Reconstructions

Michael Irwin

  • Kepler by John Banville
    Secker, 192 pp, £5.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 436 03264 3
  • The Daughter by Judith Chernaik
    London Magazine Editions, 216 pp, £5.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 06 010757 X
  • We always treat women too well by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright
    Calder, 174 pp, £8.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 7145 3687 3

A reviewer must allow for his personal reading temperament, his instinctive critical preferences and dislikes. John Banville roused my own antipathies as early as the second page of his novel: Kepler, arriving at a Bohemian castle, is greeted by a hump-backed dwarf who pipes, ‘God save you, gentles,’ and to make matters worse has second sight. When Tycho Brahe, Kepler’s host, appears, sporting the metal bridge in his damaged nose, he bemoans the loss of a pet elk that has fallen down a staircase and broken its leg after drinking a pot of beer. This is the sort of thing one expects in historical fiction, the implication that folk of bygone times were all larger than life – or smaller, of course, in the case of dwarfs – gamey, eccentric, picturesque. From this root of platitude can sprout a hundred clichés of incident or expression: thighs will be slapped, wenches ploughed, unwieldy insults bartered. The very attempt to make the characters more vigorous devitalises them. It’s of no great relevance that in this instance elk, dwarf and reconstituted nose are all ‘real’, all biographically authenticated. The effect of the immediate emphasis on freakish detail is to suggest that the past is to be viewed through a conventional kind of distorting glass.

The sub-species of historical fiction that deals in actual characters and events is uninviting from the further point of view that researched facts and imaginative amplification are likely to be obtrusively identifiable and mutually antagonistic. The dilemma is certainly observable in some of John Banville’s descriptions. ‘The baron’s house stood on Hradcany hill hard by the imperial palace, looking down over Kleinseit to the river’: another shard of research. ‘From an upstairs window a servant girl flung out an exclamation of dirty water’: mere local colour. The two main ingredients of the mixed narrative medium threaten not to fuse. In a Note at the end of the book the author acknowledges indebtedness to two scholarly biographies and – especially – to Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers. The risk he runs is that his novel may seem to depart from these sources only to diminish them.

Such doubts – or prejudices – survive the first half of the narrative, which deals with Kepler’s relationship with Brahe and takes in earlier scenes from his life in flashback. Occasionally the misgivings are even amplified by a spasm of trite gusto: ‘Many a skinful of Rhenish he himself as a student had puked up on that rush-strewn floor ... ’ But it gradually becomes apparent that the author is striving for something considerably more complex than the conventional swagger of historical fiction. Stylistic intensification is everywhere apparent and carefully calculated: happiness, sickness and squalor are sensually described – the very weather is hyperbolic. Poised sentences, sharply pictorial, suggest that the Dürer engraving on the jacket is a comment on the manner of the novel as much as on its theme. Banville wants to achieve a comparable clarity of detail, a comparable stylisation – ‘The horse stamped and snorted, blowing cones of steam out of flared nostrils’ – in an attempt to make us apprehend a period of heightened awareness and feeling, heightened bewilderment, heightened curiosity. Kepler strives to extract order from the general muddle and misery that are exemplified by his own turbulent career. He is variously assailed by poverty, by family bereavements, by illness, by religious persecution, by professional jealousies and petty squabbles. His patrons slight or discard him; his mother narrowly escapes being burned for a witch. His great discoveries emerge from a tangle of mathematical miscalculations and the pursuit of fantastical enterprises in geometry, astrology and numerology. He survives his trials with doglike energy and resilience.

The central section of the novel is given over entirely to a series of letters sent by Kepler to various friends or inquirers between the years 1605 and 1612. Emancipated from story and description the prose flourishes. Part of this material has been directly translated from the original, though edited and recombined; part, no doubt, is skilful pastiche. Kepler’s emotional and intellectual energy, his shifts of mood, his enthusiasm, his unpredictable generosity are far more powerfully expressed here than in the more strenuous direct narrative: but the achievement is perhaps only possible because of the context of understanding and expectation which that narrative has established.

Kepler is a novel about the excitement of the intellectual life. There is a wonderful account in one of the letters of the scientist and a friend dancing in joy and elation at the news that Galileo has discovered four new planets with his telescope. Their emotion seems both touching and enviable. In the long run Banville justifies some of his earlier stylistic excesses and converts the sceptical reader by demonstrating with considerable force that there really were some giants at that time and in those places.

