Stones

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.

Publication was eventually secured by the unremitting persistence of the author’s mother: a fact telling a poignantly different story from the book, which ends with the hard-pressed, uncomprehending mother trying to commit her comic-odious, hyperliterary son to an asylum. In view of this, and since much of the book consists of comic aggression, it is worth remarking that Mrs Reilly herself is a creation of generous comedy, the humour dwelling on her readiness to overflow with sympathy at each fleeting opportunity.

Günter Grass’s new novel, The Meeting at Telgte, addresses directly the fate of the Writer. At the close of the Thirty Years War Germany’s leading poets and scholars meet at an inn in the small town of Telgte near Münster, where the peace negotiations are being protracted, to read their works to each other, to discuss literary principles, and especially to consider whether there is something which, with one voice, they can and must say.

The different sonneteers, scholars, hymn-writers and tragedians of the Baroque period are described by Grass with an affectionate and lively learnedness, though it has to be said that they are so many, and the book is so short, that the English reader is likely to be confused at a first reading, and may in the end – for all the notes provided – have still only a summary sense of them. All in all, The Meeting at Telgte is oddly summary, coming from a writer famous for his exuberance. Exuberance is present in the book, but as an idea rather than as actual abundance. We are told of rich quaffings and feastings, but given no more than a 17th-century shopping-list (though that has its eloquence); we are told of lusty enjoyments in telegraphese; more worryingly, we are told that the speeches of the assembled writers are ‘eloquent beyond measure’ when actually they are presented in curt synopsis only – there is almost no direct speech.

These features, in this short book, could argue a tiredness in the Grass exuberance: though what they rather show, it seems to me, is a tiring of the taste for exuberance. The revellings and wallowings seem perfunctory and are quickly over, while the mood of the writing is chastened and grave. The devotional poets and hymn-writers come off better than the literary Falstaffs, and since much attention in other reviews has been drawn to the fact that the hero of the book, and the Grass-figure in it, is the freebooting scapegrace Gelnhausen (later Grimmelshausen), the author of Simplicissimus, it should be noted that increasingly, as the novel develops, he is set against the severe, exacting (and great) composer, Heinrich Schütz. The two collide when Gelnhausen, after a discreet departure with his troopers, returns to feast all the writers with plunder from the war; and is then reproved, reduced to contrition and, thus penitent, blessed – by Schütz.

It is true that the novel closes with the loss of the authors’ combined manifesto, but with a forward look to Simplicissimus, the novel in which Gelnhausen will ‘bring back the long war as a wordbutchery, let loose gruesome laughter, and give the language licence to be what it is: crude and soft-spoken, whole and stricken, here Frenchified, there melancholicky, but always drawn from the casks of life’. Yet it is not clear how that novel, so well described and so different from the present novel, would stand up to the criticism with which Schütz has earlier disappointed another word-rich writer, saying that ‘he as a composer could find no room among the many, all too many words ... True, everything was said ... and the outcome was an overcrowded void. For all the stormy onslaught of words, no movement resulted.’

The novel posits two ideals, the exuberant and the spartan. They are not reconciled, and, disappointingly, they are not even argued through in the literary discussions – in which too much time seems spent in an affectionate-superior hitting-off of the period pedantries and pieties of the different literati, who disagree and bicker, but hardly debate. To recall that the convention this novel employs is that of the Platonic Dialogue is to realise how little of large literary interest actually gets said at the meeting at Telgte. One is left feeling that the discussion-convention has been used to dramatise, but not to search, an indecision in Grass.

Do we too easily now expect writers only to ask questions and never to answer? As to its central theme, the book seems divided between a faith that poetry should and does matter, and a strong sense that the affairs of the world career on tumultuously and often brutally without regard to anything writers say. In a sense, Gelnhausen is to provide the answer, in his novel, which in its ‘word-butchery’ will be true to all butcheries. But does literature save itself simply by being true to a tough world that has little place for literature? If literature is to assert its rights, won’t it need, in its juxtapositions and in its whole concatenation, to address the world as well as to echo it?

A certain elegant resignation in the face of that task is written into Borges’s early collection of stories, done in collaboration with Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi. They are elaborate amusements of a buried life, though the Grass drawing in this case could as well show a hand reaching through bars as emerging from stones. Don Isidro has been unjustly sentenced to life-imprisonment and with this unusual qualification he becomes, pondering in his cell, an expert detective. To him come successive worldly clients who describe the murder-mystery in which they are caught; on their next visit he gives them his solution. The mysteries are involved, and not easily to be unravelled by anyone other than Don Isidro: they show an extraordinary indirection of motive and intrigue, further obscured by Borges’s fascination with conspiracies and occult societies.

