At the Gay Hussar

John Sutherland

  • One and Last Love by John Braine
    Eyre Methuen, 175 pp, £6.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 413 47990 0
  • Sweetsir by Helen Yglesias
    Hodder, 332 pp, £6.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 340 27042 X
  • On the Yankee Station by William Boyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 184 pp, £7.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 241 10426 2
  • Byzantium endures by Michael Moorcock
    Secker, 404 pp, £6.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 436 28458 8
  • Heavy Sand by Anatoli Rybakov, translated by Harold Shuckman
    Allen Lane, 380 pp, £7.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1343 6

At some point it must have crossed Braine’s mind to call his latest novel ‘Love at the Top’. The hero is Tim Harnforth, a 56-year-old best-selling novelist and man of letters. Originally from the West Riding, he is now one of the gens du monde, ‘a high-flyer, a metropolitan man’, literary-lioning it in London. Young admirers come up to him in pubs and say: ‘Mr Harnforth? Mr Tim Harnforth?’

One and Last Love is Mr Tim Harnforth’s novel as well as Mr John Braine’s. An authorial confidence informs us that it was originally conceived with more melodramatic action to it. The hero was to find himself stricken with a terminal disease and be forced to a climax of love and death. But instead, the novelist was drawn to something more romantic, a simple lyrical celebration of a late-life love affair which has no end and which turns out to be a very long encounter. Every Thursday afternoon for five years, Tim and Vivien have met in a flat near Soho so the novel begins, and so it ends. This serial idyll is recorded with Hemingwayesque straightforwardness (there is a long epigraph from the master) and in a first-person narrative which frequently borders on the egotistic absurd, ‘I’m a damned good writer,’ Harnforth tells us, and we are to understand that we are reading a damned good piece of writing.

In fact, the reader is more likely to be struck by the hero’s good life. He boozes in Jermyn Street and Fleet Street (he is, after all, a writer as well as a gent du monde). He lunches at Bertorelli’s, where the waitress, ‘who knew Augustus John’, remembers to give him a good table. Another, more extended lunch at the Gay Hussar will probably be thrown back at Braine for as long as his books are reviewed. ‘Victor the proprietor’ – ‘he’s part of the London scene,’ out-of-towners are informed – also puts Tim and Vivien at the best table. But there is, apparently, more competition for the honour than up the road at Bertorelli’s. Michael Foot passes by and nods, albeit ‘briefly’. Marcia Williams sweeps in: expect no nods from her. She comes under the novelist’s scalpel: ‘She’s an attractive woman, her face has a good bone structure, but there’s something curiously unreal about her.’ Unawed, the couple make sophisticated table-talk about their fellow guests:

‘That’s George Melly. And there’s Lord Longford!’

   ‘Not together? That would make the mind boggle.’

   ‘No, at separate tables.’

It adds ‘sparkle’ to life, the narrator complacently observes, and ‘it can only happen in the metropolis.’ It would seem, too, that the hot-pot is better than it is up north: Victor the proprietor provides ‘Hungarian goulash, a cold-weather dish, a peasant dish, but with the best meat and with the right amount of spices and paprika, and the dumplings are full of taste, smooth and rich, and yet not with the faintest trace of doughiness.’ If there’s any justice, that passage should ensure a good table for Mr Braine himself the next time he goes to Greek Street.

It’s not hard to poke fun at this novel and one would like at times to think that Harnforth himself is being poked fun at by Braine: when, for instance, he opens the narrative with an approving inventory of his smooth skin and wonderfully preserved body. But this seems to be a love story without either irony or cynicism. It finishes on a note of full-blooded sentimentality which dares the reader to sneer at it: ‘Age doesn’t matter ... we are here and we are happy and fulfilled in each other.’ Some hundred years ago, Trollope wrote a novella called An Old Man’s Love. A genuinely tender piece, it concludes, sadly, that old men can have no love – not, that is to say, in the sense of Harnforth’s Thursday-afternoon sessions. Trollope’s Victorian defeatism is thoroughly contradicted by Braine’s super-virile oldster, who clearly intends to die in the saddle.

One and Last Love is dedicated to ‘Geoffrey Strachan, best of editors’. I wouldn’t mention this semi-private detail were it not for the fact that it doesn’t always strike one as the best-edited of novels. On page ten the lovers are discovered on a June afternoon: ‘the bed is king-sized, with a white padded headboard and matching white bedside cupboards.’ On page 14 it is the same afternoon, the bed is still king-size and the lovers are still in it: but the bedside tables are now mahogany and match the dressing-table. The mystery is compounded by the narrator-hero’s reverent observation: ‘I like the room as it is, I want nothing to change.’

