Masters of Art

John Sutherland

  • Loon Lake by E.L. Doctorow
    Macmillan, 258 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 333 30641 4
  • Alice fell by Emma Tennant
    Cape, 124 pp, £5.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 224 01872 8
  • The Covenant by James Michener
    Secker, 873 pp, £8.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 27966 5
  • Ancesteral Vices by Tom Sharpe
    Secker, 231 pp, £6.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 45809 8

The jacket informs us that Loon Lake is ‘a novel by E.L. Doctorow Author of RAGTIME’. Ragtime must have been a hard act to follow. In its day (1975), it was the most highly paid-for novel ever. Doctorow had well over two million dollars in subsidiary-rights advances and a whole generation of readers were introduced by it to the meaning of the word ‘hype’. The receipts are still not all in (for instance, the long-postponed film is yet to come). But the ‘watershed publishing event’ – as Bantam Books hailed it – was a flop. Doctorow could have been forgiven for retiring into prosperous obscurity.

Doctorow’s writing personality has four discernible elements to it, not always easily in harmony with each other and not all of which automatically identify him as a supremely valuable literary property. First there is Doctorow the historical novelist. He specialises in densely-detailed reconstructions of the American past. His own favourite among his novels, Welcome to Hard Times, recreates Western frontier life. The Book of Daniel is largely concerned with the 1940s. Ragtime, as the title suggests, is set at the turn of the century. Secondly, he is a novelist of ostentatiously displayed social conscience. The Book of Daniel is a sympathetic account of the Rosenberg martyrs (or spies, as a more commonly received idea has it). Ragtime concentrated its attack on the Morgan, Ford, Frick band of capitalist robber barons. Thirdly, there is the populist. Doctorow has yearned to enlarge the constituency of novel-readership. He desires, as he once put it with a condescension that has been thrown back in his face ever since, to have his work read by garage hands. For some of his career (a phase no longer commemorated by Macmillan’s blurbist, I notice) he worked for Hollywood. The gulf which has opened in the 20th century between the millions-strong audience for serious movies and the thousands-strong public for serious fiction clearly tantalises him. Finally, Doctorow is the professor of creative writing. (His current appointment is at Princeton – something the blurbist does dwell on.) His last two works particularly have the overwritten quality that one associates with the Master of Fine Art dissertation novel.

Loon Lake shows all four Doctorow facets. The bulk of the narrative takes place in 1936. The hero is Joe of Paterson, also known as Joseph Korzeniowski (the choice of Conrad’s Polish name evidently has some tricksy significance). An 18-year-old hobo victim of the Great Depression, Joe first takes up work in a freak show – partly for ideological reasons: ‘I had to acclimate myself to the worst there was.’ An exotic private train passes him. It strikes him as a vision of the best there is and he trails it to Loon Lake, in the Adirondacks. Like the Pyramid Club in Ragtime, Loon Lake is a haven of super-rich exclusiveness. Its 30,000 acres are the domain of F.W. Bennett, owner of the conglomerate Bennett Autobody works. Among Bennett’s entourage are an aviatrix third wife, a sodden poet Warren Penfield, an ‘industrial consultant’ Thomas Crapo (alias ‘Tommy the Emperor’) and Crapo’s girl, Clara. Joe is taken on as a servant, only to elope after a few months with Clara. On the run, he gets a job in a Bennett factory. There is a strike; the strike is broken; so are some of Joe’s bones. Clara is snatched back by her gangster. Joe’s subsequent career is rendered in print-out jargon: he is adopted into the Bennett family, goes to exclusive Williams College, distinguishes himself in the OSS during the war, rises to Deputy Assistant Director of the CIA, falls heir to the Bennett industrial empire and ends up ‘Master of Loon Lake’.

Thus abstracted, Loon Lake can be seen to make the same grand assertion as Ragtime: the tentacles of capitalism extend everywhere. Where they do not kill (and there are some gruesome scenes of industrial violence) they buy out. The poet Penfield, who once asserted his independence by semaphoring Wordsworth on the battlefield, ends a kept man whose sterile chef d’oeuvre is Loon lake, published by the Grebe Press: ‘Loon Lake NY 1939. No reviews’. Joe and Penfield, master and laureate of Loon Lake, are as possessed and exploited by the Bennett class as were their humbly labouring parents. So much for the New Deal.

