Graham Hough writes about the faithful, and the frightful

  • How far can you go? by David Lodge
    Secker, 244 pp, £5.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 436 25661 4
  • Life before Man by Margaret Atwood
    Cape, 317 pp, £5.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 224 01782 9
  • Desirable Residence by Lettice Cooper
    Gollancz, 191 pp, £5.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 575 02787 8
  • A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
    Harvester, 110 pp, £6.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 85527 328 3

A week or two ago I reviewed a novel about rock-climbers. A very absorbing tale it was too, but specialised; and one was bound to say that to a reader wholly without interest in the technicalities of the sport it might well fall flat. How far can you go? is a novel about Catholics. There are more Catholics than rock-climbers, but even so their concerns are special ones, and it would seem on the face of it that the same limitations must apply. For David Lodge is writing about Catholics as Catholics, about their particular dilemmas, their casuistical puzzles, the blind alleys that modern Catholic prescriptions lead them into, about their various ways out, and finally about the astonishingly sudden and almost total dissolution of the moral and theological structure on which their lives have been founded. The subject is a large one, but the treatment is not solemn. The tone is that of serious comedy, with occasional glimpses into black holes. We are not in Greeneland, among lugubrious and spectacular adulteries, sacrilegious communions and whisky priests; we are not in Waugh territory, gaping at the raffish pieties of the aristocracy; we are in middle middle-class Catholic England, where sin is an obsession, and sin mostly means sex. So the book is mainly about what happens to the sex life under these particular constraints, the obstacles to its expression, the contortions to which it is subjected. This is done with candour and in detail – a bit too much candour and detail for my antiquated taste – but it is neither flip not clinical, and is always set against a formidable dogmatic background. This means that the ever-interesting topic, besides its intrinsic interest, serves as the index and symbol of a host of other attitudes and relations.

We start in the year 1952 with nine young people, students at a college of London University, who meet regularly, at great inconvenience to themselves, for an eight o’clock weekday mass. This is beyond the call of duty, even for the New Testament Study Group of which they are members, and there are some mixed motives at work. But all by their Catholic upbringing and education share a common world-view, which David Lodge carefully explains, as though they were Trobriand Islanders, assuming perhaps rightly that it will be unfamiliar to most of his readership today. It is a game of eschatological snakes and ladders, of which the object is to get to Heaven and avoid Hell. Sins, mortal or venial, are snakes and plunge you down towards the pit. Good deeds, acts of devotion, the sacraments, are ladders, enabling you to climb back towards the light. These and related matters – contrition, Purgatory, indulgences, the Scylla and Charybdis of presumption and despair – are carefully expounded. Do the young people believe all this? They do and they don’t. They don’t believe it with the certainty of their final examination in three years’ time, but their whole lives are coloured and conditioned by it: they would certainly not think it safe not to believe it. And they are related to it in different degrees. Angela, the good ‘lovely’ girl, has never doubted or questioned. Dennis comes to mass because he cannot bear to let Angela out of his sight. Michael comes but never takes communion; he believes himself to be in a state of mortal sin because he masturbates. Miles is a recent convert and enjoys the ritual, which the born Catholics never think about.

In Chapter One they are all virgins. In Chapter Two most of them cease to be, in one way or another, and the chronicle goes on to their entrance into adult life, marriage, parenthood and professions. Dennis marries his Angela; others marry outside the group, either within the Church or outside it, bringing their infidel partners into the fold or being drawn outside themselves. For the rest of the Fifties their lives are dominated by the torrent of babies, the attempts to control the size of their families by the ‘rhythm method’. As he has done before, David Lodge extracts a bitter comedy from the failures and deceptions of this grotesque device. Political events are noted – CND, Suez, Hungary: but these contemporary shocks affect the little group less vividly than the rapidly growing gulf between their faith and the world they live in. Then, some time in the Sixties, Hell disappeared, nobody quite knew how. This made things look very different. It should have made them easier – except that hard on its heels came the Pope’s encyclical on birth control, declaring that no change was possible. But the water was already pressing against the dykes; there was in fact an immense change, in Catholic habits of feeling, in the advice given by confessors, in the practice of the surviving faithful. They began to follow the devices and desires of their own hearts, without realising that by so doing they were undermining the whole authoritarian structure of the Church.

The next chapter is ingeniously titled ‘How they broke out, away, down, up, through, etc’. Severally they do all these things and it is here that the most uninhibited comedy is to be found. The high point is the career of Ruth, the plain, solid girl who became a nun. Even she gets restless, and is sent by her order to America, where for a spell she pursues her vocation among encounter groups, rock masses, charismatic prayer meetings and all the Southern Californian varieties of religious experience.

They are all getting older now; they have to deal with the complexities of love and death, without the untransgressable guide-lines that once had told them what to do. Angela remains good and lovely, but her marriage to Dennis is only fairly satisfying, and she is dealt two cruel blows: one of her children is a mental defective; another is killed by a car. How much of her faith in a loving God survives a look into these black holes never becomes quite clear. Others of the group become New Catholics and make various adjustments towards the present age. One slips away altogether into the trendy mid-Seventies. None of the old fixities remain. The tale ends with the accession of a new Pope: a Pole, a poet, a philosopher; unlike most of his predecessors, but theologically determined to assert that change has gone far enough.

