Silence

Alan Hollinghurst

  • Shuttlecock by Graham Swift
    Allen Lane, 220 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1413 0
  • The Frights by Nicholas Salaman
    Alison Press/Secker, 170 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 436 44085 7
  • March House by Mary Hocking
    Chatto, 222 pp, £6.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 7011 2586 1
  • The Missing Person by Doris Grumbach
    Hamish Hamilton, 252 pp, £7.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 241 10660 5

In his moving first novel The Sweet Shop Owner Graham Swift illuminated the history of one man through flashbacks on the last day of that man’s life. Through the succinctly evoked provincial decades one of the engrossing features was the difficulty of love and of communication between generations, even within a family – a problem which threatened, at a local level, the transmission of a sense of history or a justification of the past which Swift so perceptively re-created. At the crisis of the novel, the separate lines of memory and present action converged in the riveting description of a running race in the principal character’s childhood, recalled during his last faltering walk. In Swift’s second novel, Shuttlecock, narratives of two generations are again developed in tandem – but with a more exhibitionistic cleverness; and again the failure, or, at best, distortion, of communication between fathers and children is witness to the compromise of ideals – often an ideal of nature – which should have transmitted themselves in a sense of the past.

The narrator Prentis works in a police archive where a part of history is preserved in the records of ‘dead’ or unsolved crimes, miscellaneous fragments of patterns that may never discover their true forms or implications. The materials on which he works establish a ghastly penumbra of family tensions and physical and emotional violence as a significant backdrop to his own life. At home he treats his wife and two boys with a contempt that destroys all trust, insisting on an elaborately depersonalising fetishism in his sex-life, and on a fierce and partial discipline with his sons. First-person narration – reasonable and unsurprised at these traits – gives a feeling of sinister disjunction of manner and matter here: something is wrong, or missing. His wife’s reaction is to retreat into colloquy with her potted plants.

Prentis’s father has also made a retreat – into total silence. He now lives in a mental hospital, but in the past he was a spy, and wrote his war memoirs, Shuttlecock: The Story of a Secret Agent. This book comes to occupy more and more of Prentis’s attention because it has become his father’s only voice. Large parts of it are reproduced, and as in The Sweet Shop Owner this enclosed narrative forms an intensely exciting complement to the present action: for much of the time Swift virtuosically sustains two different narratives called Shuttlecock within the same space, and the new text spies on and interrogates the old. For the war memoirs, too, have something mysterious about them, a tantalising evasiveness just at their most critical point – his father’s interrogation by the Gestapo and his escape from them.

It soon becomes clear that Quinn, Prentis’s boss, is performing some activity which, like this critical passage, both attracts attention to and deflects it from an underlying issue: he makes Prentis work on material from which essential links have been removed, and Prentis’s bafflement leads him to examine more minutely the details of the case on which he is working and its hinted relationship to the unknown side of his father’s life. The office has facilities ‘for obtaining almost unlimited access into the darker byways of other people’s lives’, but it is apparent that this investigative potential is a dangerous one because it can destroy harmless illusions and fictions on which happiness depends. Quinn has discovered what the destructive truth behind the climax of the memoirs is, and this discovery (which must remain undivulged here) focuses several issues with regard to the treatment of life in art and memory. The pages of his father’s to which Prentis turns again and again are those which carry at once the strongest flavour of art and the strongest conviction of reality: ‘With so much of Dad’s book I have to struggle into the realm of fact ... And yet in these last chapters there is more of the flavour of reality, because there is also more mystery – and more misery.’ In its equation of mystery and reality, literature is shown to create a separate reality in a sense more sustaining than life, a constructive treachery to facts, an illusory shaping of violence and cowardice into a form conducive to happiness. This habit of self-protection in the memoirs is one which Quinn identifies by analogy with his own war recollections: an instinct for self-preservation highlighted under conditions of great stress. The concealment of language is seen as an instinctual choice, a manifestation of nature which parallels Prentis’s father’s wartime attempt to burrow and hide in leaves when an escapee. Similarly, the purgation of discovery about the past frees Prentis to resume a ‘natural’ relationship with his family, making love with his wife in a sand-dune.

