Young and Old

John Sutherland

  • Life Stories by A.L. Barker
    Hogarth, 319 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7012 0538 5
  • Many Men and Talking Wives by Helen Muir
    Duckworth, 156 pp, £7.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7156 1613 7
  • Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
    Deutsch, 245 pp, £6.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 233 97332 X
  • A Separate Development by Christopher Hope
    Routledge, 199 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0954 2
  • From Little Acorns by Howard Buten
    Harvester, 156 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7108 0390 7
  • Fortnight’s Anger by Roger Scruton
    Carcanet, 224 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 85635 376 0

The plural title of Life Stories is paradoxical. The short story – Barker’s preferred literary form – cannot comprehend anything as large as life. In the face of this paradox, she has devised a new kind of cycle. Instead of the traditional bonding of carried-over place or character, Barker has abstracted items from various stages of her writing career, beginning with the opening piece in her first collection, Innocents (1947). These are put together with an equal number of new stories. The sequence thus assembled traces a thematic development from the condition of childhood, through adolescence, to age. The collection is interspersed with brief autobiographical essays, reminiscing, in a very guarded way, about the relevant period of the author’s own life.

Barker evidently began with a strong autobiographical urge. But she baulked at ‘all those pages, x-hundreds, it could be x-thousands, peppered with I’s’. As a compromise, we have this kebab: fatty scraps of self-revelation alternating with more substantial portions of fiction. Personal privacy is clearly a valued property of Barker’s and one which sometimes seems at odds with her mission as creative writer, let alone self-chronicler. She has a constant hankering for ‘undercurrent English’, implying that her sensibility is too private to be violated by the common tongue. Another problem for Barker the would-be autobiographer is that she apparently has no tenderness for herself. When, for instance, she describes her early passions, the objectivity of the recollection verges on the callous:

Teachers, film-stars, tram-drivers, school-fellows, I went through the gamuts for them all. And there was a martyred boy who stood in the bitter wind outside David Greig’s, his blue hands full of cracked eggs. For him I nursed an uplifting passion. I’m not sure that I didn’t rejoice in his suffering as a means to my salvation.

Autobiography is an act of self-love, and Barker seems to have none. No more does she have tenderness for her kin. The powerful story ‘The Father’ is prefaced by a portrait of her own father. He is discerned coldly and distantly as a man who, for obscure reasons, hid the letter announcing his daughter’s high-school scholarship in a drawer and who lived his paltry life ‘under a bell-jar – or a thimble – in a very small dark’. The accompanying story concludes with the ironic exchange (about a very unlovely father, with some ugly secrets): ‘Bring him back! ... Better not.’ The dedicatee of Life Stories is Rebecca West. When one recalls how affectionately she brought her father back in The fountain overflows, one concludes that Barker is her Blakean partner, the tank that contains. She wants to write an autobiography, but is unwilling to give anything away. As she puts it, in one of her favourite paradoxes: ‘I am going to swim, but I am not going into the water.’

It is in keeping with this presented personality that Barker accepts the short story as ‘the modest art’. And her own practice of it is looked back on as the modest but honest utilisation of the single talent: ‘I shan’t live long enough as a fiction-writer to pass the empirical stage and use the results of my experiments. I have acquired a few assumptions and the conclusion that only ignorance is viable. I want to keep piling up evidence.’ As one would expect from such a muted manifesto, there is little technical innovation to be found here. The stories fit neatly into the familiar slots; there are epiphany pieces, conversation pieces, sting-in-the-tail pieces, narratives in which adult reality is refracted through a child’s vivid ignorance, horror stories. The beads of autobiography, strung between the fiction, give snapshots of Barker’s childhood and school life. A more substantial and comic account is given of early work in a children’s comic factory, churning out serials. She is fairly private about marriage, an institution which she appears to see as itself an invasion of privacy. Nonetheless, this phase of the cycle provides two of the finest stories. The collection finishes with a sudden awareness of age. Ironically, she who had been young when youth was ‘practically a felony’ finds herself old when youth has usurped all privilege. The fact is not particularly resented: ‘it would serve only a maudlin purpose to question a way of life which, at the most liberal estimate, is three-quarters over.’