This is a fine novel – alive, intelligent, witty and humane. It is invigorating too: it shows a group of unexceptional denizens of these islands, in our own time, who are still capable of human autonomy, of making decisions about the conduct of their lives, of a decent respect for the lives of others. They are like a number of the people we meet every day – but hardly ever in current fiction. The sectarian limitations that seem to loom large at the beginning in fact do not operate at all. This group of Catholics, at first insulated by their faith, go on to experience, in a distilled and concentrated form, within the space of 25 years, the vast transformation that has been happening to our whole civilisation for the last century: the erosion of a non-humanist supernatural authority and its replacement by the pleasure principle – not as an illicit indulgence, but as the proper spring of action. How far this is an improvement David Lodge does not profess to know.

It is not clear what the title of Margaret Atwood’s Life Before Man is meant to imply, but here we are back with the zombies and automatons of modern fiction. In her earlier novel Surfacing, the setting in the northern Canadian wilds is of some interest, but the characters, presented at the start as more or less civilised beings, hardly rise to the human level. They behave throughout with a brutish callousness which everyone, including the author, seems to regard as pretty normal. In Life Before Man we are in Toronto, a locale which the reader will find as unexhilarating as the characters do. The three central figures lie, cheat and betray each other with a dull pertinacity, and have apparently never heard of any other way of going on. They are on the fringe of the professional class; the two women Lesje and Elizabeth work in a museum and the man Nate (if man he is to be called) was once a lawyer and gave it up to be a toymaker. Elizabeth has sunk into apathy since the death of her most recent lover. Nate her husband compensates by drifting into other affairs, which soon get out of hand. He drifts into one with Lesje and ultimately manages to worm his way out of his own house into hers. Such is this simple tale. Lesje works in the palaeontology department of the museum, and she is obsessed with dinosaurs. This is supposed to confer on her some sort of distinction, but she remains a skeletal contraption, draped only in a few bursts of creative writing. We are told that Margaret Atwood is a poet, much adorned with fellowships and awards. If she could overcome an addiction to the historic present she might lay claim to a considerable straight-forward descriptive skill. But this is wasted here on a chronicle of mere behaviour, unmitigated by any of the specifically human attributes of will or mind.

Lettice Cooper writes a kind of novel that one would expect to be frequent and is actually rather rare. It tells a story indeed, but depends for its effect on honest, unideological genre-painting of life as it is lived, here and now. Tracts, fantasies and dirty jokes are common enough now, but even a small measure of the Trollopean virtues is hard to find. Why do we want them? The pleasure of recognition, no doubt; but something more – the satisfaction of seeing one’s own hazy observations brought into sharper focus. Lettice Cooper does this, with judgment and sympathy, and a great deal of accurate knowledge of how the current machinery of life is working. The Desirable Residence of her title is a house in Hampstead, divided into flats. The bottom flat falls vacant and squatters move in. A pair of hapless pathetic little squatters at first, but they are soon taken over by a thuggish criminal trio. The impact of these events on the life of the house is the subject of the tale. The top flat belongs to an old lady, long retired from her job and on her last lap. She is not a sibyl or a sage, but she is the presiding intelligence, the Mrs Moore of the story. The middle flat is inhabited by a family – father in advertising, mother in a social work job and in love with her boss, Tamsine the bouncy 15-year-old daughter, full to the brim with comprehensive leftiness, and Simon the limp student son, about to leave his teacher-training course to go and live in a quasi-religious community. Tamsine is an ardent supporter of the squatters and wades in with help and advice. Simon feels he ought to do the same, but is quite incapable of doing anything of use. The criminal element becomes more threatening; and around this situation a family drama is played out, ending with a brief burst of near-fatal violence. The characters are types, but we recognise them as types from life rather than from previous fiction, and within the outlines there is much individual drawing. Equal justice is done to all classes. No one is regenerated, or profoundly altered, or even comes out particularly well; but there is good sense and good feeling about, and we are left to suppose that they might sometime begin to work.

By a strange synchronistic phenomenon J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country is like Paul Bailey’s latest novel, a short admirably written story about two survivors from World War One. But they are not old soldiers: it is set in the summer of 1920. Birkin, who tells his own tale, has been hired to uncover and restore a putative medieval wall-painting in a church in Yorkshire. He is still raw from the horrors of the Western Front, still uncertain whether he will ever be a whole man again. He is a southerner, a foreigner; he knows no one, and is glad to team up with the other survivor, an archaeologist (with his own history of suffering and ignominy behind him) who is in search of a lost grave. Both without knowing it are in search of a continuity with the English past. The painting is there all right: it turns out to be a stunningly good one, and the joy of recovering it does much to restore Birkin’s lost sense of life. The natives prove friendly: he is half adopted by a hospitable family – chapel, not church. The vicar is grudging and unhelpful, but his wife is sympathetic and spends much time watching the work. She is also beautiful, and Birkin falls in love with her. But it is 1920: she is the vicar’s wife, and he is in the midst of an unhappy marriage already. So Birkin finishes his job and goes away. There is a strong temptation to call this an idyll, and the temptation need not be resisted, for so it is, in the true sense of the word. But this should not suggest any sort of cloudy poeticism. The writing is energetically colloquial, well salted with specific detail. Totally unsentimental, but although so clearly observed, it is all seen from a distance. Half a lifetime has passed since 1920, and the brief episode is preserved undimmed and unaltered, needing no other pathos than that of the past. Slight but beautifully done, this book has a quality of its own that will not be easily forgotten.