Looking back

John Sutherland

  • Metroland by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 176 pp, £4.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 224 01762 4
  • The Bleeding Heart by Marilyn French
    Deutsch, 412 pp, £6.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 233 97234 X
  • Creator by Jeremy Leven
    Hutchinson, 544 pp, £6.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 09 141250 1

The Victorian practice of antedating is enjoying a revival with contemporary English novelists. Every so often, it would seem, fiction becomes broody, retrospective, and responsive to Kierkegaard’s maxim that life is lived forwards but understood backwards. Different novelists, however, look back in different moods and at different primal events and seedtimes. For William Golding (Darkness Visible) the focus was the Blitz and the Second World War, which secreted the modern age’s poison as a bee secretes honey. In Angus Wilson’s latest work (Setting the World on Fire) the narrative hinges on the crucial Suez-Hungary year, 1956-57. Malcolm Bradbury – though he as yet has written no novel on the theme – has expounded at length his agreement that 1956 is the year in which Trillingesque liberal humanism went under to the new barbarism. A.S. Byatt (The Virgin in the Garden) found a slightly earlier epicentre in the Coronation year, 1953. David Lodge’s new novel (How far can you go?) charts Catholic perplexity in the face of the permissive Sixties, Humanae Vitae and the abolition of National Service.

Julian Barnes’s very much à la mode Metroland is divided into three sections: I Metroland (1963), II Paris (1968), III Metroland (1977). Current fashions apart, the narrative circuit is familiar from Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying: both novels record a young Englishman’s failure to escape the gravitational pull of bourgeois mores. Barnes’s hero vainly attempts to come up for air, but his handicaps are too great. He is suburban, English and non-Jewish – and anyway his heart isn’t in it. He finally, mellowly, accepts his destiny: j’habite Metroland.

Metroland is itself a symbol of England’s failed leap into Europe. An old stager whiles away the commuter’s tedium by instructing Barnes’s hero on the Metropolitan line’s grand design:

Fifty miles from Verney Junction to Baker Street; what a line. Can you imagine – they were planning to join up with Northampton and Birmingham. Have a great link through from Yorkshire and Lancashire, through Quainton Road, through London, joining up with the old South Eastern, then through a Channel Tunnel to the Continent. What a line.

Metroland never made it. It became a dormitory: ‘you lived there because it was an area easy to get out of.’ Neither does young Christopher make it. He goes to Paris in 1968, but he misses the events; he and they didn’t seem made for each other. Christopher also fails in his liaison with his exciting French partner, Annick, and lapses into marriage with the sensible English girl Marion. And, in the last significant episode of the novel, a Metrolander once more, he doesn’t commit adultery:

  ‘OK then?’ she suddenly said.

  ‘OK what?’ I replied. She looked at me for a few seconds, then said, in a threateningly sober tone, ‘OK so we go and fuck?’ (How old was she, for Christ’s sake: twenty? twenty-one?)

  ‘Oh well, I don’t know about that.’ I answered.

At the beginning, in company with his alter ego Toni (whose genuine otherness becomes manifest as the novel progresses – he is non-English and Jewish), Christopher is seen diligently ‘épating’ the bourgeoisie in Oxford Street. At the end, he is what he once affronted: stuffy, English and indomitably decent.

The passages of Metroland which come off best are those concerned with Metroland itself, the place where – in Larkin’s phrase the hero’s (and author’s) childhood was unspent. This ‘topographical’ autobiography, as Barnes has called it, inspires the novel’s central poésie de non-départ. Scene-setting is the strongest part of the novel. The plot of Metroland, what there is of it, is reminiscent of Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers: virginity lost amid cool, egotistic wisecracking. But Barnes’s hero is nicer and his tone more humane than Amis’s. And the verdict on the Sixties is, if somewhat half-hearted, a tolerant one:

  ‘It’s really not a bad time to be, comment le dire, young.’

  ‘Nnnaa?’

  ‘Well, no war. No National Service. More women around than men. No secret police. Getting away with books like Lady C. Not bad.’

Barnes’s modest analysis of the not-badness of England is in stark contrast to Marilyn French’s blockbuster, The Bleeding Heart. This is a truly international book: originated transatlantically (where it earned a near-record $1.9 m. in subsidiary-rights sales), it is printed for André Deutsch in Singapore and chronicles an affair, in England, between two Americans. The heroine is Dr Dolores Durer, a university teacher in her forties. Marilyn French was, before The Woman’s Room, a university teacher and is in her forties. But French’s specialism was James Joyce, whereas Durer’s is Renaissance literature, so there’s no question of The Bleeding Heart’s being autobiographical.

The opening of the novel finds Dolores on sabbatical leave, travelling between the British Library and the Bodleian. She catches the eye of Victor on the train, he follows her to her pied-à-terre in Oxford and they make love before knowing each others’ names. The straight-from-the-hip sex is clearly taken from Last Tango and, as in Bertolucci’s film, it establishes the primacy of the biological over the social in human relationships. Thereafter, French’s novel unfolds the background of two unhappy marriages against the lovers’ brief encounter, finishing on the eve of their return to America and inevitable separation.

French affects a stream of raised consciousness style, which makes all the predictable points about sexual politics with due portentousness. Dolores is ‘researching’ a book (Lot’s Wife: A Study of the Identification of Women with Suffering) whose theme is borne out by her own professional experience, a victimised woman in a man’s world:

What was it with men, that they could switch feeling off and on ... They have compartments for things. Work. Buddies. Women. Sports. And they could act different in each room. Whereas she had only one room. She was the same whatever she did. She was popular with students because she was a person with them, not a disembodied ‘teacher’, an Authority. Her books had been called humane, which in her field, and because she was a woman, meant that they were taken less seriously than books one could never suspect of harbouring such a quality.

For all Dolores’s humane sexual superiority, The Bleeding Heart offers much of what Graham Greene once called the tough talking of the netball team. And it adopts the familiarly angry anti-patriarchal posture of enlightened, emancipated womanhood. Her son Tony ‘learned early to obey Father, and Father stands behind him now, Father Commandant, Father-superior, Father-in-Heaven, ordering him to do it, to do it, to place the electrodes on the woman’s vulva, and he does, and the switch is pulled and the woman shrieks and passes out, there is a terrible smell of burning flesh and the father says good.’ There was a time, in the early Seventies, when the ‘woman’s novel’ had a part to play. But, as is the fate of all Tendenz Romanen, there has come a later time when the movement’s needs are too urgent, its aims too articulate, for mere fiction. If she wants to engage with feminist issues, Ms French will have to employ the straight talk of nonfiction. But then she won’t get her two million dollars.

Hutchinson have laid the ground for Jeremy Leven’s Creator with a series of teasing advertisements stating: ‘Harry Wolper has kept his wife in a jar for 30 years.’ Creator is a zany book with two main narrative threads. The ostensible hero is a biologist and Nobel Prize-winner, Harry Wolper, who is determined to clone his long-dead wife. He has preserved her body tissues for the purpose. Wolper is also writing a novel whose hero, Boris Lafkin, gradually comes to life, arguing with his creator, demanding that his wife (who is undergoing the same cerebral haemorrhage that killed Harry’s Lucy) be spared. Finally it emerges that Boris is the author, and Harry Wolper the fictional creation. The narrative dissolves on the last page into what it was all the time running away from – ‘another fucking Jewish novel’.

Creator has a surplus of everything. Too many tricks, too many jokes, too many Jamesian critical parables, too much solidity of specification (whole pages of biological mumbo jumbo), and it’s too long. But it’s very funny.