In an essay written recently for the New York Times, Helen Yglesias describes books as the means by which she escaped from an oppressive New York childhood. When, in her fifties, she began writing rather than reading them, books formed the means by which she returned to engagement with life’s problems. Sweetsir fits this curve neatly, for it is very much a novel in tune with current social debate. Sweetsir is the married name of the heroine, Sally, who knifes her husband and leaves him dying on the floor of their crummy kitchen in a crummy small town in New England. Peyton Place country is surely chosen deliberately. The narrative begins, Goodbar-fashion, with an eyewitness report of the apparently banal crime. It then sweeps back to the heroine’s childhood and earlier marriage: her life, we discover, has been a struggle for decency against all social and biological odds. On the day she murders her husband a test has revealed the likelihood that she has cancer of the cervix. Sweetsir’s typically brutal response is to tell her he has sold her car and to slap her face when she complains. ‘Sweets’, as one of his buddies later observes, believes in ‘thumping his squaw now and then’.

The second half of the novel follows Sally’s trial. After much (well-worked-up) suspense, there is vindication for the abused heroine. The novel begins with ‘liberating anger’, as the narrator terms it: ‘She wanted to win this fight. She would win it at any cost. She had had enough. From now on she meant to give as good as she got.’ The last word in the novel, as Sally walks from the courtroom a free and liberated woman, is ‘victory’. The narrative’s actual progress and tone, however, are less direct than the triumphant closure suggests. Sweetsir takes pains to show the ‘issue’ to be more complex than the various interested parties would have it. The police see Sally as a homicidal slut (‘no bra, of course’). To her feminist lawyer, Sally is the real victim. Thoughtful sympathy, however, doesn’t get it right any more than the police’s thoughtless prejudice. ‘It was between me and Sweets,’ Sally insists: she refuses to surrender either her love or her understanding of the man she killed – hateful as he may have been. Nor is the truth of the case revealed by the clumsy investigations of the ‘LAW’ (Yglesias capitalises the word, possibly as an expression of authorial scorn; possibly as a reflection of Sally’s humility before male authority). It is only when Sally herself becomes a kind of novelist, in her written commentary on the testimony, that full awareness can develop. To this extent, Sweetsir is a work built on the self-importance of the Lawrentian proposition that only fiction can give us the ‘whole hog’.

Yglesias’s novel is an effective mixture of fashionable polemic, courtroom melodrama and topical allusion to currently celebrated crimes of passion. Whether women have the right to stab importunate men is very much an issue of the day. It was, for instance, discussed by Bel Mooney in a recent women’s page in the Guardian. Sweetsir doesn’t clear up this tricky problem of what constitutes justified recourse to violence between the sexes: but it does focus the problem in a more complex and satisfying way than journalism ever could.

A copyright note records that William Boyd’s 13 stories originally appeared in sites as diverse as the London Magazine, Mayfair (a down-market, English Playboy), Punch and on Radio 4’s Morning Story. Teasingly, the acknowledgment doesn’t tell us which story belongs where. But it is safe to assume that ‘Next Boat from Douala’, with its opening line, ‘Then the brothel was raided,’ did not assault the ears of Britain’s housewives over their morning coffee. Boyd is evidently a writer who targets his shots carefully. But the miscellaneity of this collection would also seem to arise from his being a young writer developing rapidly and working his way through various styles. Teasingly, again, there is no easy way of attaching dates to these stories; presumably the ‘condensed novel’ which concludes the book is representative of Boyd’s most mature work, being in literary terms the most ambitious performance. A third fact making for heterogeneity is the apparent statelessness of the author: settings range confidently from seedy West African diplomatic life (two Morgan Leafy follow-ons from Boyd’s first novel, A Good Man in Africa) to hedonistic California beach life; from expatriate university experience in the South of France to closely-observed (and surely-remembered) Scottish public-school misery. How, one wonders, did Boyd, not yet thirty, as the blurb tells us, gather all this experience?

The piece which gives the collection its title and cover illustration (a beer can with pegasus wings) is set on board an American aircraft-carrier during the Vietnam War. The central character is a runtish ground-crew man, Lydecker. (One thing that Boyd’s stories do have in common is a liking for losers.) Lydecker falls foul of a flying-officer, Captain Pfitz, who unfairly suspects him of the carelessness that caused the destruction of a brand new Phantom. Persecution reaches a sadistic peak when a half-drunk Pfitz catches Lydecker, who loves his work, monkeying around with the planes off-duty. Enraged, he hurls a half-full beer can which wounds Lydecker on the forehead and has him transferred to the miseries of catapult duty. The victim keeps the beer can as a masochistic trophy. Meanwhile Pfitz carries on with what he enjoys most in life, dropping napalm on Vietnamese villagers: ‘there just ain’t nothing to beat this jelly, man. It’s gonna win us the woah.’ Though the least imaginative of creatures, Lydecker observes what napalm actually does during a spell of rest and recuperation in a Saigon whorehouse: ‘her back was a broad stripe, a swathe of purpled shiny skin where static waves of silvery scar tissue and blistered burn weals tossed in a horrifying flesh sea.’ (Boyd occasionally lets fly with this kind of over-writing, which seems to me one of his few weaknesses.) Lydecker now knows what to do with the beer can. He stuffs it with sand and metal shards and jams it into the steam catapult: Pfitz’s plane, instead of taking off from the carrier’s deck, goes submarining into the South China Sea. He is, in the appropriate anti-war jargon, well and truly fragged.

