Test Case

Robert Taubman

  • July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
    Cape, 160 pp, £5.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 224 01932 5
  • The Company of Women by Mary Gordon
    Cape, 291 pp, £6.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 224 01955 4
  • Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth
    Cape, 225 pp, £5.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 224 01974 0

With ‘nothing else to do but the impossible’, when revolution breaks out in South Africa, Bam and Maureen Smales accept their house servant’s offer of refuge in his tribal village 600 kilometres from Johannesburg. They are all decent people – the two white liberals, their young children, the trusted servant, the peaceable villagers. All human instinct argues that this is not, after all, an impossible situation. Nadine Gordimer, in her unsparing new novel, suggests otherwise. Her recent Burger’s Daughter, though bleak in its conclusions, was more diffuse and humane; it dealt with an earlier stage in South African history. Set only a little later in time, and in a much smaller compass, the round mud hut roofed in thatch in a village of round huts, ‘its circles encircled by the landscape’, as in a photographer’s view of ‘the single community of man-and-nature-in-Africa’, July’s People reaches conclusions that are not just bleak but hopeless. Community of man and nature is only an irony in a book about the absolute failure of community between men.

There are few incidents: an awkwardness over the keys to the Smales’s truck; the evidence of white practicality when Bam kills two young wart-hogs for food or builds a water tower for the village; the theft of Bam’s shot-gun. These merge with the routine of village life – the women foraging for edible plants or cutting grass for thatch; with the evidence of African poverty, as well as of indigenous culture, as in the black children’s manners. But the situation is exceptional, and the Smales see it in all its social and political complexity, and discuss it with a fine conscience. What Nadine Gordimer can do, which is still finer, is to let the book itself enact their situation at a deeper level, putting itself alongside the black Africans – July the servant who is now the host, his wife and family – with a freedom and acceptance the Smales could never hope to match. To be able to do this is enough to justify her art in its intervention in politics. At this unspoken, undoctrinaire level, in its uncompromised attitudes to all its characters, the book establishes its right to be trusted.

It’s an austere novel, without warmth or sympathy for any one person or for any side. The subject is a situation in which all the characters are trapped. The traps are those of colour and class, the family, the relations of master and servant, and simply the human condition. Not that any of these terms has a simple meaning. Colour goes deeper than the skin, as in July’s wife with ‘her small pretty tight-drawn face whose blackness was a closed quality acting upon it from within rather than a matter of pigment’. But what Nadine Gordimer has specially set up for study are the anomalies and reversals this situation contains. It’s anomalous for the role of dependent to pass from the servant to the master, as happens here: but this is further complicated by the fact that the Smales aren’t typical whites – they left Johannesburg because they didn’t accept ‘the necessity to defend their lives in the name of ideals they didn’t share in a destroyed white society they didn’t believe in’. For his part, July is by no means anxious to abandon the position of servant; other black Africans show an equal reluctance to act out an appropriate historic role and assert their independence. And not only what the Smales don’t believe in, but what they do – ‘the absolute nature of intimate relationships between human beings’ – is seen to disappear in their new situation. It is particularly Maureen Smales who suffers the progressive loss of certainty, even about herself:

She thought she heard him singing, way up in the bones of his skull, the hymns he breathed while he worked at something that required repetitive, rhythmical effort, polishing or scrubbing. But when he appeared he was merely coming over to her, unhurried, on a sunny day. Nothing sullen or resentful about him; her little triumph in getting him to come turned over inside her with a throb and showed the meanness of something hidden under a stone. These sudden movements within her often changed her from persecutor to victim, with her husband, her children, anyone.

In the end Maureen does trust herself, but – the final irony – it’s at the cost of abandoning all responsibility, as she runs towards a helicopter that may contain anyone: Americans? Frelimo? Cubans? ‘Saviours or murderers’, it no longer matters: ‘She runs: trusting herself with all the suppressed trust of a lifetime, alert, like a solitary animal at the season when animals neither seek a mate nor take care of young, existing only for their lone survival, the enemy of all that would make claims of responsibility.’

The terrible, Brechtian analysis subdues one with its intelligence; and there goes along with it a Brechtian impatience with anything suggestive of warmth (except perhaps towards animals – ‘a bald fowl entered with chicks cheeping, the faintest sound in the world’) or of individuality, nostalgia or expectation. It is part of the situation that people are trapped, not just in their colour or ideologies, but trapped in unpleasant ways by the innocent fact even of their bodies. The situation includes a zinc bath tub with Maureen in it, where she ‘disgustedly scrubbed at the smooth lining of her vagina and the unseen knot of her anus’. Can anyone like another body, or their own, or feel friendly, even, in this unsympathetic world? When there’s no human touch except boredom and irritation in the relations between Maureen and her husband, what chance do they stand in the test case: how to be friends with their servant July? There were tangible obstacles to friendship between black and white at the end of A Passage to India: but here, sadly, there’s no longer any real opposition, only a lack of human capacity. The book’s austerity conveys a disdain for all its characters, as merely the products of their situation. And yet, in this respect, Nadine Gordimer’s art isn’t entirely to be trusted. She uses it sometimes to cheat and to blacken the picture: and where art and truth are as closely related as they are in her writing – clearly one of its distinctive values – this leaves open the possibility that she’s not altogether right. For instance, the austerity seems to relax at the end of the novel, on a fine day that calls forth an unwonted response: ‘On such a morning, lucky to be alive.’ Everyone is kind on this morning, and Maureen’s children have begun to pick up African manners: ‘Victor is seen to clap his hands, sticky with mealie-pap, softly, gravely together and bob obeisance, receiving the gift with cupped palms.’ Only, this has all been arranged ironically: its purpose is to set the scene for Maureen’s abdication and flight to the helicopter. It’s an effective irony, this one redeeming glimpse of a possible Africa: but effective only as a triumph of art over hope – it diminishes things one would rather have seen taken seriously.

