Heartlessness is not enough

Graham Hough

  • Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark
    Bodley Head, 221 pp, £6.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 370 30900 6
  • Burnt Water by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Margaret Peden
    Secker, 231 pp, £6.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 436 16763 8
  • The Leaves on Grey by Desmond Hogan
    Picador, 119 pp, £1.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 330 26287 4
  • Children of Lir by Desmond Hogan
    Hamish Hamilton, 136 pp, £6.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 241 10608 7
  • Walking naked by Nina Bawden
    Macmillan, 220 pp, £5.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 333 31304 6

Critical reactions to Muriel Spark puzzle me a good deal. The general consensus among reviewers seems to find her riotously funny; and in the midst of this open-hearted merriment I am a skeleton at the feast. Or rather, I can’t find the feast; I feel that I have been at a picnic with people I don’t really know; the sandwiches are made with margerine, the thermos is full of cold tea, there is a nasty east wind; and just as the unluscious viands are spread out, dead on cue, it starts to rain. Perhaps this is the proper response: for fully paid-up members of the fan club assure us that to think of Muriel Spark as an entertaining writer, an amusing writer, is quite wrong; and there are veiled hints of metaphysical depths or spiritual heights, which my blunted sensibilities are rarely able to discern. But all are agreed that she is strikingly original; her writing is not at all like anyone else’s. And here I rejoice to concur with the common reader: for this is surely the case.

Originality, however, is purchased at a price. Those who lie on the watch for novelty can have little hope of greatness, for great things cannot have escaped former observation. Her fiction suffers from being laid so often in odd holes and corners, from pointless bizarreries that intrude into otherwise closely observed narrative, from bouts of nouveauroman exhibitionism that are formally disruptive, like a display of spoon-bending in the middle of a concert. The heroine of her first novel The Comforters is a quite plausibly tiresome young woman, using her recent conversion to Catholicism as a means of tantalising her former lover. But her conviction that she is being written into a novel and that her life is dictated by this falls heavily between an unlikely neurosis and a mere authorial whimsy. There are later characters who are similarly afflicted; they write fiction that soon after turns into fact; they can foretell the future; they are uncertain whether they are dead or alive. A sour Catholicism is a recurrent motif – revealing itself chiefly as a pertinacious uncharitableness diversified by patches of superstition. Bits of inexplicable moral judgment are found floating in a sea of careful neutrality; characters who are merely irritating are stigmatised as evil; those who are really evil are often regarded as merely quaint.

The result of all this is a sustained alienation effect, and there is little doubt that it is quite intentional. For there can be no doubt at all that Muriel Spark is an extremely precise and dexterous writer, and if as you make your way through her territory you keep stubbing your toe on unexpected obstacles, that is exactly what she meant you to do. In part she does it to annoy because she knows it teases. But there are other reasons too. Mrs Spark began to write in the Fifties, a time when the new novelists were extremely conscious that the social framework on which English fiction had been built had been considerably dislocated and could no longer be relied on as a stable backing. The more adventurous of them (Iris Murdoch is another case in point) made a virtue of necessity and quite deliberately portrayed characters who seemed to be cut off from their roots, or to have no roots, or at least to have no assignable place in any recognisable social hierarchy. This made for much-needed novelty and variety, but except when there was a strong injection of energy from deeper sources, it also made for thinness, shallowness and dryness. In Muriel Spark’s case these unalluring qualities seem almost to be deliberately sought, partly as an antidote to false comfort and self-deception, partly from obscurer causes that are hard to divine. The heroine of her latest book Loitering with Intent is a young woman setting out on her career as a novelist in the early Fifties; and she distinctly plumes herself on her ungenial manner of approach. When a passage in her novel is criticised as ‘far too cold’ she feels that this is a good sign. She knows, she says, that she is not ‘helping the readers to know which side they were supposed to be on’, and she is quite satisfied with that. ‘I wasn’t writing so that the reader would think me a nice person,’ she says, and she continues her tale ‘with a light and heartless hand’. When one of her characters is subjected to a little psychological analysis she becomes very irritated: he has ‘never existed, he is only some hundreds of words, some punctuation, sentences, paragraphs, marks on the page. If I had conceived his motives as a psychological study I would have said so. But I didn’t go in for motives. I never have.’ These sentiments are a very accurate rendering of the fashionable cant of the time in which this story is set: but the obvious relish with which Mrs Spark produces them now suggests that they are very close to her own principles of composition. And that would explain why so many of her characters are mere gesticulating puppets and so many of her plots mere contraptions.