The last autobiographical intrusion recalls a queer event. Once, walking along a residential road in Surrey, Barker was struck on the arm by an egg, thrown by some unknown person, from an unknown place, with an unknown motive. The egg’s impact left an ‘oval weal on my upper arm about six inches in length with a puffy inflamed centre’ which lasted a fortnight. Thus, it would seem, the writer accepts life. It has mysteriously assaulted her, painfully but not brutally. And it has left an interesting bruise to finger and ponder.

Reviewers of Helen Muir’s earlier novels have found her tone at once delightful and unsettling. Her narrative moves recklessly fast, always on the edge of an apparently uncontrollable authorial giggle. It’s a style which I find it hard to tune into: but plenty of people do relish her. Many Men and Talking Wives opens strongly with a typically zany scene. Verity’s publisher-lover returns to her basement flat, contrite after some book-fair infidelities. Verity nails the door against the truant, telling him that he can have admittance only after a blood test. ‘I do not dare risk your mien again,’ she tells him. By the rules of Muir’s fiction ‘mien’ could be Verity’s hysterical malapropism, or a Freudian parapraxis for ‘you men’ and ‘your meanness’, or possibly the author doesn’t know what ‘mien’ means. By way of reply, Christopher picks up a brick. When he breaks through the window, Verity sprays him with insecticide.

The affair ends. Rebounding from emptiness, Verity takes a job with the Drew Foundation, a body devoted to the enlightenment of underdeveloped countries on health and hygiene. Adventures ensue, of which the most laughable is the bayoneting of a Third World visitor by a courteous but hopelessly drugged sprig of the English aristocracy, and there is good comic value in the affair between Verity’s best friend Rachel and a libidinous Egyptian colonel who has been twice married, but, unlike Rachel, at the same time. Verity meanwhile holds off a rather nice Nigerian. Perfunctorily, the narrative finishes with the departure of the non-whites and the return of Christopher, this time to an unbarred door.

Amidst all the hilarity, Verity is an empty vessel: ‘she had no husband and no children ... she had nothing within her to pass on.’ And she is haunted by nightmares of factory farming: calves, pigs and chickens suffering in their animal concentration-camps. Ecological profundity is also signalled in the title – a quotation from Chief Seathl to President Franklin Pierce, which goes on to warn: ‘the whites too shall pass – perhaps sooner than other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed and you will one day suffocate in your own waste.’ All this suggests that there is an important theme somewhere in the room. But like Mrs Gradgrind, I can’t quite say where or what it is.

The story behind Good Behaviour has been widely publicised, as part of a promotion campaign for the book. As ‘M.J. Farrell’, the author was a successful novelist and dramatist who ceased writing fiction in the 1950s and plays in the early 1960s. The reason given is that sudden widowhood ‘broke the springs of her creative energy’. In 1980, Farrell was, in literary terms, dead. None of her books were in print; encyclopedias like Contemporary Novelists did not mention her. At midsummer 1981, Good Behaviour was published in propria persona and became a best-seller in America and Ireland. In early autumn the novel was published in Britain, and Molly Keane joined six others on this year’s somewhat extended list of Booker Prize candidates.

One might suspect hype in reports of this extraordinary come-back story. But in fact Good Behaviour is as successful a novel as Deutsch’s hand-outs claim it to be. It opens with a scene which cunningly draws the reader into false sympathy. A spinster daughter forces rabbit on a bedridden mother for whom the meat is revolting. The mother chokes and dies, and the daughter is upbraided by a faithful servant for her sadistic bullying: ‘We’re all killed from you and it’s a pity it’s not yourself lying there and your toes cocked for the grave and not a word more about you, God damn you!’ As if to challenge this, the remainder of the novel flashes back to an earlier generation, and the daughter’s victimisation by her mother, then a woman well-bred to the pitch of domestic monstrosity: ‘She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She engaged nannie after nannie with excellent references, and if they could not be trusted to look after us, she was even less able to compete. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either, and she had no enjoyment of food, for she ate almost nothing.’