The simplest story in the collection is the first. A Graham Greene-like exercise, it is set in West Africa. A young boy, out hunting a big lizard, discovers his mother and her lover in the forest. He observes them unseen, spares the lizard which he set out to kill and walks home to his lost childhood with his mother’s dropped sunglasses, ‘a ticking bomb’, in his hand. Both the other childhood pieces in the collection deal more light-heartedly with the comedy of sexual initiation and work well.

Heavy Sand and Byzantium endures make a timely conjunction. Both are set in the Ukraine, both have first-person narrators of partly Jewish descent who have survived from the turbulent pre-revolutionary era to the present. This coincidence apart, the novels could not be more different nor, presumably, more indicative of the divergent styles of fiction favoured on this and the other side of the Iron Curtain.

His publishers have given up counting Moorcock’s novels: ‘more than fifty’ is the estimate usually offered. Yet his work continues to communicate a sense of authorial inexhaustibility and unpredictability. Byzantium endures, although it has some forced links with earlier work through Mrs Cornelius, is unlike anything Moorcock has hitherto done – or that anyone has done, one is tempted to say. The narrator-hero is ‘Colonel Pyat’, alias Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski, alias Dimitri Mitrofanovitch Kryscheff – a rogue and a liar. We encounter Pyat in his birthplace, Kiev, where he has some Rasselas-like adventures with a one-man flying machine he has invented. Pyat is, of course, well ahead of his dishonest rival Sikorski – witness, as he proudly tells the reader, the tales of his flight recalled in the foreign journals Reveille and the National Enquirer. His experiments end with a plunge into Babi Yar: ‘a strange coincidence’, in view of his unending protestations that he is not Jewish but pure Slav. We follow Pyat to Odessa, where he loses his virginity, becomes hooked for life on cocaine and indulges in seaport crime; and then to St Petersburg, where a brilliant career as an engineer (as he would have us believe) is cut short by war and revolution. Thereafter his adventures are increasingly picaresque, as he is swept around by gigantic historical forces. At one moment he is with the Cossacks, at the next with the Soviets (Mrs Cornelius is Trotsky’s mistress) and then with Ukrainian nationalists, designing a prototype laser gun (some of Moorcock’s SF habits die hard). He survives to old age, a Portobello Road trader in junk, literally in the dustbin of history. A violent racist, he dies of shock in 1977 during the Notting Hill Carnival, ‘when a group of black boys and girls entered his shop (one of the few open) and demanded a contribution’. His 11 shoe-boxes of papers, written in six languages, come into the possession of ‘Michael Moorcock’, for whose magnificently bearded face Pyat had always had a nostalgic respect.

Like its predecessor Gloriana, Byzantium endures is a narrative tour de force. Pyat’s account, untampered with by the Moorcock editor figure, is all vanity, bigotry, deceit and obsession. Especially in the earlier sections of the novel, the absurd monologue is exquisitely funny: ‘I learned colloquial English almost entirely from Mrs Cornelius. My attempts to apply it so as to put others at ease were not always successful ... My affectionate and admiring “How are you, you old bugger?” to Mr (later Lord) Winston Churchill, at a function for celebrated Polish émigrés, was not as well-received as I had expected and I was never able to thank him, thereafter, for the hearty support he had given to the cause of Russia’s rightful rulers.’ I would have been quite happy with two hundred pages of this, interspersed with comic episode: but Moorcock is not to be confined and the last 150 pages of Byzantium endures are dominated by the narrator’s increasingly demented mystagogic rant.

Moorcock’s Ukraine is so exotic that it could be one of the alternative universes or extraterrestrial settings he has elsewhere invented. The Ukraine of Heavy Sand, a Soviet novel first published in 1978, reminds one of nothing so much as Ambridge. It is a cosy saga of the shoe-making Ivanovsky family: ‘simple toilers, who didn’t try to solve the world’s problems’. Not only the world’s problems, but the Ukraine’s pass them by unnoticed – there is, for instance, no mention of the Ukrainian nationalist uprising in 1917, which would surely have caught their eye. And although it covers the period from 1909 to 1972, there is no reference to any Soviet leader or any branch of the Soviet police. The Russo-German Pact is mentioned fleetingly, but the narrator (a figure as reliable and simple as Pyat is devious) opines that its real purpose was to bring pressure on the Germans to cease their ‘anti-semitic antics’. Although they are Jews, the lvanovskys experience not the slightest persecution from their compatriots. It is only when the Germans invade that they suffer. While the narrator is fighting at the Front, his family lead a ghetto uprising and are tortured and exterminated. ‘Long live their memory! Eternal glory to those brave sons and daughters of the Byelorussian nation,’ conclude the narrator.

What the novel is in effect saying is that the Jewish population is entirely assimilable into the fabric of Russian life and can perform as patriotically as any of the races in the Soviet Union. But admirable as this may be, it’s hard not to resist fiction which has such a palpable design on the reader. Allen Lane, the English publishers of Heavy Sand, tell us that when the novel first appeared in the monthly journal, October, it ‘created such a sensation that copies of the magazine quickly disappeared from bookstalls, and while waiting-lists to read it were compiled at libraries, privately-bound copies of the three instalments went on sale on the black market.’ It’s not the kind of success Michael Moorcock can expect.