Loitering with Intent is a return to the farcical-mechanical style of The Comforters. Fleur Talbot, the novelist-heroine, is hard up and takes a job as-typist-secretary to an eccentric group who are communally compiling and recording their autobiographies. The chairman and organiser is a middle-aged gentlemanly layabout who exercises some sort of power over the others, and is supposed to exude some kind of evil – too facetiously conceived to be convincing. Bits of the autobiographies find their way into the novel Fleur is writing: suspicions are aroused, and a plot develops to nobble her publisher and steal her manuscript. This develops ramifications so remarkably silly that the whole thing would drop from one’s nerveless fingers if it were not for a genuine verve and liveliness in the telling. There are a great many characters for so slight a tale, and one or two of them begin to develop some shape and substance: but most are perfunctory outlines. The Catholic motif appears again. Fleur is a sort of fellow-traveller, and her friend, whom she hates and who steals from her, is extremely devout.

It is hard to see what could come out of this trivial tangle. It is as though Mrs Spark deliberately refrains from resorting to the only topic that has ever given her writing any real weight. That is the fully-acknowledged presence of evil. Up to a certain point in Spark fiction evil can be snickered and giggled away: but when it appears in full untempered blast the posturing vanishes and her work is suffused with a grim power and intelligence – as it is in The Driver’s Seat, the study of a woman uniquely devoted to self-destruction, and in The Public Image, the study of a world totally corrupt, and of an astonishing, unpremeditated act of defiance against it. When Muriel Spark’s celebrated heartlessness is used to confront these topics it becomes a source of strength: used merely to amuse, it results in a thin, sour kind of entertainment. And in the mixture of the two modes there is something distasteful.

With the prevalence of translation, and the immense readership covered by translations into English, the novel today is virtually an international form. Poetry is what gets lost in translation: but the novel can survive a good deal of rough handling and emerge with its essential message not much changed. Tolstoy is an English writer to the English, a German to the Germans, French to the French: yet we do not doubt that we are reading the same Tolstoy. The aggressively autochthonous Joyce has become one of the culture-heroes of international Modernism. But there are areas that are more resistant to transplantation. The Latin American novel is one. Closely preoccupied with its own history and politics, or soaring into an enigmatic metaphysical void, or perhaps doing both at the same time – in any case it sets up barriers to the outsider, beliefs and superstitions, loyalties and betrayals, convictions and failures of conviction, that are subtly unfamiliar to the rest of the Western world. Carlos Fuentes, still only 53, has written film-scripts for Buñuel, besides a large body of fiction and essays. To the outside world he is the outstanding figure in contemporary Mexican letters, a bitter critic and interpreter of the history and fate of his country. An earlier novel, Where the air is clear, is a composite picture of Mexico City seen both as its unique self, the product of a quite extraordinary conjunction of forces, and as the archetypal modern city, Megalopolis, the 20th-century version of Baudelaire’s fourmillante cité, full of dreams and horrors – a core of functionless and vulgar wealth surrounded by a vast periphery of squalor, misery and dispossession. The Death of Artemisio Cruz is the last confession of a one-time revolutionary, later turned gangster, summing up in his person the moral decay of his country. Terra Nostra is a vast historical-magical-philosophical panorama whose aim and purpose defeat me. Fuentes is evidently well-acquainted with Anglo-American literature: echoes of Joyce, Faulkner and Pound are obvious, and his early writing is said to have been much under the influence of Dos Passos. Yet no clear picture of this substantial and varied oeuvre seems to emerge, and the foreignness of the Latin American imagination is frustrating.