Judith Chernaik writes about the sad life and death of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, or Tussy. A work that features Engels, Bernard Shaw, Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis among the dramatis personae might seem doomed to go the way of Brown’s Savonarola. The adroitness with which the author skirts this risk is only one aspect of an unusual clear-sightedness and sense of proportion. She doesn’t attempt to give these characters more than a minimal physical presence and an adequate, almost neutral habit of speech. She is little concerned with them as personalities. Her aim is to show how various members of this talented and hopeful group tried to adjust their political and social ideals to their personal lives.

The misadventures of Schreiner and Ellis, of May Morris and of Dolly Maitland, though very much in the background, provide a context within which we can better understand Eleanor’s tragedy. The novel begins with the inquest that follows her suicide in the spring of 1898. It then goes back to trace the love-affair with Edward Aveling that was eventually to precipitate her death. They are both active socialists, in the thick of public controversy. Aveling is something between a dilettante and a man of parts – at first a lecturer in science, later a playwright and actor. Tussy sees in him aspects of the intellectual vigour, the freedom from conventional restraints, that she had learned to admire in her father. They live together, but decide to remain childless. Aveling is already married, but separated from his wife. Only gradually does Tussy come to realise and acknowledge to herself that Aveling preys remorselessly on others. He is a tireless philanderer and a genteel bilker, expert at the quiet misappropriation of political funds. With horror she finally recognises that he indeed resembles her father, and that her father resembles him, in a lack of guilt or pity, and in a natural inclination to see relationships in terms of power. At the same time, she cannot stifle her need for a man whom she knows she should despise. When she finds out that Aveling, whose wife has by now died, has secretly married a young actress, she obtains poison from a chemist with his connivance and kills herself.

This is a novel of unobtrusive skill, a shrewd imaginative reconstruction. Judith Chernaik deploys a variety of narrative techniques but assimilates them almost unnoticeably to a straightforward mode of story-telling. Her quick, dry, detached manner encompasses an impressive range of mood and experience. She is particularly good at domestic quarrels. Aveling’s chilling assertion of will is worthy of Rosamond Vincy. Remarkable throughout is the author’s fairness: even Aveling is given his due. The Daughter resembles Kepler in its concern with ideas, and in its attempt to exemplify the aspirations and struggles of a society in the experience of one individual, but Judith Chernaik’s approach is her own, whereas Banville’s material had already been brought into focus in The Sleepwalkers.

We always treat women too well is a curiosity. It was originally published in 1947 as a translation of a work by a young Irish novelist named Sally Mara. Although officially acknowledged by Queneau in the early Sixties, it has never been treated as more than a squib. In a Foreword to this edition Valerie Caton rebuts the idea that Queneau might have written the story for a popular audience with a taste for sado-eroticism. Its excesses are purposeful: it is a work of satirical parody, directed particularly against No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which had been widely successful in France in 1946.

Certainly the plot is markedly similar. As part of the Easter Uprising of 1916 a group of rebels have occupied a (not the) post-office in Dublin. A clerk named Gertie Girdle happens to be in the lavatory when they move in, and is accordingly trapped among them. In the course of the siege which follows she manages to inveigle each of them in turn into some variety of sexual activity, thus indirectly bringing about the deaths of the entire garrison. In effect, Miss Blandish is avenged.

Even a moderately knowing British reader will hardly need to be advised that the whole thing is a joke once he has noticed that the Republicans include John MacCormack, Corny Kelleher and Mat Dillon and that one of the officers in charge of a British gunboat on the Liffey is named Teddy Moutcatten. But what sort of joke is it? And is it funny? There’s a good deal of larking around with stylistic levels, some of it agreeable enough. Barbara Wright’s translation reads racily and seems full of the appropriate inventiveness. One kind of joke is a species of do-it-yourself Pierce Egan slang: ‘He cheesed it presto, though, for John MacCormack had just split his skull with five bloodily and anatomically distributed dumdum bullets.’ At the other extreme is the formal periphrasis. When Mat Dillon sees Gertie’s breasts he ‘had to recognise the fact that he now occupied a slightly greater place in space than he had a few instants before.’ There are some pleasant passages. But I couldn’t raise much of a laugh when Caffrey has his head blown off in mid-copulation, or when the dying O’Rourke hands Gertie his virile member which the shell has severed. On the other hand, I liked Dillon’s subsequent comment: ‘Between you and me, he must have died in a state of mortal sin.’