Maria Isabel

Graham Hough

  • The Duchess’s Diary by Robin Chapman
    Boudicca Books, 126 pp, £3.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 9506715 0 9
  • The Interceptor Pilot by Kenneth Gangemi
    Boyars, 127 pp, £5.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 7145 2699 1
  • Judgment Day by Penelope Lively
    Heinemann, 167 pp, £6.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 434 42738 1
  • Voyovic by Niall Quinn
    Wolfhound, 163 pp, £5.95, December 1980, ISBN 0 905473 61 2

In the 30th chapter of the second book of Don Quixote the Don and Sancho encounter a certain duchess who thereafter plays a considerable part in their adventures. In The Duchess’s Diary Robin Chapman imagines her to have been an actual person, who had met not the fictitious Quixote but the real Cervantes; and the diary, supposedly translated from the original MS, tells her story. The first book of Don Quixote came out in 1605, the second book did not appear till ten years later. It is in this interval, in 1608, that Robin Chapman supposes the duchess and her husband, the Duke of Caparosso, to have entertained Cervantes, already famous for the first volume of his romance. What is more, although the duchess is a very young woman and Cervantes already an elderly man, she falls in love with him. They do not meet again: but she eagerly awaits the second volume of Don Quixote, in which, she does not doubt, she will find a romantic tribute to herself. It arrives in December 1615, on the shortest day, and it is a bitter disappointment. The duchess who appears in the romance is a slightly-drawn figure, a mere part of the machinery of the plot, who manages Don Quixote and his squire quite callously for her own entertainment. Maria Isabel – that is the real duchess’s name – feels this as a betrayal. She feels it so deeply that the balance of her mind, never very secure, is completely upset. At an Epiphany feast she runs spectacularly mad; and at the time the diary begins her husband has left her and she is shut up in his hunting lodge, with only her maid for companion, under the care of a frightful chaplain.

What follows is a wonderfully delicate and imaginative rendering of a complicated state of mind, with a vivid mingling of manners, scenes and circumstances to keep the narrative continually in motion. Although it is a story of distress it is told with wit and spirit. We are in a shimmering borderland between two fictions – the fictional work by Cervantes and a fiction about him, and the interplay between the two is a constant source of vitality. Cervantes is a historical personage; Maria Isabel is a fictional character; Don Quixote is a fictional character who has become an archetype, transcending both history and fiction. But once we are well into the duchess’s world we forget these artful shifts of level and find ourselves with the viewpoint of a clever, sensitive, unbalanced girl, married to a callous oaf when hardly past childhood, and fenced in by an iron cage of aristocratic and ecclesiastical tyranny. With great delicacy we are shown the growth during a mere summer visit of her love for Cervantes, the one man of humour, tolerance and sympathy she has ever met. Throughout her trials she preserves this recollection, enough by itself to give her a tenuous hold on sanity. The feeling of 17th-century Spain is brilliantly evoked, yet so naturally, and without any of the trappings of the usual historical novel, that Maria Isabel’s later adventures – her immurement in a convent and her escape – have the unforced reality of an actual experience. In the end, she gets to Madrid and finds her way to Cervantes’s house. Too late, for he has died a day or two before. Yet not too late: for as she stands by his body she has an experience of peace and forgiveness, and her mind is restored. Here the diary ends, and we know no more of the duchess’s experience. But an appended note suggests that her end was not a tragic one. And that seems right; for the remarkable thing about this history, told by an almost helpless victim of embattled power, is the life and vigour that runs through it.

The Interceptor Pilot returns us abruptly to the modern world: but it too is a formal experiment, on material that is itself remarkable. The problem the author sets himself is to take a situation calculated to arouse strong feelings and violent partisanship, both political and personal, and to treat it without emotional involvement, psychological inquiry or moral judgment – simply by means of an external narrative. The technique is avowedly borrowed from the cinema and the plot is set out as a film scenario, though happily without too much technical jargon. The blurb says it ‘marks a decisive turning-point in the evolution of American literature’, which I should think is most unlikely: but it is of some interest all the same to take a subject that might easily have been turned into one of those blockbusting American epics, crammed with detail and decor and flashbacks and streams of consciousness, and to see how far the bare bones of the situation can take us in the way of imaginative understanding.

Wilson the hero has been an American fighter pilot in Korea, also involved in strafing and bombing missions. Later he becomes a professor of aeronautics at a Western university, marries and settles down. But he is beset by guilt for his part in the horrors of the war; and when the Vietnam War comes along he leaves his position, his family and his country to join the North Vietnamese. His mission is to intercept American planes and prevent the bombing of Hanoi. He is so brilliantly successful that after a time he becomes an embarrassment to his own side, as well as a prime target for the Americans. Both sides resolve to destroy him, and they succeed.