However, in the present collection of short stories the direction is clear. The author imagines that he owns an apartment house in Mexico City; its inhabitants are the characters of his fiction. In the attic is his Artemisio Cruz, in the basement Aura, the sorceress heroine of another of his novels. On the floors between are the characters of the stories collected here. They span the whole range of Mexican society, from the old revolutionary general, rich with loot and land speculation, to the sad denizens of the lowest barrio in the ‘belt of misery’. Inhabitants of the same city, the characters live in different worlds, and the stories are not homogeneous in style. What unites them is the sense of outrage, a feeling of amazed and compassionate horror at the spectacle of ‘this great cancerous stain of a smog-ridden, traffic-snarled metropolis of 17 million people’. Without sentimentalism, sympathy goes to the poor, the old and the young. The established middle generation, the powers that rule in business and the state, are monsters or inflated nobodies. In ‘Mother’s Day’ a secret complicity unites a neglected boy with his frightful old thug of a grandfather, an ex-revolutionary general, in common contempt for the corrupt and flabby father – until even that bit of authenticity is destroyed by the father’s revelation of the true and hideous nature of the family drama. It is a society in which no one can exist undamaged. In ‘These were palaces’ a poor old woman befriends a crippled boy because he reminds her of her daughter who has disppeared – until it is revealed that for years she brought up this perfectly healthy daughter as a cripple, keeping her in a wheelchair to save her from the inevitable fate of a pretty servant’s child in a great house. In The Son of Andres Aparicio’ a youth from the most wretched of all the shanty-towns sets out to escape and do something to help his family. But the only way out is to join a terrorist gang, under the leadership of the man who ruined his father.

Everyone is obsessed with history – their own past or the past of their families, the memory of successive revolutions, of political hopes that have all failed. Some of the stories (the less successful) have a supernatural tinge. The ancient water-god arises from the sunken lake on which Mexico City is built and engulfs a tidy modern bureaucrat. Another man receives an eerie visitation from a more recent period of history, that of Maximilian and Carlota. None of the tales offers any hope, or ends in anything but a blind alley. Yet humanity is not entirely destroyed: even in this welter of social and moral decay the human lineaments and some torn relics of human relationship manage to persist. Perhaps that is a kind of hope after all. But in the end we are left doubtful of the purpose and tendency of what we have been told. Are we to stand aghast at the spectacle of these exotic, peculiarly Mexican horrors; or are we to see them as types of the horror to which the world is everywhere being led?

This is always a question with fiction of a strong regional colouring. Is it the idiosyncrasy or the universality that invites us? When we get to Ireland the answer is clear. The characters are so obsessed with being Irish that their share in the common heritage of mankind is a matter of comparative indifference. In the childhood of the century James Joyce alias Stephen Dedalus went out from Dublin ‘to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’. What Joyce forged in the smithy of his soul has become available to others on easier terms, and the conscience of his race (‘conscience’ as in French = consciousness) has become one of the accepted literary commodities. The shadow of Stephen Dedalus lies heavy on Desmond Hogan’s The Leaves on Grey. It is the story of Sean the narrator and his friend Liam, first as boys in Galway, then, in the central portion of the book, as students in Dublin in the 1950s, and finally, almost as a dutiful afterthought, in Derry in the troubled 1970s. There is much delicacy, some attractive impressionist poetry, in the early part of the book. It is the student days in Dublin that are its main substance. Times have changed since Joyce wrote of the same scenes. The repressions are not sexual, the priesthood has lost much of its power. But there is the same atmosphere of delayed adolescence, cramped and turbid, provincial tedium, the longing to escape. The difference is that Stephen Dedalus was an intellectual, Sean and Liam are merely bohemians, so their struggles have little energy and their protests no edge. When towards the end Liam becomes disturbed by the conflict and violence in the North, his response is to retire to a lake isle (you can almost count the bean-rows) and hope that peace will come. The result is a boneless book: the characters too sorry for themselves, incapable of decision, the prey of childish gusts of feeling. Their life as adults remains unrealised, and the poetic prose lapses into sloppy syntax and vagueness about the meanings of words.

