Pseud’s Corner

John Sutherland

  • Duffy by Dan Kavanagh
    Cape, 181 pp, £4.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 224 01822 1
  • Moscow Gold by John Salisbury
    Futura, 320 pp, £1.10, March 1980, ISBN 0 7088 1702 5
  • The Middle Ground by Margaret Drabble
    Weidenfeld, 248 pp, £5.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 297 77808 0
  • The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
    Heinemann, 292 pp, £6.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 434 33520 7

Every publication is required, by law I believe, to carry the printer’s name. No such rigorous obligation attaches to statements of authorship. It is a licence that fiction, in particular, has richly exploited. Ever since its rise the novel has flirted with authorial anonymity and pseudonymity. Great unknowns, pen names and spoof attributions figure centrally in the genre’s history, from Scott, to George Eliot, to Kilgore Trout.

According to the massive, nine-volume Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature there are, largely speaking, only three reasons for masked authorship, all prudential: ‘Generally the motive is some form of timidity, such as (a) fear of consequence, (b) diffidence, (c) shame.’ Two of the novels under review here, and modern fiction practice as a whole, contradict or complicate this generalisation. One can identify at least a dozen recent motives, other than inhibition, for pseudonymy among novelists, some not as easily abbreviated as the Dictionary’s. Was it fear, diffidence or shame, for instance, that made Eric Blair rechristen himself at the start of his career? As Christopher Hollis tells us: ‘The reasons he gave for changing his name are oddly unconvincing. He complained that Blair was a Scots name and that he disliked Scotland because of its association with the deer forests about which his rich schoolfellows used to boast at his private school ... But he did not dislike Scotland sufficiently to stop him going to live there at the end of his life.’ Thirty years after his death (the Scottish climate helped kill him), one is free to conjecture, and it seems likely that Orwell needed some symbolic manumission in order to emancipate his writing self. One notes, in support of this, the prominence in the novels of heroes like Gordon Comstock who break with their stultifying families. And it is interesting, in the light of the works reviewed here, that Patricia Highsmith also seems to have been one of those who felt the need to rename herself before going on to make a name for herself as a novelist.

With George Eliot – the most famous nom de plume in English fiction – it was not just a case of breaking with family but of entering a man’s domain on equal terms. So, too, with the slightly more ambiguously gendered Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. As in surgery, literary sex change is an ugly operation and female chauvinists must rejoice to see a complete turn of the wheel in those areas of fiction where the practice is still necessary. When the Texan six-footer Tom Huff wished to make it big with a ‘bodice-ripper’ (currently the best-selling genre in America), he was obliged to change his name to the outrageously feminine Jennifer Wilde. Love’s Tender Fury made him/her a millionaire, but also something of a laughing-stock in the book trade. Given the present economics of fiction and the dominance of the woman reader, the tide of trans-sexual pseudonymy is now running strongly from male to female. (But to succeed in the small and still male-dominated enclave of SF, the talented woman who writes as James Tiptree Jr was obliged to keep her femininity a close secret.)

In the 20th century, genre, or ‘category’, fiction has often enforced pseudonymy for the commercial reason that the author’s name must chime harmoniously with the product. Thus, in the modern Western (a genre in which, hilariously, British authors lead the world), Terry Harknett writes under the buckskin-evoking pseudonyms of George G. Gilman, Charles R. Pike, Thomas H. Stone. Like his compatriots ‘John G. MeLaglen’ and J.T. Edson, Harknett has ‘appreciation societies’ devoted to his pseudonymous personae. (‘J.T.’, incidentally, the biggest seller of them all, claims his name is genuine. It’s a happy accident.)

Multiple pseudonymy as a device of popular fiction equips the energetic author with a useful facility for writing more than the market would bear from any one name. In ‘straight’ fiction one can cite Anthony Burgess as someone who has borrowed this downmarket technique. In the famously productive year of his death sentence – having been misinformed that he had a terminal illness, and wishing to provide for his family – Burgess was driven to the expedient of writing as ‘Joseph Kell’ (by association with the Book of Kells, I have always assumed). Reprieved, Burgess as Burgess mischievously reviewed a production of Burgess as Kell. Doubtless if the annals of pseudonymy were opened up one would find many such frolics.

