Ugly Stuff

Ian Hamilton

  • Beyond the Pale by William Trevor
    Bodley Head, 256 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 370 30442 X
  • The Black House by Patricia Highsmith
    Heinemann, 258 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 434 33518 5
  • Lantern Lecture by Adam Mars-Jones
    Faber, 197 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 571 11813 5

William Trevor is bewitched by childhoods and by second childhoods: the ‘grown-up’ bit in between is for him a dullish swamp of lies, commerce, lust and things like that. For Trevor, the only way to recapture childish purity is somehow to hang on until you’re hugely old, or to have a grown-up life that is so deeply marked by memories of childhood that all the other grown-ups think you’re odd. These memories can be both good and bad: lyric moments of sweet bliss or some too early and therefore traumatising glimpse of the ugly stuff that lies ahead.

The majority of the stories in Beyond the Pale present a one-against-all-them line-up, and the singular character is frequently a child, or a grown-up who would prefer to be a child. Trevor has his usual sprinkling of sympathetic oldies, but the emphasis of this collection is on original rather than recycled innocence. We have the daughter of divorced parents who adores being taken out at weekends by her charming (too charming, we can tell, but she can’t) father; all is fond smiles until her headmaster at school calls her in and asks why Daddy has got behind with the school fees, and then the classroom smarty begins asking her questions about the exact timing of her birth: after all, didn’t her mother have an affair with her now-stepfather before the marriage had technically ended? She doesn’t want to have to think about such things but, alas, ‘growing up’ insists she must and those weekend jaunts will never be the same again. This is a familiar Trevor pattern.

Things that won’t ever be the same again: the charisma of the English master as seen by an infatuated girl pupil, the little-girl attractiveness of a new wife before her much older husband begins to suspect that she is more ‘grown-up’ than she seems. These won’t last, Trevor mournfully insists, except by self-delusion, and he is never quite sure whether he thinks self-delusion is to be reverenced or deplored. In one story, for example, he has a newly-married couple quarrelling about the wife’s fondness for teddy-bears: she wants to attend a ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ at which all her old childhood friends will bring along their bears and be like kids again, just for a day. Hubby, a rising stockbroker who prides himself on his gritty common sense, refuses at first to take part in this grotesque outing, then relents but gets so drunk at the actual event that he precipitates the death of one of the doting oldies for whom, in part, the picnic had been staged. It seems pretty clear that Trevor wants us to think the husband a nasty piece of work because everything else he does in the story, even the way he talks, is meant to signal spiritual crudity: but he won’t go so far as to suggest that the man is wrong to feel uneasy about his wife’s regressive jaunt. Of the two, however, the wife is infinitely more Trevor’s kind of thing.

There is a similar evasiveness in the book’s opening story, ‘The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs Vansittart’, but here it issues far more subtly. Mrs Vansittart is despised by her cocktail chums on Cap Ferrat because she is thought to be promiscuous – she has been seen in the company of a swarthy waiter from the Grand Hotel. Everyone’s sympathy is with her husband: not only is he for ever being cuckolded but Mrs V puts him down in public. He doesn’t seem to mind either of these humiliations because he is obsessed with a song-cycle he has been working on for years. Thus the situation as seen by your average grown-up dullard. Trevor then shifts our attention to Mrs Vansittart’s private diaries, where it is revealed that Mr V is a child-molester (indeed, that is how she met him in the first place), that her pure, child-like love for him is such that she has to spend her entire life protecting the poor dear from scandal – hence the swarthy waiter (he had a thing or two on Mr V). Obviously, there is a way of handling this relationship that would have made it seem deranged and pitiable: but Trevor is almost tender and wide-eyed, and quite catty about the scandal-mongering neighbours.

Trevor’s non-arrested grown-up characters are so persistently shallow and banal that we would need to be shallow and banal to find them in any way more sympathetic than the child-like lives they are so shallowly, banally baffled by. In the three or four stories in the book that deal with Ireland, there is a similar imbalance: just as there is something to be disturbed by in his infantile heroes and heroines, so there is a menacing, destructive vein in the ‘mad Ireland’ sensibility these stories seem to celebrate. But when, in ‘Beyond the Pale’, a genteel Surrey housewife gets pierced by a dart of Celtic instability, the response of her holiday companions is so ox-like and uncomprehending that we are obliged to find something admirable in her myth-heavy ramblings:

A fragile thing the girl was, with depths of mystery in her wide brown eyes. Red-haired of course he was himself, thin as a rake in those days. Glencorn Lodge was derelict then.

  ‘You’ve had a bit of a shock, old thing,’ Dekko said. Strafe agreed, kindly adding, ‘Look dear, if the chap actually interfered with you ...’

Patricia Highsmith’s new collection is as disappointing as her earlier collections, and even the most besotted admirers of her novels must concede that the short story is a form she ought to be restrained from dabbling in. Too many of the pieces in The Black House read like jottings for possible Patricia Highsmith novels: the childless professional couple who take in two geriatrics from the local Old Folks Home and find their lives gradually ‘taken over’; the group of bored New York socialites who resent one of their circle’s new marriage and teetotalism and decide to lure him back on to the bottle – in these and others, Highsmith gets as far as drafting the synopsis and then seems suddenly to tire of the whole thing and wraps it up with a perfunctory denouement. Many of her favourite types are here briefly on display, and she is always easy to read, but novels like The Talented Mr Ripley and Deep Water moved with slow, unnervingly measured pace, they took their time: the short stories make Miss Highsmith breathless and a bit irritable.

Lantern Lecture is an odd, but immensely promising collection: it offers one short and two long pieces of what should presumably be called ‘faction’ – a whimsical, inventive playing with stray lumps of common knowledge. Adam Mars-Jones (with a name like that you would expect him to keep up with the Martians) is the son of the judge who presided at the trial of the Black Panther some five years ago: hence a part-speculative, part-intimately well-informed, part-jaunty thriller that cuts from the courtroom to the headlines of the day to the inside of the killer’s head. The Panther was, of course, a post-office robber before he pulled the Lesley Whittle kidnap, and he is presented here as almost endearingly unfearsome: a forward-planning freak, he draws up elaborate memos to himself before setting out on every job but is invariably bamboozled by some freakish accident. Next time, he will plan it really well, he vows, next time no one will get hurt; the more intricate the plan, though, the more crude and bathetic the come-uppance. All this is viewed by Mars-Jones with more sympathy and satiric relish than (perhaps luckily) his father was able to muster at the Panther’s real-life trial. All in all, the story is rather like a dream of good journalism, and it would have been marvellous to read at the time.

The other long story is more prolix and self-congratulatory: it has the Queen catching rabies from one of her corgis and gives a view from the palace of the dire public consequences. There are some very good jokes here, but in the end it all seems a bit flogged-on and rather smirkingly schoolboyish. Still, Mars-Jones can work an elegant sentence, and sets up his own bizarre angles with real style.