Point of Principle

Michael Irwin

  • The Country by David Plante
    Gollancz, 159 pp, £6.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 575 02938 2
  • The Radiant Future by Alexander Zinoviev, translated by Gordon Clough
    Bodley Head, 287 pp, £7.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 370 30219 2
  • Farewell to Europe by Walter Laqueur
    Weidenfeld, 310 pp, £6.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 297 77870 6

The Country, which is concerned with old age, death and family bereavement, is adroitly restricted to an account of four visits. The first two, at intervals of a year, are paid by Daniel Francoeur, an American writer long resident in London, to his aging parents in Rhode Island. He finds them unhappy, constrained by repressed hostility and old disappointments. His mother, now an invalid who confines herself to the house, has borne seven sons. She sees herself as the victim of her husband’s sexual appetites. She resents his lack of sympathy with her tastes, her humour. For his part, he feels a failure: he carries the wound of dismissal from his life-long work as a toolmaker through having broken a strike on a point of principle.

Nothing dramatic happens. There are conversations about the past, guarded exchanges of confidence. The parents are persuaded to come on a trip to the lake for tea. Daniel and his brother Albert help the old man complete a table that he had undertaken to make for another of his sons.

The story then goes back some twenty years to a weekend party at which the whole family was assembled. The sons have come to the lakeside house that they have bought for their parents following the father’s dismissal. His crucial loss of confidence and the tensions between husband and wife are already apparent.

The final visit takes place shortly after the first two. Daniel flies in from London following his father’s sudden death. All the brothers arrive for the funeral. Their mother, strangely liberated by the loss of her husband, freely betrays the innocent egotism that had done much to circumscribe his life. Daniel reflects that his father had ceaselessly regulated his own wishes by ‘duty to the outside world’ He casts about for a means of achieving some glimpse of communion with the dead man.

The story can fairly be summarised since its meaning and power are vested in the telling. It is David Plante’s manner that will attract or alienate readers. The Country exemplifies a mode of contemporary writing almost sufficiently distinct to constitute a genre. The defining characteristic of a novel of this kind is that it seems to consist substantially of a transcription of some personal experience of the author. The emphasis here, of course, must be on the word ‘seems’ What creates the autobiographical impression is not a correspondence between details of the narrative and publicly-known details of the author’s own life – though such a correspondence may be discernible – but the apparent attempt to claim credit and authority through the faithful rendering of real happenings, real responses. The story will be largely composed of gestures and speeches too trivial, inconsequent or banal to seem to merit inclusion save on the basis of their actuality. Here is a typical exchange – Daniel is meeting his brother André before the funeral:

‘It’s been too long since we’ve seen one another,’

André said, drawing away to look at me. ‘And

you’re well, I can see you’re very well.’

‘I am, yes.’

‘I’m so pleased.’

‘And you,’ I said, ‘you seem very well.’

He smiled, then, suddenly, his smile fell. I hugged him again.

André said, starkly, ‘Dad was a great man.’

‘He was, yes,’

‘In every way, he was great.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes.’

Such a passage might well win praise for its honesty – the dialogue rings true in its very flatness – and for sensitivity: the author delicately traces grief through the inarticulacy. But it isn’t, perhaps, unfair to feel that there is a mild form of moral blackmail in operation: the reader who fails to respond appropriately convicts himself of dishonesty or insensitivity, he shrinks from the truth of experience. There is also, arguably, a paradoxical self-regard in the apparent objectivity. Daniel, the narrator, at one point remarks to his father that his difficulty, as an author, lies in writing ‘not about what I feel and think, but what someone else does’ His taut, scrupulous registering of lame reactions can come to seem an indirect method of displaying the fineness of his own feeling.

The studious poverty of much of the dialogue pointedly contrasts with the author’s elegant craftsmanship elsewhere. The novel is constructed with great economy, and held together by numerous unobtrusive links, both narrative and thematic. Indeed, the technical dexterity is itself an image of the skills the narrator’s father has demonstrated as toolmaker and carpenter. But for me the sophistication, like the stylistic reticence, seems an inadequate insurance policy against emotional excess. Filial and fraternal embraces abound, many of them tearful. The climax comes when the brothers approach their father’s body:

Julien drew back from us. As in a sudden panic, he said, ‘I can’t touch him. I can’t.’ He sobbed, and André held him. Richard, with Chuckie by him, kissed his father, and, shaking his head, he left weeping. Edmond kissed his father, pressing his lip for a long while to his cheek. Leaning over my father’s face, I thought, I can’t, I can’t, but kissed his forehead, and left on it the effluence of my tears and mucus. I stepped away, and my shivering gave way to sobbing; both Julien and André came to me to put their hands on my shoulders. André said, in a clear strong voice, ‘Dad loved you. He did love you.’ I said, ‘Yes, yes, I know.’ Julien said, ‘He loved us all.’

