Gertrude

Graham Hough

  • Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch
    Chatto, 505 pp, £6.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2519 5
  • Collin by Stefan Heym
    Hodder, 315 pp, £7.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 340 25721 0
  • An Inch of Fortune by Simon Raven
    Blond and Briggs, 176 pp, £5.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 85634 108 8
  • Virgin Kisses by Gloria Nagy
    Penguin, 221 pp, £1.25, July 1980, ISBN 0 14 005506 1

Even to Iris Murdoch fans, of whom I am one of the most constant, Nuns and Soldiers will be a disappointment. It is a long solid book, purposely digressive, and there is a good deal of hard slogging before we get to the main theme. The title promises more than the performance. There is only one nun and no soldiers at all. We are in London in 1978, in the thick of a large, prosperous, mainly Jewish family – bankers, civil servants, professional men. The interest centres in Gertrude, late thirties, not Jewish, just widowed of her almost too ideal husband Guy. She is surrounded by sympathy and consideration, but also by eager curiosity on the part of the family circle about what she will do next – especially as Guy has left her all his considerable fortune. It is not a particularly attractive milieu. The married life of Gertrude and Guy is presented as so insufferably mature, cultivated, public-spirited and smug that the reader’s first instinct is to close the book before it has begun and forswear the society of mature, cultivated, public-spirited persons for the rest of time. But Iris Murdoch’s writing has the power to engage the reader in its conflicts, even without the pleasures of recognition or sympathy; and though they are slow in developing, the conflicts are not absent. There are lengthy annexes and excursions that gradually become folded into the main design. And as always with Iris Murdoch, the apparent moral simplicities prove ambiguous or uncertain.

The two heraldic supporters of Gertrude are first Peter, known as the Count, a Polish refugee, friend and former colleague of Guy; and Anne, college friend of Gertrude, recently emerged from 14 years in a convent. The Count is the only possible candidate for the ‘soldier’ of the title, and he becomes so only by virtue of a single metaphor, in which he is described as a conscript in the army of the moral law. Hamstrung by his Polish background, defeated nationalism and a fanatical sense of duty, he hardly manages to recognise the true and total nature of his devotion to Gertrude, still less Anne’s growing devotion to him. Anne appears mysteriously from her convent, with the aura of the religious life about her and with claims to spiritual insight and experience that are never really redeemed. Quite long digressions are devoted to the formation of these two, apart from their connection with Gertrude’s circle; and the nature of the magnetism she exercises over them is compact of ambiguities. We are to suppose that she is generous, warm-hearted and attractive: but how much of the charm is due to the fact that she is also rich, established and secure?

At all events, what Gertrude does has nothing to do with her friends and their expectations. Among the circle is a youngish protégé of Guy’s, almost his ward – a painter, Tim Reede. A painter without enough talent or enough dedication, a drop-out, a scrounger, a lost soul, treated with half-contemptuous tolerance by the rest of the friends and relations. He is likeable and sympathetic, but his equally drop-out girlfriend Daisy is neither: she is foul-mouthed, ferocious and uncompromising. They have been together for years, on and off, unable to live together or apart. Nevertheless, among the crowd of hovering potential suitors it is Tim, inadequate and unlikely as he seems, that Gertrude or fate or implacable Aphrodite picks out as Guy’s successor. Apart from its intrinsic anxieties and dubieties the choice causes the maximum havoc all round. Tough aggressive Daisy has been trying to detach herself from Tim for years, but is now desolated without him. The Count, as has long been apparent, is hopelessly in love with Gertrude, and is in despair. Anne, having fallen equally hopelessly in love with the Count, is encouraged in false hopes. The Murdoch skills are never more accomplished than when describing an impossible attachment, making it humanly credible, and eliciting the train of consequences. The plot, sluggish in its earlier reaches, becomes more lively in movement; there are elements of physical ordeal, unlikely but deftly handled, and we find ourselves, as so often before in the Murdoch world, drawn into an emotional tide-rip without asking too much where it is leading. Just as well not to ask, for no very clear answer is forthcoming. The parts are not easily seen to make up a whole.

Some of the parts are excellent in themselves, though unconnected. The career of Peter is oddly placed at the beginning. Born and brought up in England, yet without roots or connections, a Polish exile for all time, his antecedents form a separate study and seem to belong to another book. There is a brilliant depiction of the inner life of the failed painter, indeed of the whole sad class of hangers-on of the arts whose vocation has failed them yet has totally disabled them for any other kind of life. The experiences of Anne, the religious returned to the world, are equally closely examined. Though here a radical ambiguity begins. How are we to value them? Is she a real spiritual explorer or a self-deceiving masochist? She doesn’t know herself, and the indications of the text seem equally distributed on both sides. Her life and that of Daisy the drop-out nihilist lead equally to a voie sans issue: a proper enough subject for fiction, except that the fiction here seems frankly unable to cope with it and ends by sending them off to America – America being no more than a convenient limbo for characters whose destiny has not been imagined.