The setting is Irish, and the novel exploits an Irish comic situation which goes back at least as far as Thackeray: gentility’s struggle to preserve itself against invading shabbiness. The St Charles family is first discovered living a pre-war, prosperous ‘leisured life’. 1914 brings catastrophe and gradual decline. The heroine’s dashing father loses a leg in the Great War and survives a whisky-sodden philanderer. The family’s only son is killed in a motoring accident. Debts accumulate. The father has a stroke and dies leaving the two St Charles women destitute, except for the house, Temple Alice. To everyone’s surprise, this is left to the fat, unwanted pathetic daughter; she has no marriage chances, but she can devote the rest of her life to a filial revenge of the violence of which she is clearly unaware. Hence the distasteful rabbit of the first scene.

The charm of Good Behaviour is in its telling. Aroon’s narrative (it may be a journal, or interior monologue – we’re not told) is marked by total recall, habitual impercipience and odd flashes of eloquence. ‘Good behaviour’ is shown to be her guiding principle, and it preserves her in the various crises of her life. When her brother’s friend comes to her bed (in fact, he is using her as a decoy, to hide a homosexual involvement with the brother) it is good behaviour that keeps her virginity and her consoling romantic illusions intact. When the scheming lawyer makes advances to her (he knows the terms of the will), it is not penetration of his motives but the instinct of good behaviour that saves her: ‘One of Mummie’s phrases came to me and I spoke it in her voice: “You must be out of your mind,” I said, and I knocked his hand away. In spite of my heartbreak and tears, I was, after all, Aroon St Charles.’

I hope Good Behaviour wins its prize. But it will have to combat the fact that its author’s literary resurrection happened in America, and caught on here. Since the chauvinistic protests at the short-listing of Jhabvala and Keneally, less than true-blue candidates for the Booker have always run with something of a handicap, I fancy.

The next three novels, unlike the previous three, come from firms with only a recent and still marginal interest in fiction. Routledge publish A Separate Development. Its author, Christopher Hope, has a respectable reputation as a poet, and since the publication of this latest work a somewhat less than respectable reputation, with the South African authorities, as a novelist. The book was apparently banned for a while in its home market, and it comes to the British reader with a warm endorsement from exile Donald Woods.

The main contention of A Separate Development is that apartheid is a laughing matter. It presents itself as a comic monologue, delivered by Henry Moto. Moto, as we first meet him, is a coloured who passes for white. Later he is a white who masquerades as coloured. For him, there is no separate development, only a crazy confusion. He is ‘an identity in search of a group’ or – supreme term of abuse – a ‘white kaffir’, a hybrid condition which in South Africa has none of Mailer’s chic miscegeny. The main part of the narrative (a forced prison confession, we gradually realise) covers a chaotic period between Henry’s running away from school, his going to ground in Koeli town and his eventual capture by the police. His offence, apart from an indeterminate pigmentation, is the supposed rape of a white woman so eager for his embrace as to qualify him as the rapee.

The novel’s structure is the simplest known to literary history: that of the picaresque string of adventures in which the rascally hero pinballs through society now up, now down. At the same time, A Separate Development has its modish aspect. It is set in the late Fifties to the early Sixties, and the first third of the book, dealing with Henry’s white schooldays, has the feel of a transposed American Graffiti. If South Africa had a film industry, and that industry were free to make fun of the law, this would be a hot property rather than a fugitive novel seeking good opinions abroad.