Ragtime’s gimmick was to be written in a style of distinctive Joplinesque syncopation. Loon Lake continues Doctorow’s fascination with syncope rather differently. It is a broken narrative which jump-cuts from vernacular autobiographical sections to poetic interludes and what one eventually discovers to be CIA computer report. The poetry is sufficiently ambitious to have been published as work in progress in the Kenyon Review: the straight narrative is sufficiently ‘accessible’ (a favourite Doctorow term) to have been adapted for Playboy. It’s not done at all easily, but it has to be admitted that a book with this range of appeal performs a remarkable feat of cultural splits. Loon Lake will preserve Doctorow’s status as one of the most interesting ‘cases’ in modern fiction. In other respects, the novel is a disappointing performance.

Jonathan Cape would apparently have us take Alice fell as a condition-of-England novel. Yet this national portentousness is refracted at the reader by fictional techniques which are distractingly mal à propos. Superficially, Alice fell is, in fact, scarcely a novel at all – at least in substance. A slim volume of some thirty thousand words (bulked out by large print and much white paper), it is composed of short, non-paragraphic, un-consecutive segments. The narrative, which the reader is barely permitted to assemble, would seem to run as follows. An ‘old man’, who is never named, occupies a fine house on the South Downs. A social superior, he is served by a housekeeping couple, the Paxtons (the name – associated with the most famous of English landscape gardeners – is presumably symbolically motivated). The Paxtons, in turn, are helped by Ella Grogan, the daughter of a local midwife and a gardener’s boy, William. All the characters in this hierarchy gain some narrative attention, but mainly it plays over the old man and the Paxtons’ daughter Alice. Between them, these two mark off a momentous span of English historical time. Alice is born on the eve of Eden’s Suez speech, the old man dies in the year of the three-day week. Within these chronological boundaries, their careers follow different courses. For 17 years the old man conducts an unsuccessful rearguard operation, aimed at keeping the modern age out of the house. Gradually, however, he is evicted from the main territories of his property by his own servants. He retreats to the ‘fifth room’, where he consoles himself with items of imperial bric-à-brac. In his solitude he holds a mysterious spiritual communion with ‘great men’ (Freud, Fleming et al), with his ancestors and with a band of tapestried blue women. But nothing can hold off the incursions of his inferiors. Even the fifth room is eventually scrubbed into council-house anonymity.

The de casibus theme, the fall of great men and old orders, is concentrated in a vivid image during Alice’s birth. Her labouring mother lies on an old Picture Post, which catches the natal discharge: ‘Winston Churchill was pushed under Mrs Paxton’s monumental legs and lay in the water. His face frowned and dissolved. “Push down,” shouted Mrs Grogan.’ As the title indicates, Alice too goes down. Indeed, it is only when she falls from her pram into a woody hole that her existence is even noticed by the old man: ‘Persephone,’ he mutters. Thereafter, Alice’s efforts ‘to be independent, to be new’ involve a series of fallings. Eventually, at 16, she falls for a spiv in a sports car, runs away and ends up a fallen woman in Soho. In the final episode she is rescued by her mother and brought back to the house (converted, after the old man’s death, into a hotel) in order to marry William. At the next turn of the season, in Persephone fashion, she must disappear into the forest again, to fall down ‘the red hole in the earth’. Regeneration is obscurely forecast.

Tennant clearly shares with Malcolm Bradbury the belief that 1957 marks the fall in recent British history. She could also be taken to bear out Bradbury’s other, more controversial contention: that there is a Modernist tradition which matters in post-war British fiction, that not everything is to be conveniently enclosed in the ‘reaction against experiment’ generalisation. Tennant certainly plays a delicately experimental game in Alice fell: in, for example, the counterpointing of historical decline with seasonal rise and fall. Also, as in others of her novels, she packs the narrative with elaborate literary allusion. The allegorical house on the Downs and its old man recall that other establishment there, Heartbreak House, and Captain Shotover, the leftover remnant of Victorian England. A more insistent and coyly elusive allusion is in the for-ever-being-lost ball of white wool which preoccupies Alice’s childhood. At the beginning of Alice through the Looking Glass (in whose first part the heroine falls down a hole), the kitten is discovered ‘having a grand game of romps with the ball of worsted Alice had been trying to wind up, and had been rolling it up and down till it had come all undone again’. This ball apparently rolls all the way into Alice fell, though why Tennant makes so gratuitously much of it eludes me.

Alice fell is compact with virtuosity and various kinds of literary trickery. It requires an intense reading which, if protracted, would exhaust. I intend no disrespect to the author when I say that one could not wish it much longer than the accomplished novella she has given us.