It is an excellent, profound and very odd second novel. The Frights is Nicholas Salaman’s first novel, and its material crosses at several points with Swift’s, though its treatment is quite different. Salaman’s prose is as rich as the celebrated fare of Cutcombe, the Somerset village where the action is set, and it has at times a too self-entranced air of authorial culture and savoir, as evidenced through often elaborate simile. Mostly, though, this diverging, enriching habit supports the way the consciousnesses within what is ostensibly a comic novel magnify and orchestrate experience. Set in 1942 in a country matriarchy impinged on by aliens and American servicemen, the novel impels its closed community of comedy into confrontation with the Frights of inner subversion and outer attack.

The Frights, specifically, are the suggestive instrument of torture and suppression used by one little boy over his younger brother: they are imagined to be monsters who come at night for children who are awake, and Rufus pretends to Adam that he is secretly administering him a Sleeping Draught, the discontinuation of which, prompted by any disobedience of Adam’s, would leave him prey to these terrifying creatures. Experience seen through the eyes of children, especially when intensified by fear, is an ideal stimulus to a kind of evocation Salaman does excellently: ‘Plasticene smelt funny in the almost dark, out of place, Adam decided, belonging to daytime, like the smell of Turkish cigarettes in the hall after breakfast, or kedgeree.’ But apart from this sort of poetic awareness, which Salaman shares with the children, the novel shows both children and adults to be prone to self-induced fear and the exercise of cruelty. The relationships in the family are strained by ignorance and selfishness, according to the degree of power each person wields. Adults have it in for children, whom they isolate from constructive moral bearings so as to make them the fitter for punishment. Children are kept at a distance because they emphasise the weaknesses of adults: ‘The notion that just because you were a child you would be bound to get on with other children had absolutely no foundation in experience or common sense, and therefore endeared itself particularly to adults.’ The comedy that is made – extremely well – from these incompatibilities is undercut by a deeper sense of danger.

The nocturnal frights turn out to have their origin in an adult who is disciplining the children through their imaginations for the purposes of war. This larger theme is developed through the mind of Thomas Lippincott, an American soldier who has been involved in the early stages of experiment in atomic fission. Recognising the implications of this, Thomas begins to undergo supernatural experiences. The novel is set in that period of speculation, in the work of Jung and Dunne, about the nature of time, and the novel’s epigraph from The Family Reunion emphasises this:

When the loop in time comes, and it does not come for everybody,
The hidden is revealed and the spectres show themselves.

Thomas is the only one for whom these visions do come, in the form of alternative consequences of actions already taken; prompted by his understanding of the self-annihilating urge as evidenced by the development of the atom bomb, in his visions the destructive potential of the novel’s situations becomes fulfilled: the revelling English and Americans are wiped out by the actions of a spy in their midst, his love-life is sabotaged, Adam is carried away by the Frights. At the same time, the boys’ father Tristram, a displaced and failed romance figure, is dropped on an exercise on Dartmoor, though he thinks he is in occupied France. As he escapes from the pretend-Gestapo across the half-familiar terrain of his own childhood, the landscapes and feelings of past and present merge deliriously.

Projecting his material through these disparate and alienated imaginations, Salaman brings a high degree of uncertainty to the later pages of the novel, and crosses the different versions on one another with the excitement of what seems nowadays to be called a ‘metaphysical thriller’. He does both the comedy and the thriller in a commanding, knowing and individual way, and The Frights marks the arrival of a fertile new novelistic talent.

The style of Mary Hocking’s March House is at the opposite extreme, though it’s in its way as arresting: instead of the elaboration of a world of childhood into a parable of adulthood, her first-person narration preserves the unblinking clarity and simplicity of a different kind of childhood vision, which fixes the reader, too, with its steady gaze. Its very lucidity seems a challenge, and its careful progress and spare and insinuating detail are soon suspected of decoying us from some central issue. For Ruth Saunders, the wrong side of thirty, is in a sense a child, protecting herself by looking after others – her widowed father, and the staff and patients of March House, the psychiatric clinic where she is a secretary. Her tone unsettles by the uncertainty, at any time, of its degree of irony, the ‘strange mixture of naiveté and understanding’ which she recognises in the dynamic Dr Laver. Her protective role in life is the source of analytical insight – especially telling in her relationship with her father – which she is only partially prepared to exercise on herself. The actual progress to self-understanding which she undergoes is rudimentary and would seem so in the third person, but in the first it emphasises a common reluctance to surrender, not only to the truth of oneself, but to its elucidation by others: ‘Like most people, I wanted to be understood on my own terms, not unconditionally.’

