Making strange

John Sutherland

  • Other people by Martin Amis
    Cape, 223 pp, £5.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 224 01766 7
  • The Magic Glass by Anne Smith
    Joseph, 174 pp, £6.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 7181 1986 X
  • The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Gerald Edwards
    Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp, £7.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 241 10477 7
  • Sharpe’s Eagle by Bernard Cornwell
    Collins, 266 pp, £6.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 00 221997 2
  • XPD by Len Deighton
    Hutchinson, 397 pp, £6.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 09 144570 1

Since Success, Martin Amis has been involved in a spectacular case of alleged plagiarism. As the apparently aggrieved author, Amis showed himself notably unresentful and unlitigious. Indeed, he took the offence as an occasion to ruminate good-naturedly on the oddities of literary ‘borrowing’. It’s relevant to bring this up since Other People depends very largely on a trick which is usually thought to be someone else’s trademark.

First, to describe the novel. The narrative follows a heroine who has woken in hospital (‘a white room’) lacking all long- and short-term memory. The amnesiac gimmick is common enough in SF and thriller fiction (Other People is subtitled ‘A Mystery Story’, though the blurb somewhat nervously qualifies the description with the term ‘metaphysical’). But Amis is less concerned with reconstituting the mysterious past of Mary Lamb (as she arbitrarily calls herself) than with exploiting her as a centre of deranged consciousness. For Mary the common world is defamiliarised. Thus, for instance, she tackles the telephone:

Mary had watched people use the telephone several times and was pretty confident she could handle it. The bandy, glistening dumb-bell was heavier than she expected. But she had expected the call: she knew who this must be.

  ‘Yes?’ said Mary.

  A thin voice started calling. Telephones were clearly less efficient instruments of communication than people let on. For instance, you could hardly hear the other person and they could hardly hear you.

  ‘I can’t hear. What?’ said Mary.

  Then she heard, in an angry whine, ‘I said turn it the other way up’.

Mary is a home-grown version of Craig Raine’s Martian, for whom the quotidian and domestic props of life are rendered bafflingly alien and wonderful:

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
That snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
To their lips and soothe it to sleep

With sounds. And yet, they wake it up
Deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Raine and Amis are of the same generation (young), and of the same university, and their careers in literary journalism have intertwined. They are held to belong to a coterie which has been termed – embarrassingly for them, doubtless – the New Oxford Wits. Given a degree of literary fraternity, there is no reason why Amis should not have experimented in fiction with Raine’s Martian perspective. The law allows no copyright in technique or device, any more than in ideas. (Jacob Epstein’s offence, allegedly, was to use forms of wording from The Rachel Papers.) The danger is that in this novel, with its elaborated and repeated effect, Amis seems, as Raine can occasionally seem, something of a one-trick pony.

Other People has a plot of kinds. Mary picks up with and is picked up by various wrong sets, from the criminal to the swinging. She has Candy-like adventures, as she discovers what the different holes in her body are for. In the last brief section the heroine recovers consciousness of her original identity and history. In some very enigmatic fashion, the facts about her would-be saviour, Detective Prince, and her would-be murderer, Mr Wrong, are sorted out. There’s an Incident at Owl Creek-like ending in which Mary may be executed, or reborn, or returned by time-loop to the novel’s opening situation. Other People, this is to say, does not easily give up its secret – at least not to me. Amis’s cleverness has always been of the kind which makes the clodhopping reader feel he is having rings run round him. As a sustained exercise in ostranenie, the Russian Formalist term which translates uneasily as ‘making strange’, Other People is virtuosic. As a development in Amis’s rapidly unfolding fiction-writing career (only one of his careers, incidentally), it’s very unexpected. As a mystery story, it’s very mysterious. Such is Amis’s authority, already, in modern English fiction that it will be taken very seriously.

The Magic Glass is propelled our way by a back-coverful of pre-publication puff: ‘really marvellous’ (Colin Wilson), ‘wickedly funny’ (A.S. Byatt), ‘very nourishing entertainment’ (Dame Rebecca West). The manuscript’s progress through the hands of less enthusiastic publishers has been recorded in various gossip columns. Anne Smith, editor of the Literary Review, is a canny publicist for herself and her journal. Now, at last, we have this already much-read work to review.

The Magic Glass is transparently a version of the author’s childhood, some thirty years ago in Fife (here ‘Skelf’). Before evaluating Smith’s particular achievement in her first novel, it’s worth going a little into the general question of why Lowland Scots, as different in pedigree as David Daiches, the film-maker Bill Douglas, Jimmy Boyle and Anne Smith, should be so determined to rake over and publicly display their childhoods (all more or less deprived childhoods, though in Daiches’ case less so from poverty than from an austerely Judaist upbringing). To take a topical example: what distinguishes A Sense of Freedom from the paid confessions of other latterday Newgate heroes like Alfie Hinds or John McVicar is the intensely narcissistic attention Boyle turns on his early days in the Gorbals. Whereas McVicar perfunctorily stereotypes himself as the grammar-school boy perverted by his ‘milieu’ (fellow-con Charles Richardson’s Open University-speak), Boyle creates an extraordinarily vivid and well-written portrait of the criminal as a young urchin. It is done without nostalgia, posing or special pleading. The childhood chapters are far and away the best thing in A Sense of Freedom. Jeremy Isaacs saw fit to cut them, however, together with the Barlinnie redemption, in his tendentious television version, leaving nothing for the gawpers but the hard man’s sado-masochistic feats in and behind bars. So, too, the first volume of Daiches’ autobiography – Two Lives: A Jewish Childhood in Edinburgh – is much more powerful than its sequels. And for all the superior literary technique, Daiches’ has the same quality of crystalline, unsentimental objectivity as Boyle’s account. As far as I know, Douglas hasn’t made films on other themes than ‘my childhood’. If he has or does, I’d guarantee their inferiority to the trilogy.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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