Idaho

Graham Hough

  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
    Faber, 218 pp, £5.25, March 1981, ISBN 0 571 11713 9
  • The Noble Enemy by Charles Fox
    Granada, 383 pp, £6.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 246 11452 5
  • The Roman Persuasion by Bernard Bergonzi
    Weidenfeld, 192 pp, £6.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 297 77927 3

Ruth and Lucille are sisters, living in Fingerbone on Fingerbone Lake. At the bottom of the lake lies their grandfather, who was guard on a train that plunged off the bridge one night, years before they were born. There also lies their mother, who one day when Ruth was eight years old drove in from Seattle, left the children on their grandmother’s porch, and then went on in the car to the top of a tall cliff and drove off into the blackest depths of the water. Housekeeping is the story of these two children, brought up at first by their silent, orderly grandmother; then for a brief spell by two tottering great-aunts; at last by Sylvie, their mother’s sister, summoned back from some circumambient void to take on the responsibility. The title and the theme suggest an updated version of Little Women, but nothing could be further from the truth. The weird poetry of this book owes nothing to benign domesticity. It is a desperate spell cast against loneliness and desolation; and ‘house-keeping’ is a bitter irony, for though there is a house, in and around which most of the action takes place, no one manages to keep it in any ordinary sense of the word.

The children soon learn that their aunt ‘is not a stable person’. She sleeps on park benches in broad daylight, she steals a boat for dangerous expeditions up the lake; from time to time she quietly disappears, and in the evenings she will sit only in the dark. She feeds them on sandwiches and marshmallows, and in a town whose streets are mostly snowbound or awash with flood water she sends them out in velvet slippers. When they play truant from school she writes them lying excuses or none at all. Sylvie has many stories about the interesting people she has known, but every story she tells has to do with a train or a bus station. For she is what American usage calls a ‘transient’, by nature and habit a vagrant, wandering from town to town, usually by way of the freight cars. Her attempt to run a house and look after children is doomed from the start.

Most small towns have their Sylvie, with her batch of hapless children. In ordinary social terms, it is a race against the state institutions that will inevitably take over when the plight of the household becomes too much of a public scandal. Reduced to its bare bones, this is a story of alienation, failure and collapse – and there is no attempt to disguise the bare bones. Yet it is told in language of such radiance and clarity that the taste it leaves behind is of lyric grace, not desolation and squalor. The effect is extraordinary.

But the language presents a problem. The story is told by Ruth in the first person. It ends with the end of her neglected childhood, and is recounted ten years or so later, years which she has spent on the road, sharing Sylvie’s aimless wanderings. It looks like a classic case for that well-established kind of American fiction which explores the pathos of a limited sensibility and an inadequate lexicon of feeling. How much truth can you tell in the dialect of Holden Caulfield? How much can you see through the eyes of the Member of the Wedding? But from the first page Marilynne Roberts totally rejects this method. Ruth, truant from school, who has never had a friend or a mentor, who has hardly even talked to anybody outside her decaying family, nevertheless writes, and she writes – if we can imagine that at bus-stops and lunch counters she found the time and place to do so – like Emily Dickinson in collaboration with Henry James.

   Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere ...

  Sylvie did tell me once that Lucille would mature before I did because she had red hair, and so it transpired. While she became a small woman, I became a towering child. What twinges, what aches I felt, what gathering towards fecundity, what novel and inevitable rhythms, were the work of my strenuous imagining ...

  I followed her up into the valley again and found it much changed. It was as if the light had coaxed a flowering from the frost, which before seemed barren and parched as salt. The grass shone with petal colours and water drops spilled from all the trees as innumerable as petals. ‘I told you it was nice,’ Sylvie said. Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine.

But of course we do not suppose – whatever the presentation, we cannot suppose – that Ruth has ever written or uttered these words, or formulated these thoughts in this manner. The whole texture of the book is an act of imaginative generosity by which latent feelings, unshaped reflections, are made exquisitely articulate. More than that, Ruth sees back in time before her own birth, to the girlhood of her mother and the life of her grandparents. All the conventions of first-person narrative are thrown aside, and most of the supposed advantages – the limited perspective, the participant’s report. Ruth becomes a vision and a voice attached only by some half-miraculous other-worldly link to the subject of the smalltown disasters that the plot has displayed to us. Inexplicable by the canons of realism, which the book in other places scrupulously observes, this discrepancy is clearly an integral part of the design. Could it be mere stylistic exuberance – the desire of a skilful performer to set virtuosity free? I hardly think so. Ruth floats free of her circumstances, and if this were just an elaborate artifice it would not be as moving as it is. It is moving because it is the consequence of a belief – the belief that as well as the mind there is the soul, which may know and feel things the mind cannot grasp, except perhaps by fragmentary translations into words which are not the words we use every day. It is not a belief that is often exemplified in modern fiction.

In saying this, we run into the danger of making Housekeeping sound like a ‘poetic’ novel, all interior monologue and creative writing. It is not. It is packed with incidents, detailed notations, all exactly observed, never random, each chosen for a purpose. It is profoundly sad, and the sadness of its special situation tries to say something about all sadness: yet it is lit by gleams of dry unstereotyped humour. One could even surmise that Huckleberry Finn had an occasional hand in the collaboration. Many of the usual ingredients do not occur at all in this novel: no men, no sexual passion, society seen only fleetingly out of the corner of the eye. Yet the final impression is of fullness, not restriction. A tale that runs many risks, and surmounts them triumphantly.