As well as permitting him/her to saturate the market, pseudonymy has the other practical benefit of allowing the versatile writer to pinpoint on separate targets without confusion of brand names. Thus, as was recently divulged, Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy and Philippa Carr are all best-selling partitions of the same author, each catering to different preferences in the general area of women’s historical romance. In the opposite way, genre fiction can employ pseudonymy to combine under one authorial label a team of hacks. Famous examples are the Sexton Blake factory and the Ellery Queen partnership.

Pseudonymy, all this is to say, creates freedoms from the cramp of single author, single style, single personality conventions. When one thinks about it abstractly, the surprise is that ‘respectable’ novelists haven’t used its facilities more, if only to divest themselves of oppressive respectability. Some instances of slumming can, of course, be furnished: C. Day Lewis was free to write detective fiction under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake and so not soil the reputation of the serious poet.

Pseudonymy is essentially a disguise, a device for throwing readers off the scent. For absolute security’s sake the choice of assumed name should be arbitrary and inscrutable. In some cases, there may be the good reason that the author has something important to lose if he’s recognised. Patrick Mann’s novels (Steal Big, Dog Day Afternoon) carry the front-cover information that ‘Patrick Mann is the pseudonym of a former US Army Intelligence agent who has for many years been a crime reporter for a nationwide American newspaper syndicate. He has worldwide contacts in the underworld and with law enforcement authorities.’ ‘Mann’, if one is to judge by his fictions, fears nothing less than assassination if his true identity emerges. (In Steal Big the hero Max Patrick – NB ‘Patrick’ – is at risk from both the CIA and the Mafia.) It may well be a sales gimmick, but taking the blurb at face value one assumes ‘Patrick Mann’ gives nothing away to the author’s dangerous ‘contacts’.

Yet one of the psychological curiosities of the practice is the way in which authors, with lives less at risk than Mann’s may be, embed tell-tale clues in their pseudonyms – almost as if they wanted to leave a faint scent for the very clever hunter, the reader of readers. Trevanian, for instance, is the nom de plume of a Canadian Eng Lit academic who writes superselling spy thrillers (The Eiger Sanction is the best-known): here a sense of professional shame, diffidence and fear may have inspired the adoption of a pseudonym. Erich Segal, lecturer in Classics, was horribly tormented at Yale, apparently, for writing Love Story in propria persona. Yet Trevanian dates one of his thrillers from a university in England where he was a visiting professor and his name is, reportedly, an anagram. It would not, therefore, be too hard to track him down.

Many such giveaways can be found in pseudonymous fiction. The ingenuous Brontës, for instance, faithfully retained their true initials while obfuscating their sex and identity. Harry Patterson (‘Jack Higgins’) and Brian Garfield (‘Brian Wynne’) have adopted surnames which were, apparently, those of their mothers before they married. In one of the pseudonymously offered novels under review, Julian Barnes writes as ‘Dan Kavanagh’, having recently married Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent, who is the dedicatee of Duffy.

Harder to crack is the pseudonymous code of Michael Crichton, the omnicompetent ‘movelist’. (He is author of The Andromeda Strain, director and producer of Coma, director and scriptwriter of Westworld.) Crichton stands six feet seven inches tall. Two of his writing pseudonyms are ‘John Lange’ and ‘Jeffery Hudson.’ Long John is transparent enough, but Jeffery Hudson was a dwarf, once served up in a pie to Charles I. Sly, narcissistic self-portraiture of this kind has a long tradition. Thackeray wrote fiction under the pseudonym Michaelangelo Titmarsh, not just because he was a Cockney, a book illustrator and an ironist, but because, like the great artist, he had a splendidly broken nose.

Investigation of the hotel registers at Brighton might possibly reveal that most people disguising themselves under assumed names really crave discovery by private detectives or aggrieved spouses. But I suspect that penetrable pseudonyms are a reflex of authorship. If the trade maxim is ‘never part with a copyright’, the psychic rule is ‘never repudiate a creation.’ In the games of pseudonymy you perceive an instinctive disinclination not to lose what has been laboriously made by completely disowning it. Some cord, however thin and however subterranean, must be retained.

This leads me to one of the most paradoxical and revealing habits of pseudonymy, that of the openly duplicitous author. When Kingsley Amis continued the Bond series in 1968 with Colonel Sun, there was no secret made about the fact. Nonetheless Amis wrote under the pseudonym ‘Robert Markham’. Presumably this indicates some sort of functional schizophrenia, a way of not being Amis while writing a very un-Amis-like book, yet at the same time receiving royalties into the Amis bank account. (Fleming, of course, was the biggest earner ever in British fiction and someone wearing his mantle and affecting his style could expect to do very well in the way of royalties. Not that Amis’s motives can have been merely mercenary: he had long declared himself a devotee of the Bond books.)