The whole story is presented in a series of camera shots. There are many of them and they are well-chosen, so that Wilson’s progress, in its way, is covered in some detail. But all that would be left to the actor, the director and the scene designer is simply missed out, left for the reader to fill in by himself. It is quite easy to do. We soon realise that we don’t need to be told what Wilson’s wife looks like or what is going through his mind. We know well enough; and we are glad enough, perhaps, to be spared the heavy rations of descriptive mashed potatoes that might be filling in the gaps. However, the effect of the film technique is so strong that what the reader fills the gaps with is his recollection of innumerable B movies – easy and convenient, and if you like B movies, not unenjoyable, but totally excluding all precision and all subtlety. Nothing is given in the text that could raise the imagination to a more interesting level. This is not to suggest that Gangemi conceives his subject in crude and oversimplified terms. Probably he does not; probably he is fully aware of the complicated moral dilemma in which Wilson finds himself, and trusts to a bare recital of the facts to make it explicit. A genuine experiment in stripped-down narrative: but one can hardly say that it succeeds. We are bustled along too fast and have time only to accept a ready-made package. I don’t know that this tells us much about the art of narrative – except to show how little of the power of film resides in the bare scenario, and that a film-script is therefore an inadequate model for a verbal fiction. But surely we had learnt all that, in a much more inventive fashion, from Robbe-Grillet years ago.

Judgment Day is a faithful and well-drawn portrait of a dislikeable woman who dislikes the people around her and is duly disliked in return. The air of self-regarding discontent that presides over this book made me suspect that the stories for children with which Penelope Lively made her reputation were of the kind admired by progressive parents rather than by children themselves. However, my consultant in the 10-11 age group speaks of them with warm approval, and Mrs Lively’s later adult works keep winning literary awards on all hands: so she evidently strikes the right note for our present condition. Clare Paling, the central character, comes to live in an Oxfordshire village. It is not a come-to-Britain village, for it is on the outskirts of a London overspill, light-industrial town, and the few surviving indigenes have been swamped by the mixed bag of subtopian modern England. Clare regards herself as superior to her surroundings, on vaguely academic grounds (she says she can read Anglo-Saxon). She sees herself as an admirable mother with wonderful children, but whenever we see the children they are quarrelling and whining, and whenever we see her with them she is nagging and bossing in a smug brusque ‘unsentimental’ fashion.

Her executive husband is mostly away and she is at a loose end, so she decides to busy herself with the village festival, a historical pageant to raise money for the church. She is militantly godless, but she admires the painting of the Last Judgment over the chancel arch. Old Miss Bellingham wants the pageant to be all Good Queen Bess and maypole dancing. Clare prefers the shooting of some Levellers during the Civil War and the transportation of militant labourers after the Captain Swing troubles of the last century; and being a capable person she gets her way. In the course of all this we make the acquaintance of the other inhabitants of the village: the Vicar, a singularly faithless, hopeless and feckless representative of a decaying Church; Sydney Porter the churchwarden, who after a rough war in minesweepers has spent 38 years on his own, because his wife and daughter were killed in an air raid; Martin, a forlorn little boy neglected by his shoddy parents. They are all portrayed with skill, insight and sympathy that at times becomes moving. But something seems to have gone wrong. The author’s sensibility seems to be at odds with Clare’s, in a damaging way. Yes, dear reader, I know about irony and points of view and all that: but I do not think they are working here. Clare Paling is an authentic blood-chilling fragment of Thatcherian England, but she is not the right vehicle for the rest of the tale.

The plot, which is a slight one, is entirely ideological, and Clare’s mental processes, such as they are, provide the locus in which it all goes on. She early comes into collision with the vicar, who half-heartedly attempts to bring her round to the God in whom he himself scarcely believes. Clare resists vigorously and maintains that the powers, if any, that govern the world are of a brutal callousness and cruelty. Events take her side. On the eve of the festival a gang of vandals wreck the scenery and desecrate the church; and the child Martin on his new racing bike is killed by a lorry at the edge of the village green. Clare’s view of the gods remains unchanged: but she decides that perhaps one ought to be rather kinder to the human beings. Not much of a conclusion, and we are led to it too directly to give it much effect. A great deal of good material has gone into this novel, but it is dissipated by uncertainty of aim.

Voyovic is a first collection of stories by an Irish writer, Niall Quinn. He has had the classic formation for a certain kind of modern novelist: went to sea at 16, served in merchant navies all over the world, worked in South America, the US and Bangladesh, has been a factory hand, a dish-washer and a barman. The world of these tales is the world of the dispossessed – migrant workers, exiles, junkies, the hapless young and the helpless old. Voyovic of the title story is a Jugoslav ‘guestworker’ in Germany. Brigitte, in the longest and finest story, is an Irish girl turned out of her village for the usual reasons and going to hell in London slums. We cover a good deal of the world in between. Quinn is obviously a born writer. He has energy and passion and the capacity to enter into many minds. But writers need to be made as well as born, and he still needs some making. He is surer in narrative and dialogue than in description and reflection, where exuberance often passes into incoherence. But the power, eloquence and pathos of these stories makes them quite outstanding.