By an accident of the publishing season, Tennant’s morsel of national whimsy coincides with James Michener’s brick-sized The Covenant. At 873 pages (costing a mere £7.95 – compare Alice fell’s 124 for £5.50), this can claim to be the only Great American South African novel. Michener’s work belongs to the currently best-selling genre of the national-racial saga. The author, never one to slight his own efforts, claims affiliation with Thackeray, Balzac and Tolstoy. More plausibly, he can be linked with an opportunistically chauvinist tradition originating in D.W. Griffith and culminating in the Roots bonanza. Not that Michener is in any second division when it comes to reward. He had a million-dollar advance for Centennial (1974) and is reported to find some publishers’ enticements so immense that he cannot bring himself to take more than half of what is offered.

Centennial was a saga of the national emergence of America, synchronised to ride on the 1976 wave of bicentennial self-satisfaction. But as Leon Uris, another practitioner in the field, has pointed out, the American ‘birth of a nation’ formula can be transplanted anywhere in the world. Hence, in Uris’s case, Exodus (Israel) and Trinity (Ireland). Trinity, which made some seventy appearances on the New York Times best-seller list, perhaps inspired Michener to choose another ‘free world’ hotspot in The Covenant. More likely, Roots drew him to a location which would permit the introduction of a subset of black characters (a third of The Covenant’s narrative is divided among the Nxumalo clan, together with the Dutch Van Doorn and the English Saltwood families).

The constituent form of this kind of fiction-faction is now standardised. A number of sequential little narratives are strung together to make a large design which provocatively interweaves individual, dynastic and national destinies. Michener, however, is somewhat idiosyncratic in taking a vastly longer perspective than other saga writers, who conventionally go no further back than the recorded moment of national genesis. The explanation would seem to lie in Michener’s somewhat antique world-historical view. His Favourite ‘thinker’ is Samuel Butler (all of his literary and intellectual pantheon are 19th-century, incidentally; Michener himself was born in 1907). Like some Victorian sage, Michener’s own thinking is fundamentally biological in its premises; more particularly, it is social-Darwinistic. To establish the primacy of biological over political factors in the making of society, Centennial goes back three billion years into the American past. Admittedly, The Covenant takes a shorter run at its subject. It starts the South African story with the nomadic bushmen of the Cape, 15,000 years ago. The ‘truth’ which is revealed in the pigmies’ struggle is repeated through subsequent generations of settlers – Trekboers, Voortrekkers, imperialists, Zulus and Afrikaners: those who are strongest will get all the gravy.

Lest we doubt Michener’s competence to handle these millennial units, The Covenant is prefaced by four pages of ‘acknowledgements’. Professional courtesy aside, the main function of this apparatus is modestly to put on record the astounding volume of the author’s ‘research’. Heroic drudgery is also commemorated. In addition to his fieldwork, we are told that with his assistant, Michener read ‘the manuscript together seven times, twice aloud, a most demanding task’. Indeed it would be. But we should not therefore think that the former Pulitzer-winning reporter (1949) has become jaded by the dull practices of the scriptorium. The acknowledgements conclude with an announced scoop: ‘I wrote the brief segment in Chapter 14 concerning Cambridge University two years before the unmasking of Sir Anthony Blunt as the notorious “fourth man”. My own inquiries had led me to his trail, or to that of someone exactly like him.’

A complaint against Centennial was that its social-Darwinistic denial that any species, tribe, race or nation had inherent territorial rights rationalised the expropriation of the American continent from its aboriginal Indians. Territory, for Michener, is nothing more than a vacuum, to be transitorily possessed by whoever is strongest. With what historical accuracy I don’t know, he makes the same point here – that there were no ‘original’ South Africans. Various parties ‘drifted’ into the area, and disputed ownership subsequently. But it is hard to formulate Apartheid in terms of perennial ‘natural struggle’. Michener is, in fact, patently nervous in the last sections of his cyclorama. A main problem for him, not to be cynical, must have been to secure the South African market for the book. (One gathers, incidentally, that after some initial alarms the book will be imported into South Africa.) To this end, presumably, The Covenant is self-consciously ‘fair’ to the present regime. The following commentary is latched onto a police-cell scene (meticulously researched, doubtless) in which a couple of BOSS operatives have just stuffed an electric cattle prod up the anus of an innocent black suspect: ‘Year after year one black in four throughout the general population was arrested for some trivial offence or other, and it was fortunate for them that not all police were as determined and sadistic as the team of Krause and Krog. Their like could be found in most countries: Russia, East Germany, Iran, Argentina, Brazil all had such interrogators. But the majority of South Africa policemen tried to be law-abiding officers of Justice.’