In the first part of The Company of Women, Felicitas’s life as a child is dominated by Father Cyprian and his circle of dedicated women. In the second part, at the end of the Sixties, it is dominated by her politics teacher at Columbia and commune ethics. In the first, she is exposed to religion both at its least and at its most severe – to tracts like ‘St Peggy of the Tennis Court’ and to Father Cyprian’s fanaticism (‘we must hate the world to love God’). In the second, she is exposed and succumbs to freedom and a mindless infatuation with the politics teacher. In both parts, Felicitas displays a singular capacity, not for learning, but for adoration. The lengths this goes to aren’t just her fault. The novel has much the shape of a Bildungsroman, with her experience offering Felicitas first an approach to God and then to self-discovery: but it’s experience subject to such strange emphases, and so distorted for purely satirical purposes, that Felicitas’s naivety is seen to be not hers so much as a necessary structural device, as in a latterday Candide. Father Cyprian, with his closed mind, contemptuous faith and sorry domestic arrangements, exists just at the borders of credibility, though it’s hard to account for the devotion of his simple-minded circle. The older Felicitas still loves him, but not as he sees it, not on his exacting terms:

She thought she was concerned for the poor, but it was a loss of faith.

  ‘If Christ wanted to feed the poor, He could feed the world on three loaves of bread,’ he had said to her.

  ‘Why doesn’t He?’

The anger in her voice, the arrogance. No use. The arguments were bitter. She no longer loved him.

Columbia in the Sixties, on the other hand, doesn’t want to know about her kind of love and devotion. But really, what Felicitas has to subsist and grow up on, through the sex and commune-living phase, isn’t given any substance in the novel. The scene has already been satirised as much as any in modern times, and Mary Gordon only adds some amusing lines.

Father Cyprian and the trendy Columbia set are at least figures exaggerated to make a calculated effect. The effect of some other parts of the novel seems disturbingly miscalculated, or else just uncalculated, as when the thought-processes of Felicitas’s mother wander into a sort of rhythm: ‘So she had nothing to say to her daughter, she could not help her child.’ Felicitas herself, a bundle of attributes – her ‘brilliant mind’ and vapid imagination (‘She felt treasured. She was a medieval queen’), her ‘tears of failure’ and her spiritual flights – seems to me a failure due to lack of calculation: apparently the centre-piece, but actually only the sort of residue that accumulates unregarded while satire is doing its work on all else around. Felicitas never grows up – she seems less advanced at 20 than at 14. But at 28 she has given up love in favour of reason. ‘I am interested in the perception of the sacred. So many humans seem to hunger for it’: but as for herself, ‘I will not be violated; I will not submit myself. I will wait. But I will wait for light, not love.’

In Philip Roth’s serious comedy the control is never less than perfect. It’s impossible to imagine him satisfied with an obscurity. His detachment in Zuckerman Unbound is a real achievement, since this is a self-punishing novel, putting every obstacle in the way of detachment; it has a resemblance to Evelyn Waugh’s experiment with himself in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Zuckerman is a writer living out the consequences of the success and scandal of a novel sounding very like Portnoy’s Complaint. In his early, struggling days he was the hero of Roth’s last novel, The Ghost Writer, and the sequel has to do with his liberation. Yet the ‘Unbound’ of the title is an irony. Liberated by what? Success and money? They have only put him into a different bracket among his agent André’s clients: ‘in addition to ministering to his international roster of novelists, André looked after the megalomania, alcoholism, satyriasis, and tax tragedies of 15 world-famous film stars.’ Or liberation by the death of his father, the great Freudian thing? He is too old and wily to take that as a solution – and too attached to his father. It may be, rather, in the long-sought sentence of rejection, as a son and a Jew, that he hears when his father ‘uttered his last words. Word. Barely audible, but painstakingly pronounced. “Bastard,” he said.’ Or did Zuckerman imagine that? In any case, this rejection will only feed his natural masochism; and besides, as his brother points out, Zuckerman the novelist will undoubtedly make use of it as ‘grist for his fun-machine’.

The comedy of neuroses, as Roth practises it, has much of the elegance of an 18th-century comedy of manners, but it also allows itself plenty of latitude. Zuckerman Unbound has room for farce, when Zuckerman spends a night with an Irish film star whose steady lover is Fidel Castro; as well as for a full, accomplished treatment of a grim routine, the death of a Jewish father. But mainly it has one great comic character, the sad and threatening Alvin Pepler, ex-Marine and ex-TV celebrity, now alleging the theft of his private hang-ups, which are on the same lines as Portnoy’s, for use in the famous novel. In this character Dickens and Waugh live again.