- A Start in Life by Anita Brookner
Cape, 176 pp, £5.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 224 01899 X
- Rhine Journey by Ann Schlee
Macmillan, 165 pp, £5.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 333 28320 1
- The Sure Salvation by John Hearne
Faber, 224 pp, £6.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 571 11670 1
- Beloved Latitudes by David Pownall
Gollancz, 140 pp, £6.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 575 02988 9
The four novels before us are all highly original, but they tend to confirm an old popular belief – that there are two sexes and that there are some differences between them. All end sadly, in moods of more or less fatalist acceptance: but the spheres of their sorrow are divided on strictly traditional lines by the gender of their authors – the cannon and the firing-squad against the drawing-room and the kitchen stove. At the end of David Pownall’s book the protagonist and his confidant are shot. At the end of John Hearne’s the leading characters have been respectively drowned, decapitated and disembowelled, and the hero is about to be hanged. Ann Schlee’s story ends with her heroine renouncing a fantasy and going to live in a cottage by herself, having made a small but definite act of defiance against a spiritually tyrannical brother. Anita Brookner’s heroine ends as she began, writing a chapter on Eugénie Grandet in her book on Balzac, having lost a lover and acquired the duty of looking after a selfish and dependent father. The wrong choices, in the men’s novels are violent and catastrophic and punished by death. The misdirections in the women’s novels are more a matter of attrition, perhaps not quite beyond amendment: purgatorial, it may be, rather than infernal.
When a distinguished art-historian changes tack and writes a novel, what would we expect? Some mystery about attributions, high life in a Berensonian ambience? Anita Brookner’s A Start in Life is not like that at all. It has a dual theme: the effect on a young girl of an extraordinary childhood with ill-assorted parents, and her later development into a young woman – an intelligent and in a way successful young woman – for whom nothing quite comes off. Ruth is a student and a researcher; she says of herself that her life has been ruined by literature. But she is wrong in this: it isn’t literature that is to blame. The real diagnosis is made in an authorial comment later on. Ruth is in love, with a highly unsuitable object, and is fatally lacking in confidence. Je ne suis pas assez belle pour lui, she says to herself, quoting Eugénie Grandet. But, says the narrator, ‘had she but known it her looks were beside the point; she was attractive enough for a clever woman, but it was principally as a clever woman that she was attractive.’ She remains in ignorance of this, a clever girl trying to be an ordinary girl, trying to be like her commonplace friend Anthea, failing, and making a series of false starts till the time for starting is past altogether. A story of disappointments that fall well short of calamity: yet the effect is not lowering. A scholarly writer who turns to fiction often has difficulty with the narrative mode: but Anita Brookner has no difficulty at all. Her narrative style is direct, vigorous and witty – a word I hesitate to use, for in current reviewerese it generally means sour, and here the wit is generous. The characters surrounding Ruth – her parents, the housekeeper, her first young man, a do-gooding student counsellor – are done with brilliant comic verve. Another danger here, of too much sympathy for the heroine and too much irony for everybody else. But this is avoided too. Ruth is seen at the proper distance. Her parents are appalling; her mother English, actress, empty-headed and flighty to a positively psychopathic degree; her father unspecified Central European, but surely Viennese – an amiable flibbertigibbet, equally futile and self-regarding; and the portraits are all the more effective for the unresentful forbearance which Ruth contriyes to exert. The period Fifties to Seventies, I suppose; the setting Chelsea and Paris; the atmosphere and detail extremely authentic; we never find ourselves wandering in novel-land. The only contradiction in this stylish and well-ordered book is between the liveliness of the narrative and the greyness of the theme.
A silvery grey is designedly the prevailing colour of Ann Schlee’s Rhine Journey. It is a period piece, a tour on the Rhine in 1851, with all the Victorian romantic feeling for the castled crag of Drachenfels, Ehrenbreitstein with its shattered wall, das grosse heilige Köln, mit seinem grossen Dome – alas, encrusted with Papistical trumpery. But it is only three years after the 1848 Revolution, in the full flood of the subsequent repression, and the Morrisons, English voyagers with their own preoccupations and obsessions, have very little notion of what sort of world they are looking at. Charlotte, the unmarried sister of the Reverend Charles Morrison, is travelling with her brother and his family, as companion to his wife and 17-year-old daughter Ellie. She loves her brother, but he is an insanely bigoted Evangelical Protestant and the atmosphere he creates around him is oppressive. Twenty years ago he talked Charlotte out of her one love affair, forbade it as unsuitable; and for 20 years she has been housekeeper to an elderly cleric who has now died. It is assumed she will spend the rest of her life with the Morrisons. On the quay at Coblenz she sees a face which seems to be that of her old lover. It is not he, it could not be: he is the wrong age; he has the wrong name; and he turns out to be a fellow traveller with a family whose acquaintance the Morrisons soon make. All the same, Charlotte becomes obsessed by the idea that this is her Mr Fermer of 20 years ago. She falls into a dream-like state, hardly able to tell her imaginings from reality. And this is the beginning of a curious link between her and this haunting stranger; a link, too, with the troubled politics of Rhenish Prussia, so alien to the unsuspecting English. Charlotte’s tale is crossed by that of Ellie, who is ardently pursued by a young German officer and is hopelessly smitten with him. Some small mysteries develop. The outward action is slight but intricate; the inner action becomes more intense. In the end, Charlotte receives an explanation that dispels her fantasies. She comes to a resolve that achieves her own independence; and she makes a delicate gesture that ranges her decisively on the side of the young lovers.