Obviously the author is taking a calculated risk here: the description will be found either moving or maudlin – there is no middle ground. If my own upper lip stiffens it’s because I don’t believe that strong grief can be communicated by simple assertion.

The Radiant Future is described on the jacket as a novel, but I am far from convinced. It is possible to descry a story of sorts, concerning the efforts of the narrator. Head of the Department of Theoretical Problems, of the Methodology of Scientific Communism, to become a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences. But effectively the book consists of a series of essays and dialogues about the nature and the prospects of Soviet Communism. Each brief section carries its own title: ‘The Jewish Question’, ‘The Problem of Violence’, ‘On Ideology’ The characters that recur – the author’s children, and a number of friends and colleagues – serve principally to voice different kinds of criticism of the Soviet system. Altogether, the element of fiction is used only to diversify the tone of the argument and to thicken out an occasional point with a little symbolism or dramatisation. The style is further variegated with jokes, satirical verse and a running gag concerning the declining fortunes of a gigantic permanent slogan, constructed of concrete and stainless steel, which originally reads: ‘Long Live Communism – The Radiant Future of All Mankind!’

Zinoviev was trained, apparently, as a Marxist philosopher, and indeed held a research appointment in the Institute of Philosophy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He was also a professor of Logic at the University of Moscow. After the publication in the West of an earlier satirical novel. The Yawning Heights, he was forced into exile in Munich. No doubt The Radiant Future will be hailed as a polemical masterpiece, and no doubt it is one, but something more than a lack of the relevant expertise makes me reluctant to advance the claim here. Many of the allusions to Moscow personalities and habits of existence will be dubiously accessible to the average British reader. And a great deal would seem to have been lost in the translation – perhaps because the work is untranslatable. The verse can be dismally limp:

Folk are feeling very sore.
‘Can’t the Party give us more?’
The Party’s not an easy trollop,
Who’ll give everyone his dollop!

It would seem that much of the energy of the original derives from the mingling of very diverse styles, from the pedantic to the vernacular. In this translation the various idioms seem insufficiently secure, and the transitions correspondingly less funny.

What survives is the argument. The best of it is credited to the narrator’s subversive colleague, Anton Zimin. Other characters in the book, including the narrator, are ready to acknowledge or complain that Soviet life is disfigured by envy, inefficiency, corruption, obtuseness, careerism, hypocrisy, falsehood, anti-semitism, selfishness, amorality. It is Zimin who demonstrates that such ills are not temporary or accidental but derive from the very nature of Communism. His constant claim is that Marxism, as expounded in the Soviet Union, is not a science but merely an ideology. He is prepared to accept many Marxist premises. His only heretical wish is to study Communist phenomena objectively, as Marx once studied capitalism, to analyse Soviet society on its own terms. External comparisons are futile. What though private ownership of the means of production has been relinquished? ‘The distinctive feature of the snake is not that it has no legs, but that it slithers.’ The strong inference is that the observable defects and vices of contemporary Soviet life are the inevitable and irreversible product of Communism, which operates by laws that no theoretician will be allowed to lay bare. For all its foggily comprehensible humours, The Radiant Future is a profoundly seditious and pessimistic work.

Farewell to Europe is a sequel to The Missing Years. Having read the earlier novel less than a year ago, I was dismayed to find how little I remembered about it. To begin the new work was to recall why. Like its predecessor, it lacks fictional life because it is primarily an exercise in contemporary history. The Missing Years was a picture of life in Germany from the First World War through to 1945, the narrative being focused on the experiences of Richard Lasson, the narrator, and of his immediate family. The sequel takes up the story in July, two months after the end of the war and the death of Lasson’s wife. As one of the few Jews to survive in Germany, Lasson is understandably eager to get away, but he lingers until the end of 1946, long enough to allow for an account of the social and political atmosphere in Berlin in the immediate postwar period. Most of the book is given over to the adventures of his son, Peter, who goes to Palestine in a refugee ship and is credibly involved there, as spectator and participant, in many of the significant doings of the next couple of years. A third, and much shorter, section of the novel is concerned with the fate of Lasson’s granddaughter Liz. A student at Berkeley in the early Seventies, she drifts into drug-taking, and dies through loss of the will to live.

The three stories are so disparate as to suggest survival from a projected work far longer and more ambitious – a thoroughgoing diagnosis of our century. But if the proportioning seems odd the novel is already carrying all the freight that the author’s restricted technique will allow. What is admirable in Farewell to Europe, as in its predecessor, is the range of informing knowledge and the prevailing good sense, fairness and generosity of spirit. But the story reads like a synopsis, or like the hurried exposition that must be assimilated before the real action can begin. The monotony of pace, the undistinguished prose, the constant resort to indirect narration and indirect speech are sadly deadening in their effect.