Housekeeping is set in Idaho, in the foothills of the Rockies. So, by a curious coincidence, is The Noble Enemy. Again a small town in a landscape too big for it: but here the menace latent in the scene comes to the fore in a novel dominated by macho violence and the cruelty of the elements. It comes with a recommendation by Graham Greene who says: ‘The story held me so completely ... I wish I had written this book.’ At first, this is a little surprising – for the adultery that triggers off the action is an ordinary American adultery, without sacrilegious or metaphysical overtones, and the central conflict is near to a straightforward, powerful tale of physical adventure. It concerns a small party trapped in a snowfall in the mountains, the struggle against the savagery of storm and cold, the vain attempts at rescue. On second thoughts, however, we are nearer to Greeneland. The four caught in the storm are at feud: on one side, the roaring boy who has seduced his neighbour’s wife, and this man’s decent loyal companion; on the other, the jealous husband and his feeble acolyte, mad for revenge. All are to some degree strays and misfits, potential victims; their roles and natures are outlined with great sharpness and economy before the ordeal starts. Only panic and fury could have driven them into the mountains at that season, and the human conflict is quickly reduced to a more primitive one. From trying to kill each other they become unwilling allies against the killing weather. But their fear and anger combine with the terrors of the cold to frustrate the germs of fellowship. There is shooting, mistrust, desertion. The prolonged struggle is realised with great force – both the physical miseries and the fluctuations of mind they bring with them. One man’s character stands out, that of Arizo, the doomed faithful friend who had nothing to do with the business anyway. When the one survivor gets back he has to submit to ordeal by media and the ordeal of justice, for he is called on to answer for the killings. In the end, he escapes and goes on the run, not without the connivance of the law: ‘The sheriff thought of all the fugitives haunting America at that moment and sighed.’ Charles Fox is English by birth, long settled in America. He has written for a wide variety of magazines and this is his first novel. Within the field he has chosen he has clearly nothing to learn.

Back home again, as the newscasters say, that branch of fiction consisting of novels, about Catholics written by professors of English literature in Midland universities has received an accession. Bernard Bergonzi’s The Roman Persuasion is attended by so many coincidental links to David Lodge’s recent How far can you go? that to remark on them is almost unavoidable. By ‘links’ I don’t mean influence, for they are books of very different kinds, and I should surmise from internal evidence that Bergonzi’s was written earlier. They are both historical novels, in one sense of the term – specific about place and date, designed to show the dynamics of a period, not simply as an imaginative exercise but as a veracious record. Both are concerned with the pressure of public events on private lives – events whose public status almost inevitably leads us outside the limits of the text, Since both Bergonzi and Lodge in their critical writing have shown a good deal of interest in the techniques of Modernism and theories that would see a work of fiction as a self-contained system of signs, it is curious that they should have settled so contentedly for the traditional chronicle. But so it is: for better or worse the world is still there, even if the French refuse to speak to it, and it is harder to escape from than they suppose. Lodge with his topical slant gives the impression of drawing pretty directly on lived experience. Bergonzi’s narrative is more distanced. Its events take place between 1933 and 1937. Bergonzi was born in 1929. His work, therefore, is a historical novel in another sense – it is a reconstruction. In the tradition of so many 19th-century novelists, he is recreating the world as it was just before his own real awareness of it began.

The Roman Persuasion presents a Catholic family in the Thirties: an old Catholic family, not grandees in the Waugh manner, but going back on one side to a 17th-century martyr. They are immensely aware of their faith, professional Catholics even. The mother whom we never see, for she dies as the novel opens, was a poet and an essayist noted among her co-religionists and respected beyond; the father is editor of an old-fashioned Catholic review. We are reminded of the Meynells: but just in case we should be reminded too clearly, they are mentioned as friends of the family. Belloc and Chesterton represent the triumphant entry of Catholicism into modern letters, Belloc especially a brooding presence in the background, revered but a little suspect for his foreign ways. The Cartwrights are severe, cultivated, devout, and very English. The older generation have never for a moment suspected that Catholicism might lead to Continental attitudes or infection from abroad. There are three daughters, the eldest a widow from the 1914 war, the other two unmarried professional women – all intelligent, scrupulous, rather affected, rather aggressive, rather tiresome: but – and here Bergonzi’s portraiture is discriminating and delicately skilful – good women, whom we are bound to respect, whose opinions must be taken seriously. There is a son, younger, unsettled, making nothing of his life; and a nephew, a thrusting strenuous Catholic journalist, enamoured of ideas but a politician at heart, full of strange notions from Maurras, Maritain and what not, that the gentle old head of the family cannot understand.

There is very little plot of the ordinary kind. The conflicts are all conflicts of ideas. The members of the family are strongly individual, highly articulate and extremely obstinate. What brings their conflicts into sharp relief is the Spanish Civil War. They all take different positions. The eldest daughter, of a more developed spirituality than the rest, refuses to take sides; the second is inclined to the Republicans; the other is an ardent supporter of Franco and the Faith. Martin the nephew, proto-Fascist and well on the way to being a real Fascist, is sucked into an Italo-German orbit, and it is his suasion that induces the young son to go to Spain and fight on Franco’s side. In places, Bergonzi’s historical reconstructions overlap with recollections of my own, and I think he has captured the atmosphere of the time, in that sort of milieu, with excellent judgment and considerable accuracy. We have had the red Thirties ad nauseam: it is useful to be reminded that there was another side. To centre the book in these years does not lead to a rounded conclusion. But perhaps a conclusion was not intended. The Roman Persuasion as it stands is a patient and thoughtful group portrait, but for much of its length it is static, and as a story it is incomplete. It reads like the introductory volume to a roman-fleuve, designed to follow the ideological fortunes of the Cartwrights into the more turbulent years to come.