Apart from the macabre final scene in prison, Hope sticks to a broad, knockabout comedy. Some episodes work better than others. Funniest is that where Harry is recruited as assistant-cum-model for Epstein the Traveller, peddling his range of Gloria Sunday Skin Care Products. As one enthusiastic apothecary tells the ambiguously tinted hero:

It’s your sort of epidermis the Africans want. The trick is to make them believe it comes out of a can. I don’t suppose you spare a little piece? As a sort of sample, you know, the way they do with curtains. I’d have something to show my customers what to aim for. Just a small flap, Harry from the wrist, say, or a couple of inches from behind the thigh. You’d never miss it. I’d have it mounted on cardboard like those colour-matching charts in paint shops.

To his parents, teachers, employers and even to the sinisterly paternal police, Harry is a ‘naughty boy’. And the novel itself is pervaded with a sense of mischief. It was, we are told, ‘temporarily suppressed’ in South Africa. One wonders, could a work sustain such larky high spirits or successfully employ such blunt literary instruments were it not for the intervention of a doltish authority with no Gulag (at least for white authors) to back up its irritations?

Harvester entered fiction slightly later than Routledge. According to the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook their preference is for ‘literary fiction’. Literary or not, From Little Acorns is the least demanding of the novels under review. It is the story, in his own words, of an eight-year-old autistic child, Burt. Burt, we learn, did something nasty to Jessica after a day’s playing truant. (In the coy vocabulary of the novel, he put his tushy in her tushy.) Now the little fornicator is confined to the Children’s Trust Residence Centre, where he refuses to speak and breaks furniture. He is saved by a maverick therapist, Rudyard Walton, who refuses to see Burt as sick. As Walton tells the blindly over-qualified psychiatrist in charge of the case, it is the system, with its reverse ageism, or childism, which is guilty:

Burt is a human being in kid’s clothing. He has the organs and the feelings of his species, but none of the rights. And he is not alone. This country is stewing itself in the notion that you’re not a person until you reach voting and drinking age. It’s wrong.

It’s rather reminiscent of the enlightened Director of Hatcheries in Brave New World, telling the tots to go in the bushes and practise their foreplay.

The iconoclastic Rudyard Walton has developed a technique of his own: this is the ‘wounded healer’ approach in which the therapist mimics the patient’s symptoms (eating bean bags, waggling his fingers) so as to create a bond. Coincidentally, from an afterword, we learn that Howard Buten is a professional clown who has ‘through volunteer work, developed a method of treating autistic children.’ One guesses what the method must be.

Professionals in the field of child care will have their specialist opinions about this book. For the lay reader, From Little Acorns is marred by the cuteness of the autobiographical narrative. Burt is, of course, very ‘language-oriented’. But he is also gifted with a sweetly poetic turn of phrase: ‘Rain says a noise: Shh. You can hear it when it comes down. It is God telling us to be quiet.’ Among all the winsomeness there are some amusing evocations of the gung-hoism of the American primary school, with its drinking-fountain captains and clean-plate commandos, where it is ‘good citizenship’ to sit up straight. But, on the whole, reviewing this novel is rather like eating a plateful of smarties for breakfast.

A Separate Development and From Little Acorns are imports. Fortnight’s Anger is British-originated, a first novel from the philosopher, barrister and man of letters, Roger Scruton. It comes out under the imprint of Carcanet, a firm best-known for its poetry list, its very successful co-operation with the Arts Council and the dynamic leadership of Michael Schmidt. Fortnight’s Anger has a melodramatic outline. The hero, Ken Fortnight (a law student), returns to the deathbed of his mother. He has a showdown with his father, the ‘Colonel’, and a reunion with his schizophrenic younger brother, ‘the Kid’. He has a brief affair with a married woman, and is seduced – or raped – by the sinister Doctor (who may not be a doctor) Holtius. At a bizarre poetry festival, the Kid shoots Holtius, then starves himself to death.

I’ve tried, but I may not have got the details of the story right. Fortnight’s Anger is written in a style so supercharged as to baffle all but the most painstaking reading. A typical description of Holtius will give some idea of the ordeal that awaits the reader: ‘His eyes shone with the brilliance of polished stones. A radiance of lust played like oil on the unyielding surface of his being. He was a self-effigy, ludicrous like a piece of gossip etched in travertine: the indestructible inane.’