The author of Moscow Gold, ‘John Salisbury’, is in propria persona David Caute, present literary editor of the New Statesman. I don’t give anything away here, since the fact was divulged, with much nudging and winking, in the ‘Londoner’s Diary’ column of the Evening Standard – where the marriage of Barnes and Kavanagh was also cited – together with the estimate that the Futura paperback original would earn Caute/Salisbury some £30,000. Caute doubtless had 30,000 good reasons for writing Moscow Gold. But it makes an interesting pendant to his ‘serious’ writing and to his career generally. This is how he is described in the latest handbook to fiction, Novels and Novelists (1980):

CAUTE. David (1936), English novelist, historian, dramatist and Marxist, who writes as a ‘committed’ novelist of ideas. One would therefore think that he might he an arid and didactic bore. Sometimes he is.

And in the trade press recently, Caute has been accused of being too highbrow and too political in his choice of books for review in the New Statesman. He is also accused of having something of a prejudice against fiction.

John Salisbury is the author of a previous novel, The Baby Sitters, published by Secker and Warburg in 1978. (It was, Futura inform us, ‘an enormous best-seller’.) The hero of both works is Bill Ellison. ‘Fleet Street’s most highly paid investigative reporter and head of the Sunday Monitor’s Searchlight team.’ The reader adept in roman à clef disguises and prevarications will have no difficulty in making the necessary connection with the Sunday Times and ‘Insight’. (The Monitor, we are told, has a clear lead over its rival the Sunday Dispatch with 1.5 m as against 9 m circulation. The Dispatch has a feeble imitation of the pioneering ‘Searchlight’ team.) Having created his hero, Caute now finds himself working under Bruce Page, editor of the New Statesman and former stalwart of ‘Insight’.

Caute’s pseudonymous novels are a cunning medley of current best-selling gimmicks and styles. As with Forsyth, they present themselves as ‘secret histories’ and feature ‘real-life’ characters who know more about behind-the-scenes goings on than can be publicly disclosed. Philby makes an appearance in The Baby Sitters and a thinly disguised Philip Agee in Moscow Gold. Both put Ellison onto important leads. As with the Bond books, Salisbury delivers the requisite doses of sex, sadism and snobbery; there is much good living, genitals encounter genitals and genitals encounter electrodes at regular intervals. Salisbury’s language in the sexual bouts is, however, curiously stilted and suggests, if anything, an infection of Barbara Cartland ‘Her large mouth swooped and swallowed him to the hilt. Across his stomach her long golden tresses, unfastened from the severe clips with which she restrained them during training, cascaded like a waterfall.’ Another element in Salisbury’s stylistic synthesis is the Chandlerian simile: ‘Joe O’Neill, junior member of the Searchlight team, was beginning to feel like a twig fallen from a fatally diseased Dutch elm into long, frost-soaked winter grass.’ Most obtrusive in the narrative is the factual overload of ‘researched’ material associated principally with such surefire bestsellers as Benchley and Hailey. This tendency to ‘faction’ has the therapeutic function for the reader of suggesting that he is educating rather than indulging himself. For the novelist it has the practical advantage that he can copy straight from the encyclopedia or guide book. Thus when the scene shifts to Vienna we are told that the Rathaus was designed by Friedrich von Schmidt, that it is 300 feet high, has 108 steps, that the statue at its pinnacle holds a spear 18 feet in length, and the novelist has half a page written for him.

More interesting than these borrowed feathers and professional tricks are the plots of Salisbury’s novels – given Caute’s concerns as historian, journalist and straight novelist. The Baby Sitters and Moscow Gold both feature massive international conspiracies in which civilisation is narrowly saved from alien, racist tyranny by investigative reporting. In the earlier work, the threat comes from the Middle East. The novel is set in 1981, the pound has sunk to $1.25, there are 3 million unemployed and Arabs have taken over the British economy. Their ultimate aim is a British Holocaust. In Moscow Gold the setting is, topically, the run-up to the Moscow Olympics (sales will probably have been hurt by recent events). This work’s complex plot has the Broederbond in co-operation with the Selous Scouts (Caute has recently covered Rhodesia for the New Statesman) scheming to destroy the Olympics and detente, so as to bring the US round to support for South Africa. The main villain is a Hitler-worshipper – a former 1936 German athlete who has become a mole in the Western liberal Establishment.