The sense of period is beautifully sustained, and we are never allowed to step outside it. The speech of Charlotte, her brother and her sister-in-law is precisely limited by the bounds of Evangelical family intercourse, and the narrator’s voice is carefully tuned to the same level. The book is charmingly produced, as to format and typography, with attractive 19th-century vignettes at the head of every chapter. But it is not, as the unwary reader might think at first, a sort of Victorian idyll. The family bullying, the moral and spiritual oppression, the hypocrisies of the pious-worldly, are realised with a quiet exactitude that almost disguises the severity of the condemnation. A distinguished piece of work, and a much stronger one than its deliberately unaggressive form would suggest.
Over twenty years ago John Hearne wrote a series of novels set in the West Indies. Now, he says, with the publication of The Sure Salvation, he considers his career as a novelist to be just beginning. If his earlier work was an apprenticeship it was a thorough one, for the present novel, closely woven and intricately planned, is handled with great power and assurance. It begins quietly in deadlocked stillness: a ship, The Sure Salvation, is becalmed in the South Atlantic on its way from Africa to Brazil. The calm is entering its third week. Captain Hogarth, master and owner, meticulously enters up the log. ‘Noon, May 17, 1860 – Lat 1°14'S, Long 32°16'W. No distance. Calm continues. Full sails set. Cargo in prime condition because of our special care.’ In the fourth chapter we learn what the cargo is. The ship is a slaver, with five hundred blacks beneath the hatches. The normal horrors of a slaving voyage are intensified by the weather; and we follow them for the remaining fortnight of the calm and the first few days after the calm breaks. At this point Alex Delfosse, the black ship’s cook, shoots dead the two sailors guarding the hatchway, sticks a Navy Colt in Captain Hogarth’s throat, frees the slaves and takes over command. Two days later HMS Beaver, Lieutenant Honeyball commanding, captures the ship.
This is the bare sequence of events. But like any ship, The Sure Salvation is a community of fate, bringing together in an inescapable common present an assemblage of incongruous pasts. At the beginning we do not know why Captain Hogarth, a fine seaman and a man of honour, has taken up a disgraceful trade. We do not know why his wife is sailing with him, or the reason for the strangely distant relation between them. Alex Delfosse, a freed slave, has a past that partly explains his cunning and intelligence, but we do not know the project for the future that drives him on. These matters gradually unfold themselves, as do the characters of a group of English sailors. Only the second officer, Reynolds, a Dostoievskian sadist and nihilist, remains inexplicable. The development is partly through straight narrative, partly through the consciousness of the characters; and the texture is extremely dense. We never lose touch with the current situation and its mounting tension, but other times and other places also form part of the tapestry, with juxtapositions often dictated by a ferocious irony. It is a story of horror, and the horrors are handled as they should be – not evaded in a mist of suggestion, nor intolerably dwelt on. Heart of Darkness and Benito Cereno glower in the background – and The Sure Salvation is not out of place in their company.
A question presents itself: what is the root of these tales of barbarity, cruelty and violence between black and white? Nothing that would be consoling to the Race Relations Board. They have no common attitude. Conrad’s horrified disgust at colonial greed and oppression is balanced by the horror in Africa itself. Conrad’s humanitarian sentiments have no parallel in Melville’s story, where there never seems to be any suggestion that the revolted slaves had any legitimate cause for complaint. John Hearne’s novel shows an honourable man presiding with judicious calm over hideous cruelties, and thereby leading himself and his crew to destruction. David Pownall’s Beloved Latitudes belongs to the same area, but contributes an element of savage farce. All, however, have one element in common – a wholly pernicious relation between black and white. All these fictions embrace a good deal of dense specific detail, about the life of the sea, about colonial exploitation, about the politics of an African state. Yet it is not the impulse to report or expose affronts to humanity that is at the core of the narratives. It is something less rational: as though an almost uncontrollable sense of horror has given rise to fables which indeed make use of real and hideous facts, but also go beyond them. In all, there is an uncanny symbiosis between black and white that seems to release an absolute evil.
In Beloved Latitudes (a title with so many ambiguities that it defies all certain interpretation) the scene is a prison with only two inmates, one black man and one white. They are Male Sebusia, the deposed president of a modern African state, and Neville Tyldesley, his English confidant, his ‘other self’, and until lately his minister of commerce. Both are awaiting execution. Sebusia is a sort of conflation of Nkrumah and Amin; his colourless successor Hubert Hiwewe doesn’t particularly want to shoot him, and is all too aware of the fact that he has nothing of Sebusia’s ferocious energy and magnetism. He thinks that if only he could have the story of Sebusia’s life he might learn to emulate him. Sebusia is willing to oblige, and proceeds to dictate his autobiography to Tyldesley in the adjoining cell. This forms the substance of the book. It is a rambling confession, full of grotesque egotism, bits of odd, half-educated insight, mania, superstition and shrewdness. Pownall has filled it with brilliant and extraordinary invention: the story of Sebusia’s rise to power through the takeover of his Baptist school is fantastically convincing. The barbarities and oppressions of his regime are seen only through his own eyes: the normal and necessary way of settling matters. In the last scene both he and Tyldesley are duly shot, to the accompaniment of a popular festival in which mad excitement, rejoicing and shame are equally mingled. Like the other works in this genre, Beloved Latitudes is a book that will leave most readers nonplussed, with no clear reaction, except that the humane rationalisms of social democracy are not a very likely explanation of the world we live in.