Some of the Murdoch mannerisms to which we had become half-affectionately resigned in earlier works are here exaggerated. Characters of high intellectual and moral culture are too apt to assure us of their stature by continual citation of the best authors, when it is, one suspects, a more internalised superiority that is intended. Uncertainties of linguistic register are more frequent than usual. When Gertrude falls unsuitably in love she says to herself: ‘What a pickle I’m in!’ But ten lines further on: ‘This was the real, the indubitable and authoritative Eros: that unmistakable seismic shock, that total concentration of everything into one necessary being ...’ Indeed. But who is saying this? Surely not Gertrude: it is not her idiom. And if it is the narrator’s, the narrator ought to know better. Sometimes there is a curious gear-slipping effect that lands us in the wrong decade, if not the wrong century. Gertrude and Anne, born circa 1940, growing up in the Sixties, ‘walk in stout brogues’; they ‘perform household tasks’; they daringly ‘imbibe the local cider’; and on a chilly evening Gertrude sends for her shawl. Gertrude in particular, in spite of perfectly clear indications of age and date, keeps coming off the page as an Edwardian blue-stocking. And though we are accustomed to Murdoch characters who turn out to be revealingly other than they appear, the shift of focus over the deeper nature of Gertrude is surely too great. Treated with solemn respect in the earlier part of the novel, she is transformed in the final episodes into a rapacious bourgeoise, swallowing up at one gulp both her mini-husband and the Count as cavaliere servente, and is affronted only that Anne refuses to join the train. Possible, no doubt: but if that is the effect intended, a more careful modulation of language is needed to make it work – apart from the fact that it seems an inadequate destination for a novel on this scale.

A novel from East Germany, whatever else it may be, is necessarily read as a report: and for the great majority of Westerners, a report on a virtually unknown world. Judged by internal evidence, Stefan Heym’s Collin makes a strong impression of authenticity. It has been hailed in West Germany as the best available picture of the DDR and its history. Yet Heym continues to live in East Berlin. His earlier works are still in print in the East, but he has been expelled from the Writers’ Union, and his two latest novels, Five Days in June and Collin, were published in West Germany and are banned in his own country. This eerie atmosphere of repression with loopholes – different, if we are to believe what we are told, from the total totalitarianism of the Russian scene – pervades the novel itself, which is about the dialectics of freedom in a society where a minimal dose of freedom is just within the bounds of possibility. Heym is not in the wholesale searing-indictment business – after all, he lives there. He portrays a detestable but intelligible society, in which ordinary decent people who know they will be shot if they try to escape nevertheless contrive to live without especial awareness of affliction. This is true for the lower ranks and those below middle age. The higher echelons and the old guard are dyed too deep in the corruptions of the revolutionary process. Hans Collin, the central figure, finds himself in a heart clinic, one reserved for privileged patients, for he is an elderly and distinguished writer, in high favour with the regime. He is an old revolutionary, from the days of the Spanish War, and has survived all the changes and chances by keeping his head down and avoiding awkward questions. His heart complaint begins to seem more psychic than physical. Like all his generation, he has a burden of hideous memories – treacheries, denunciations, refusals to speak out. He comes to believe that he can only rid himself of them by writing his memoirs, going back over the old ground and telling all the truth that he can recall. He is encouraged in this by his sympathetic young doctor Christine, who thinks of it quite unideologically, as a therapy.

It so happens that next door in the same clinic is Comrade Urack, head of State Security and Collin’s exact contemporary. He too is haunted by the past. He glories in it, but he is still haunted. He knows very well what Collin knows; and he, Collin’s wife and the time-serving head of the clinic are all, for their several reasons, extremely anxious that Colin’s memoirs should not appear. This is the basic conflict in this well-constructed novel. Extracts from the memoirs themselves – betrayals, trials, imprisonment – call up scenes from the revolutionary past and project them into the world of geriatric complicity in which the current rulers persist. The scene is well-populated. Lesser characters, all with their own concerns, are grouped around the central theme, to give one of the most convincing pictures of life on the other side of the wall. Beastly as it all is, one cannot help reflecting that it is an undeniable advantage to the novelist to have something to write about.

Bating the question of what value the rest of Simon Raven’s fictions may have, it can safely be said that An Inch of Fortune has less than the least of them, which puts it down pretty low. It was his first novel, written in 1950 with a different title, unpublished for fear of libel, long buried and now exhumed, with an explanatory preface added. It is a laborious fable about a debt-oppressed young graduate who takes a job as tutor to the delinquent son of an insane millionairess. He ends by black-mailing his employer and clearing a handsome profit. This could only have looked like Waughter under the bridge in 1950, and it is far more dated now. It is an old joke to pretend that the world consists of spivs and their dupes, but this is neither witty nor savage enough to carry it off; and any novel must stagger under the burden of a hero called Esme Sa Foy.

The best bit is the preface, which includes some interesting sidelights. What looks like a flat pastiche of Decline and Fall is actually social realism. The author really did do such a tutoring job, to make money to pay his college bills; and the tale was so near the truth as to make publication impossible. The next item must be given in Raven’s words: ‘By November the tale was finished: A Passage to Biarritz I called it, in the hope of annoying an Honorary Fellow of my college called E.M. (Morgan) Forster, whom I toadied with the rest but secretly considered to be an idle, pampered, sanctimonious and spiteful old man, pathologically mean about money and for ever sucking up to the working class.’ When the novel failed to come out the author joined the army – ‘in every way more invigorating and educative than fugging in King’s College, Cambridge, while it rotted to pieces of tertiary socialism’. Not perhaps the most striking example of personal or institutional loyalty, but a nice change from the Cambridge-Bloomsbury frowst.

The only reason for mentioning Virgin Kisses is to raise the question of what Penguin Books think they are doing in importing this squalid sample from the transatlantic filth industry. The traditional objection to pornography was that it was alluring: it excited the passions that it was the duty of every good man to suppress. Compared with what we see today this seems a pretty healthy ambition. American pornography in particular reverses the process: its end is not allurement but repulsion; its fungous producers are inviting their readers to a complicity not of pleasure but of nausea. Virgin Kisses is about a psychiatrist who drugs and hypnotises an aging and feeble-minded patient so that he can do what he likes with her. The recital of what he likes, written in a mixture of bar-room obscenity and half-educated psycho-babble, makes up the text. ‘Lacerating, literate and funny,’ says Vogue. SOON TO BE A MAJOR FILM, says Penguins on the back cover.