Moscow Gold falls into that familiar best-selling category of ‘Nazism resurgent’ fantasies, whose most famous practitioners are Ira Levin and Robert Ludlum. Ludlum candidly declares: ‘I believe the world is going infinitely beyond conservatism and communism to fascism – it’s the child of the Nazi. In my own modest way I’d like to proclaim it to the whole goddam world ... I’m paranoid. I hope it doesn’t interfere with my stories.’ Far from it: neither in Ludlum’s nor in Salisbury’s case are the novels any the less readable for their paranoia. But one notes that Caute’s ambitious straight novel, The Decline of the West, draws on a similar, if more controlled, energy source of paranoia and conspiracy theory. Caute has also diagnosed national hysteria and paranoia clinically and at great length in The Great Fear (a study of McCarthyism). Under its new editors, furthermore, the New Statesman is obsessed with secret state tyranny and with conspiratorial attacks on individual freedom in Britain. Perhaps an American thesis will one day bring all this into clear focus.

Duffy is a simpler read. Generically, it seems directly imitative of the highly successful Hazell series by the (again) pseudonymous P.B. Yuill (in fact, Gordon Williams and football manager Terry Venables writing as a team: the significance of the bizarre surname eludes me). The author of Duffy is Julian Barnes, assistant literary editor of the Sunday Times and television critic of the New Statesman, and formerly assistant literary editor of the New Statesman (the pseudonym was blown by Eric Hiscock in the Bookseller). Duffy is a bisexual private detective, formerly a detective sergeant covering Soho. He becomes mixed up in complicated skulduggery involving a porn king and the bent superintendent who fitted him up and got him dismissed from the force. After a number of adventures with men, women and a seven-year-old boy (the only person Duffy can’t screw is his straight girlfriend), and after nearly having his penis garrotted in a massage parlour (Caute’s Ellison merely has his roasted with 160 volts by the KGB), Duffy contrives to shop both the criminal and the police crook by means of a diary. (There’s no problem in working out what recent case Dan Kavanagh has in mind.)

Duffy’s principal attraction is a kind of voyeurism on voyeurism, as the hero investigates the square mile’s ‘saunas’, peepshows and sex shops. The report which the novel offers as to what goes on in these establishments is given in a callously brutal and tasteless rhetoric. The following is part of what Duffy sees for his 50p in a live peep show: ‘She leaned right over, stuck her bum in the air, and pulled her cheeks apart so that you could see her cunt and her bum-hole.’

The question arises as to what inspired (if that’s the word) Barnes/Kavanagh to write this kind of stuff, apart from the obvious intention to make some cash. How should we connect this with Barnes’s ‘serious’ novel (his word) – published under his own name earlier this year? Metroland is marked by a certain fastidiousness, and contains a somewhat stuffy celebration of suburban decency, middle-class life-styles and straight marital sex. Probably we shall never understand Barnes’s game of contrary sentiments, divergent modes and teasing dedication any more than the ordinary reader can penetrate the in-group jokes nowadays incorporated in the New Statesman ‘Weekend Competition’ (the one for 23 May was set by ‘Dan Kavanagh’). Taken together, though, Duffy and Metroland perfectly illustrate pseudonymy’s power to liberate the writer from the tyranny of the single literary personality.

A main question posed by pseudonymous fiction is ‘who really wrote it?’ The question which often seems to be posed by Margaret Drabble’s novels is ‘how much of this is either autobiographical or thinly veiled roman à clef?’ It is not just that her heroines keep rough pace with their author’s age and mode of life as we all too well know it from profiles and autobiographical pieces. The piquancy of Drabble’s fiction is that it half-opens a door on an admired and self-admiring social set. Thus, in The Middle Ground, after they have dealt, post-prandially, with the weighty topic of feminism, a group of central characters turn to lighter things: ‘Over coffee, Paul, Hugo and Kate took refuge in gossip about that perennially interesting topic, the editorship of the New Statesman, lapsing into the parochial and the malicious in a way that certainly amused them, if not their guests.’ The principals in this novel belong to that small parish who really know what’s going on.

