aspect of his personality: his sleeping habits, say, or his attitudes to clothes or drink. It is a surprisingly fruitful formula. The author is enabled to recall trivial experiences, emotions and sensations that are beneath the dignity or beyond the scope of most novels. There is much in the book that is unexpected, yet arrestingly familiar. Within each sketch the headlong pace and abrupt transitions seem curiously apt, perhaps because they reflect the foreshortening processes of memory. The effect is reminiscent of one of those speeded-up nature films that shows within a minute the growth, flowering and fading of a plant, Mr Simmons collects many unusual crumbs of truth and tellingly questions conventional ideas as to what is ‘significant’ in a human life.

I couldn’t feel, however, that Wrinkles added up to much more than the sum total of its parts. The various fragments are linked by a certain amount of cross-reference and by a number of cunning echoes: but the novel was presumably intended to achieve a good deal more in the way of cumulative effect. The sketches might have worked stereoscopically, displaying a career, a personality, a temperament, in sharp relief. Somehow this does not happen. There is a methodological austerity that deprives the hero of life and colour. In the absence of dialogue he has no voice. The prose is too detached, too antiseptic, too remote from humour or passion. The wrinkles are adroitly pencilled in, but there seems to be no face beneath them.

Devotion purports to consist largely of a series of notes set down by a Berliner named Richard Schroubeck, who is distraught because Hannah, his lover, has left him. The notes are intended ‘to lure her back’, ‘to bridge over a dangerous interruption of our dialogue’. When he does eventually meet her once more he thrusts the manuscript at her, saying that it is all he knows of himself: ‘Whatever went through my head – when you weren’t with me!’ It might be expected that these jottings would convey something of the character of their author, some sense of the love affair that has lapsed. Such is not the case. Richard, Hannah and their relationship remain relentlessly unimaginable. The fragments are mostly impersonal reflections on love and loss. Usually they are brief – some no more than a single sentence. Only a few are thought-provoking: more are pretentious, opaque or dull.

Which glass would you rather have, she asks me, the red or the green? ... I can hear her quite close and distinctly, it’s barely tolerable ... What a godlike gift – a free choice between the red and the green glass!

It becomes clear, in time, that the author has only a minimal interest in characters and situation. Devotion is rather, I take it, an exploration of the ways in which passion or grief can imperceptibly be resolved into aesthetic energies. But it’s a desperately theoretical undertaking. The reader striving to relate the fragments, to join up the dots, finds himself meagrely rewarded with an abstract design.

In The Followed Man Thomas Williams does, as part of his enterprise, tell a complete, even a lavish story. Luke Carr, a writer, whose wife and children have recently died in an air crash, is summoned to New York to prepare a magazine article about a building disaster that has killed 20 people. He is harassed by anonymous letters accusing him of murdering his wife and threatening him with death. Sickened by his assignment, and by the violence of the city, he retires to the mountains of New Hampshire, to a remote estate, left him by an uncle, where he proceeds to build a log cabin as a retreat.

Thus far, the workings of the narrative seem clear and perhaps over-familiar. New York epitomises the destructive excesses of industrial society. One particularly powerful image recurs: ‘He saw that all the noise, the brutal energy expended here, was being expended on impermanence, on process, and he thought of a hive of wasps in late summer, when the queen goes mad or dies, and the workers build insanely, without plan, while the centre rots and the hive itself grows outward in grandiose but useless bulges and tumours.’ Luke flies from this frenzy to the peace of nature and the dignity of solitary, purposeful physical labour. The story begins to read dangerously like a fortissimo Howards End. For a space, I wondered whether there was only unintended irony in the fact that the hero, on his lonely estate, makes copious, if controlled, use of the products of technology, arming himself with tools, a truck, and an assortment of guns, assailing his trees with a chainsaw. But Thomas Williams knows exactly what he is about: he pushes his novel through a neat thematic somersault. Luke Carr cannot escape from the violence of the town because, like all men, he carries it with him, an inseparable aspect of his physical and sexual energies and of his need to love and be loved. For all his efforts to isolate himself, he is soon embroiled in further disputes, quarrels, treacheries. His case is not particular. The country people he meets, whose lives at first seem settled and serene, prove on further acquaintance to have been implicated in conflicts as painful as those he himself suffers.

The Followed Man is an ingenious composition, in that it is constructed as a system of parallels or reflections. The crimes and cruelties and maimed emotions Luke encounters, including those of his phantom pursuer, are all potential in his own character and situation, even though he is, by any reckoning, a decent and kindly man. The message is that the monstrosities of the modern city are inherent in man’s very make-up. It is both a weakness and a strength of the novel that this lugubrious view is not made sufficiently persuasive. The evidence provided is glum enough, and seems to offer a choice only between the Tower of Babel in town and Cold Comfort Farm in the country. But the view of life implied by the sympathetic presentation of character and by the sensuous vigour of the style is altogether more eupeptic. It’s impossible to believe that the author is really as depressed as his theoretical scheme suggests that we all should be.

The theoretical scheme is also at odds with the direct energies of the story-telling. As the emphasis falls increasingly upon pattern, it becomes less and less easy to believe that Luke Carr was ever married, or that he ever had a job. By the time he identifies his pursuer the interest involved in the discovery is purely thematic: the plot has come to seem too obviously a means to an end. This is a pity, in that Thomas Williams is plainly gifted enough to have it both ways: story and meaning could have been one.

After these intensities it’s enlivening to turn to a secret service story. Reverse Negative begins with a cracking good idea: Kim Philby, in Moscow, plots a fake death, which will precipitate the publication of a collection of secret documents that he has lodged in safe hands abroad as an insurance policy against assassination. Since the documents will incriminate people in high places there will be an international rush to intercept and suppress them. The plan is put into operation and the contest begins. André Jute divides the narrative between ‘syntheses’ relating the doings of the various secret services (these are allegedly ‘probability mock-ups’ generated by computer) and the diary entries of Steven Haldane, a Cambridge don who gets accidentally caught up in the intrigue. For half its length the book is a good read. Haldane, an emeritus professor of history, drives a fast car, beds his bird and beards the Russian agents in their den with a verve that should do something to raise the sagging morale of the academic profession. The action is fast and furious. But eventually there is too much action – in fact, too much of everything, too much plot, too much killing, too many secret services. Reverse Negative is a multiplicatio ad absurdum. It crosses that critical line beyond which one not only ceases to understand quite what is happening but ceases to care. Eventually the author falls back on the desperate excuse that the whole business is rather a muddle because secret service work, by its very nature, tends towards muddle. This is small comfort to the reader, by now baffled and mildly bored.