The agent of such understanding, Dr Laver, is an enigmatic and unconventional impostor, who increases her resistance to analysis and to taking the path to understanding, which lies through Ruth’s childhood. Like Salaman, Hocking elides states of heightened or reorientated consciousness with normality to the most striking effect. The ‘unreal’, medically distanced world of the clinic is penetrated by visions of her infancy from the ‘real’ world outside and beyond – and she undergoes a mysterious illness which keeps her in a state of openness to such insight: memory of the kind induced by hypnosis increasingly makes itself material, and the outer, precisely-observed world becomes rarefied into a subjective phenomenon. Dr Laver seems ‘an unlikely creature I had conjured up to suit some purpose of my own.’

Ruth’s final achievement of moderate self-understanding is the lesser, more purely narrative, achievement of the book, which wisely resists the temptation either to claim a completed search for self or to decry the value in such a search of psychiatric methods. Dr Laver’s analytical ideals are recognised as themselves a fiction which cannot apply even to fictional life. An amusingly gothic old lady, Miss Maud, forms an instance of a person removed from normality by her insistence on privacy: ‘The only way to be free is to create a world of one’s own.’ Ruth sees the need finally for realistic self-appraisal held in a steadying balance with fantasy, ‘free to run along the wrong lines, like a little local track the railways have forgotten to close down, running away into a teritory of its own.’ This is, perhaps, a modest accomplishment, but the modesty of the novel is perfectly judged, and has a tact sensitive to its need for privacy.

Questions of privacy and self are also central to Doris Grumbach’s The Missing Person – a defiantly nice achievement, in that it deals in a sophisticated, literary way with a subject ill-accommodated to such a treatment: Hollywood. Hollywood certainly spawned its own self-observing, self-absorbed genre very early on in its existence, in the production of backstage, or back-set, films. Since then, it has also become the subject for novelistic fiction, often tending to the overblown, and unrefined as to ironic shape. The cinema-lot is the property of some of the most widely disseminated clichés of our time. Grumbach has daringly taken these clichés and arranged them into a new symbolic pattern.

Franny Fuller is the screen-name of the great Star who is really Fanny Marker: her name, like her career, is the invention of the medium for which she works, and its attendant medium, already in profuse existence, the movie-magazine. The novel first introduces us to Mary Maguire, a columnist who ghosts the autobiography of FF, as she calls her, articulating her pained and confused silences into paragraphs of whirlwind happiness and success. FF comes to fame with the invention of the talkies, as other stars with unromantic and inadequate voices fall. The intensity of image is qualified by the coming of speech: yet, as the talkies develop, FF herself retreats further and further into an inner silence. Her first marriage, to a very nice football-player, rapidly dissolves into complete silence. On her second marriage, to a poet, Arnold Franklin, Mary Maguire’s column states: ‘THE PRESS IS DELIGHTED WITH FABULOUS FRAN’S NEW NAME. NOW THEY CAN WRITE FFF ... OR EVEN FFFF, FOR FABULOUS ETC FRANKLIN.’ This ever-growing fortissimo of fame forms its own counterpoint to her diminuendo into a private nothingness.

The novel plays many games on the notion of silence, approaching the idea of some inner emptiness of Fanny’s which may in fact be the essential and private core of her personality. Around her throng the other actors, actresses and agents who are the stereotypes of Hollywood, often montages of known persons, who in their very typicality cease to exist in comparison with Fanny’s almost visionary retreats into a world of infantile inarticulacy, This world is hauntingly suggested in the vast rooms of her half-derelict palace, ‘static, isolated and sleepless’. She says nothing, and disappears for days on end, disrupting the shooting of her films, which themselves constitute a palatial illusion in inverse relation to the desolation of the Depression. Real acting, ‘from the inside’, is not considered in such a medium to be acting; her art triumphs in its very ‘depthlessness’ – like her eyes, unseeing but all-embracing. The cinema has its magic and efficiency because it creates a flat and illusory life which the audience itself supplies with reality. The extreme example of this paradoxical inoperancy of the star is the film The Deafening Silence, in which Fanny’s singing part was dubbed, after she had mimed it, producing no sound at all so that her neck would look beautiful. Whilst promoting her, the form which had invented her was able finally to eliminate her. These ingenious metamorphoses decorate the novel’s central preoccupation with Fanny’s frail and unglimpsable private self in a continuous and fascinating play of wit and disillusionment.