The Middle Ground starts with a lunch and ends with a party. A huge amount of dining and drinking in fashionable London places intervenes. The main narrative covers October to November in a year which the reader can identify as probably 1978–79. There is, however, a long chronological loop, occupying the first 69 pages of the novel, which takes us back to the 1950s and 60s. The centre of narrative attention is self-consciously switched about from time to time, but the leading heroine is Kate Armstrong. She has risen from an echt working-class background (evacuee, father a sanitation engineer) to be a columnist on a national paper. The paper is not named, but towards the end we’re coyly told it’s on strike. Now Kate is 40: and the Dantean allusion in the title is not, apparently, ironic.

Kate’s set comprises characters such as Hugo Mainwaring, a one-armed political journalist, and Ted Stennett, a doctor and one of Kate’s ten or so named lovers. Ted’s wife is Evelyn, a social worker. Kate used to be married to Stuart, who now lives, amiably separated, in a basement, painting mould and rust in advanced artistic styles.

Nothing much happens in the novel. A number of lives of modish desperation are illuminated; the world is getting harder and drabber, the London graffiti more distasteful and the strikes more frequent. Kate’s mood is typically one of perplexity and she could, if she gave time to the matter, be miserable. But she’s too busy and bustling to let big things worry her. And on the whole, she has a ‘charmed life’. Her misfortunes are minor: a heel comes off her boot (they cost her £80 at Liberty’s), an alsation pisses on her dress, her unaspiring brother bores her dinner guests with stories about the Costa Brava. The worst thing that happens to her is that after reading an American feminist magazine she comes off the pill and gets pregnant by Ted. The foetus is found to have spina bifida, and is aborted.

Some final organisation is given the work by a random crime of violence in which the social worker Evelyn is attacked by a Rastafarian client. In hospital, though the wife knows of Kate’s treachery, the two women discover an odd sense of communion: ‘they smiled again at one another, a smile of complicity. No wonder men find women so irritating these days.’

The tone of that last sentence is representative of The Middle Ground. It is very much a novel of the day. In some recent pronouncements (The Book Programme, for instance, and the latest issue of Modern Fiction Studies) Drabble has insisted that her book was written quickly. There’s no attempt to hide the dashing-off. The narrative is always brisk and at times even impatient. Like her ‘busy’ heroine, the novelist cannot, it seems, spare the time to be artful. Thus an attempt to introduce Hugo as a new centre of consciousness is seen by the narrator to fail. ‘Hugo’s history ... was intended to provide a change of air.’ It didn’t come off, but she lets the failed experiment in ventilation remain to be seen in the text. The brisk, speed-writing manner of The Middle Ground is its main charm. But it goes together with what seems in places to be a certain slovenliness of composition. Ted is mystifyingly called ‘Hugh’ on two occasions.

Patricia Highsmith’s latest novel is familiar, and not just for the return of the talented Mr Ripley. The author has always shown herself fascinated by connections, formed initially around a criminal bond, which come hauntingly to resemble blood relationships – relationships which then end, invariably, with the shedding of blood.[*] An example, made famous by Hitchcock’s film, is Strangers on a Train. In his adaptation of a Highsmith novel (The American Friend) the German film-maker Wim Wenders recognised the same fraternal and eventually fratricidal consequences in the principals’ criminal compact. The Boy Who Followed Ripley is less a brother than a son, something Ripley’s French wife, the svelte Heloise, will never provide, generous as she is with the francs. It is the 1970s; Ripley gardens, exterminates termites in his antique furniture and is learning to play the harpsichord quite well. Ripley’s idyllic life at Villeperce is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious young American, runaway son of a food-chain mogul only slightly poorer than Howard Hughes. The father may have been a tyrant and the son confesses to having pushed him and his wheelchair over a cliff. Aliases and crime go naturally together. The forger and the refugee, murderers both, each with his incognito, develop their relationship through permutations of deceit and intimacy towards the violent, enigmatic conclusion that is Highsmith’s vivid speciality.

Ripley has been going now for twenty-five years. As we first knew him, his attitude towards his victim-friend was filial. In subsequent novels it was fraternal, and now it has become paternal. It is not inconceivable that Highsmith’s next presentation might be that most paradoxical of creations, an avuncular Ripley.

[*] Two of her earlier novels, The Cry of the Owl and The Glass Cell, have just been reissued by Penguin.