The short stories in Children of Lir are more successful. Glimpses, moments of insight and observation – these constitute Desmond Hogan’s strength. They are not enough to sustain a continuous fiction, but distributed among these very brief tales they do make a consistent picture, and the sad, feckless, fragmentary nature of the author’s vision of Ireland comes out with great poignancy. Can it really be like this? Does everyone still spend the time talking about Easter 1916? Is it obligatory to see all women as either nuns or whores? Is Ireland so obsessively inescapable that when an Irishman goes abroad he never meets anyone but others as Irish as himself? Do foreign parts exist only as a backdrop against which the Irish can perform their native rites? Obviously not: this is too obedient to literary convention to be taken as a report. But there is an imaginative coherence about this vision.

One aspect of Desmond Hogan’s work does openly present itself as a report on current experience, and deserves comment as such. He is haunted by the idea of violence – the violence of Ireland’s past history, enforced rather than chosen, and the renewed outbreak of violence, chosen rather than enforced, in the North today. Not that he presents it directly: he is essentially a meditative writer, convinced of the futility of violent solutions and appalled by the inability of his fellows to reject them. In The Mourning Thief a young man returns from England to visit his dying father, and finds that he cannot even speak of his own wish for peace, for the old man’s whole life has been coloured by memories of 1916. A young man in a later story accuses the priests: ‘I knew they were to blame, those priests, the people who lied about glorious deeds. Violence is never, ever glorious.’ Another ‘knew, as all sensitive and knowledgeable Irish people knew, that the prevalent philosophy of Irish history was pacifism.’ In Hogan’s belief it is the old who keep cruel memories alive and the young who ‘are trying to be peaceful with a violent heritage’. It must take both obstinacy and courage to say this, and to the outsider it hardly seems borne out by the facts.

The initial mistake in Nina Bawden’s Walking naked is to allow Laura to tell her own story. This grudging, mean-spirited, resentful and destructive personage has already got rid of one husband and set of children before the story begins, and by the time it ends she seems well on the way to disposing of a second batch. She lies, she nags, she whines, she bullies a timid child; and though she reveals herself doing all these things it does not occur to her to alter any of them. Some rational purpose of entertainment or edification might, I suppose, have been served by subjecting her to impartial scrutiny, but 220 pages of her own version of things is too much.

A second difficulty is to know on what level we are operating. When we read, as I am afraid we do, that ‘her elfin face crinkled with laughter,’ that Laura was studying Aldous Huxley’s Science of Life, that an austere and cultivated schoolmistress says it is ‘up to we women’, it seems safe to assume that we are in the region of Woman’s Own. But Laura is pretty sniffy about the Agony Column in women’s magazines: and with some justification, for she is capable of better things. When her own inflamed ego is temporarily quiescent she can cast a shrewd glance on the outer world and the antics of her acquaintances; she can analyse them with wit and perception, and she can at times conjure up sharp and convincing dialogue. The protagonists in the novels of women novelists have a tendency to be women novelists, and so it is here. Laura is a novelist, and more credible in that role than in any other. However, this introduces another dement of confusion into the book. As a novelist, Laura is endowed with many of the not inconsiderable skills of her creator, and she has to treat herself, when she remembers, as a character in a novel – i.e. with a sharp and critical eye. At the same time, she is doing the unconscious-self-revelation job of the usual first-person narrator: and the two are in hopeless contradiction. The result is a fine old muddle of inconsistent points of view, and the inconsequentialities extend to the plot. Laura, brought up, she tells us, as a slum child in horrible squalor, is suddenly transformed without discernible transition into a self-assured young woman in Oxford, with Etonian friends. I know that the angel in the house is not an available stereotype these days, and one does not expect the story to be told by Esther Sumrnerson, but a novel gets off to a very bad start if the inescapable narrator is manifestly hell on wheels.