John Harvey

The freckled drawing on the cover of Günter Grass’s latest novel shows a hand just emerging from a rubble of old stones and holding a quill. The quill is lightly and sensitively poised, the hand could be meaning to draw or to write as Grass himself both writes and draws. It is, that is to say, the hand of a writer who in his writing is an artist, and the drawing asks in effect: in a harsh or devastated world, what should such a hand write, and what chances does it have? It is a drawing which, with different implications, could serve equally for all the books here reviewed.

In Grass’s novel these questions are explicitly discussed. I take first, however, a novel which this drawing fits in a more simple and literal way. John Kennedy Toole was dead some years when A Confederacy of Dunces appeared, having, so the Foreword records, killed himself in depression at his failure to get the book published. One cannot think him wrong to have despaired, when a book which should have soared kept falling like lead. Too many of the stones that bury books now are stone heads and stone economics; and how many hands are trying and failing to reach the air? Toole’s book, at any rate, has got free, and one can only recommend its crisp comic evocations of New Orleans bowling alleys, police precincts, pant factories and weenie depots; its night-club, the Night of Joy, dark, empty, where the cast-iron proprietress schemes new economies while the Negro cleaner, hidden behind shades, within a vigorous nimbus of smoke, harangues her ceaselessly out of the moving cloud of dust he cannot see to sweep.

Possibly the book’s difficulty lay in the oddity of its hero, a hugely slothful, vastly fat, pedantically literary man of 30 still living with his mother. As in his name – Ignatius J. Reilly – there is an uneasy facetiousness in the treatment of this character which makes the early comedy wobble: fortunately, the crowded book quickly picks up a strong momentum and accommodates advantageously his overweight lunges. Forced on the world and eruditely hating it, he wreaks incremental havoc wherever he is employed: he is a kind of fat bobbin at the book’s centre round which the skeins of misadventure unwind. The book has been praised as a modern Quixote, but it would be fairer to call it a modern Pickwick Papers. Our comedy is harsh, however: a modern comic fat idealist would not be dewy-eyed and benign like Pickwick, and Ignatius is far to the contrary, and as well as being a pedant is, at various stages, a pig, a liar, a bully and a coward. In his literary ancestry, on the fat side, he has more than a pound of Ubu. Indeed, Toole makes it clear that his hero is repulsive – repulsive, ludicrous, and central, as if his author had conceived him in a caricaturing passion of self-dismay, finding a paradoxical relief in the process. If that were so, it would shed a further sad light on Toole’s despair that this comedy of release could find no route to anyone’s laughter.

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