Comic writer though he is, Tom Sharpe is genuinely banned in South Africa. He was deported in 1961, ten years after which he began his belated (but since then very prolific) novel-writing career. His best work is conventionally taken to be the first two novels, written in England but set in South Africa, Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure. These ferociously hilarious works have as their main characters the SAP’s finest, policemen of the calibre of Konstabel Els, whose transracial sexual exploits are legend, who in obtuse fidelity to orders wipes out 22 colleagues with an elephant gun, who can tear the balls off a Doberman Pinscher and whose mascot is a stuffed English phallus, a trophy of his first fox-hunt.

Sharpe’s utterly tasteless humour is clearly conditioned by political antagonisms of the early Sixties and his consequent intention – which boldly contrasts with Michener’s – is to be as unfair as humanly possible to South Africa. Another formative factor in his career is the manner in which his publisher, Secker and Warburg, has employed him. Early on, he had a ‘salary contract’, by which novels were commissioned from him in batches of half a dozen. As a result, Sharpe has written regularly and with Trollopian fecundity: his count is now nine novels in as many years. The security of his arrangement with his hardback publisher also freed him to concentrate on fiction and nothing else. As far as I know, he undertakes no distracting review, theatre, film or television work. For some years he continued working at the Cambridge College of Higher Education, but success has now released him to write full-time in Dorsetshire seclusion.

Consideration of Sharpe’s career raises interesting questions on how, in an ideal world, one would programme such a writer. The indignity of exile evidently provided a necessary stimulus of malice to his anti-authoritarian comic vision. But arguably, tolerant and financially generous Britain cannot supply an adequate demonology, nor an intense enough irritation. And it may be that Sharpe has written too much without pause, preserving himself in the Decline and Fall/Vile Bodies phase of his work.

As he has switched to British settings, Sharpe’s black beasts have been twofold. First, institutions of learning: both the old, like inner Cambridge (where he was a student) and the new, like penumbral Cambridge (where he was a teacher). His second main target has been the English upper classes. There are few current English novelists, and no comic novelists, as interested in the peerage. General opinion has it that, after South Africa, Sharpe’s happiest milieu is the Wilt novels’ Fenland College of Arts and Technology (by Sharpe’s standards a somewhat transparent pseudonym). ‘Meat One’, the hero’s class of day-release butchers, has entered common speech, or at least common-room speech, as contemptuous shorthand for seminar philistinism. And there is a nice irony in Sharpe’s report that, like the South African novels, Wilt has on occasion been banned by the authorities from appearing on liberal-studies syllabuses. The two Cambridge novels, The Great Pursuit (Leavis-like critical puritan secretly writes soft porn) and Porterhouse Blue (new progressive warden, old reactionary college), are fuelled by sufficient malevolence to get Sharpe’s comic invention in gear. There is no reason to disbelieve him when he says that he hated Cambridge and its types. But these two novels are, by Sharpe’s best standards, forced and somewhat routine exercises.

Ancestral Vices couples familiar targets – the corrupt English gerontocracy and the streamlined new clerisy. A vicious industrialist, Lord Petrefact, commissions Walden Yapp to write his family history. It’s a bizarre choice. Yapp, as Professor of Demotic Historiography at Kloone University, is a proclaimed friend of the workers, whose collective face the Petrefacts have been grinding profitably for a hundred years. Yapp is famous for his Clegg-type arbitration awards, ‘particularly his 90 per cent pay rise for cloakroom attendants and urinal maintenance personnel’ and his parity adjustments between hospital consultants and road sweepers. Petrefact’s motives in choosing Yapp are, of course, malicious. He wants to embarrass his secretive relatives. But embarrassment rebounds when it is discovered that their big secret is that the family are in the business of mass-producing merkins, scrotum retainers, French ticklers and chamois-lined knickers. By the usual intricacies of Sharpe’s comic machine, Yapp is framed for the murder of a dwarf. In prison he is raped, and revises his opinion of the working classes. But, like Wilt, Blott and Els, he survives and returns to cultivate the Kloone computer data bank.

Sharpe is the funniest novelist currently writing. Ancestral Vices – though hardly his best and somewhat vieux jeu – is still very good. But it raises speculations. At his present rate of production, and given a normal life expectancy, Sharpe is good for another 17 novels. It’s a prospective feast, but how will he go on? His satirical guns are firing hard and fast enough, but he can hardly keep them trained and pounding at the same targets for ever. Perhaps a tour of Northern Ireland is called for.