With this unjustly trapped, stoically meditative detective Borges has great sympathy – indeed, he is the only person in the book for whom the author has any sympathy at all. Don Isidro’s high-class clientele may or may not be victims and dupes, but they are all vain and stupid and corrupt. One theme of the book is that they never give Don Isidro credit for solving their problems but walk away complacent, cheerfully leaving him where he is. They are, then, fit inhabitants of the world that put Don Isidro inside in the first place, and each of their mysteries re-describes a rotten world. The book has a little of the Lear-mood: better to be in prison than outside in the wolf-world. Don Isidro for his part, though sympathetic, solves the mysteries not so much by exercising insight as by an exceptional ingenuity of suspicion.

Detective stories are cold things often: it only ever is cold blood that is shed in them, and a cold suspiciousness is their motive-power. The killer could be anyone. ‘Mistrust thy neighbour’ is their moral. Borges does mistrust his neighbour, with no pretence to the contrary: his detective stories seem, therefore, the most pure detective stories, offering a refined paranoia as a vision of life. Consequently they are ironic throughout, and have a certain inhumanity. As his hero is withdrawn in a detached computation of the intentions of people most of whom he never meets, so the author is withdrawn in a fastidious irony, negotiating futility by tracing with a fine pen the tracks of ingenious vanities as they compose a pattern intricate but flat. Within that withdrawal developed the sense of echoing unreality, and its attendant fascination with reduplication down endless perspectives, which generates the teasing, musing, drily desolate poetry of Borges’s mature stories. At this earlier stage, the irony perhaps seems based on too careful and aloof a sampling of experience to justify the nihilism: but there is a deeper impulse. The story ‘Free Will and the Commendatore’ ends with the claim, ‘No other father in the world has done what my father has,’ and is to be read for the extraordinary imagining of patient cruelty with which it justifies that claim.

Of all these books, the one for which the Grass drawing is most bleakly true is Ursula Holden’s Penny Links: from the stony barrenness a hand rises to describe a life, a country, that mainly is stony and barren. In the top of an old thin house, a clergyman dies slowly, vaguely still hoping to publish a life’s work of sermons which actually were cribbed. Below, his vulgarian second wife, whom he married on the rebound from his first wife’s death, mutters small complaints as she lays on lipstick. Now she is only bored by him, while he has forgotten her; they have a daughter, who hates her and tends him, but neglects her own only child. The child pines, visits his father who manages a brothel, and yearns to be friends with a working-class family; on a misadventurous outing with the children of the family he loses a foot in a traffic accident. The dying clergyman had on the first page complained of a pain in his foot: evidently a small bitter wheel has come full circle. The novel’s main feeling is dejected, though the dimness is qualified by small surprises of kindness and love, some small and precariously flickering lamps. There is even, at the end, a frail suggestion that, possibly, all is for the best.

Clearly it isn’t. The story is set in an endless cold summer with snow in May that doesn’t thaw. Is it all a dream of England in her shrinkage and decay? A bankrupt spirituality querulously conjoined with a good-time vulgarity fallen on hard times; a solitary daughter living in a past she nurses; the available relief a children’s jaunt wading in Thames mud. Certainly, for all its local sharpness, the novel moves like a dream: in one strange episode, the child, lost in what seems a winter’s evening in summer, wanders through worsening slums into an area of still uncleared bomb-sites; rummaging in debris, he uncovers a human skeleton without a head, which later proves to have been that of Gemma, the clergyman’s first wife, tenderly remembered by him, tenderly imagined and imitated by the daughter, who thinks of Gemma as the good mother she wishes she’d had.

The figure with a terribly damaged head rises recurringly in the different genres of modern art: in sculpture by Moore, in paintings by Bacon, in poems and stories by Ted Hughes. It must symbolise reason and consciousness savagely violated, a violent disabling of understanding, direction and care. Is that dreamy beheading of the absent kindly mother who haunts the benighted England of Penny Links meant to carry such suggestions? The book is short and nervous and not clear. Are these stones our stones? The English troubles are less wan, and demand a braver art.