Jean-Paul

Alan Hollinghurst

  • Gemini by Michel Tournier, translated by Anne Carter
    Collins, 452 pp, £8.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 00 221448 2
  • The Death of Men by Allan Massie
    Bodley Head, 249 pp, £6.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 370 30339 3
  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
    Chatto, 309 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7011 2596 9

Michel Tournier’s Gemini was published in France six years ago under the title of Les Météores, but it arrives in this country, in Anne Carter’s convincing and sometimes virtuosic translation, with none of the trumpeting which announced his earlier triumphs, Friday and The Erl King. All his publishers have managed to come up with is an ambiguous commendation from Genet: ‘An exceptional, incomparable novel’. Le Roi des Aulnes is the only novel to have won the Prix Goncourt by unanimous decision, but Les Météores has enjoyed less acclaim, and it is not hard to see why: it is the work of a mind expanding under the apparent beneficence of praise, performing with both an obligation to grandeur and a licence to self-indulgence. The grandeur is frequently impressive, the project kept up with remarkable stamina: but the self-indulgence, as well as weakening the structure, also undermines the confidence of the reader. Tournier is not a man to make a point once if he can make it a dozen times, or to use one word if he can use a thousand. Subjected to this immense performance of reiterative loquacity the reader increasingly responds with both ‘I know …’ and ‘What, really, does it mean?’

The novel’s meaning emerges from its study of twinship. Jean and Paul Surin are twins so identical that even their father cannot tell them apart: their physical similarity is coupled with an emotional and psychological identification, not of sympathetic reactions but of a shared geminate intuition – a phrase always printed, like Johnson’s Choice of Life, in italics. In childhood and adolescence, Jean-Paul (as they are corporately known) do everything together, and communicate in an Aeolian language in which silence is more important than words. They sleep with their heads tucked between each other’s thighs, reconstituting themselves in a single and unviolated ovoid formation, a unity after which all other kinds of intimacy must seem a ‘disgusting promiscuity’. Our understanding of this comes from those sections written by Paul, and it is he who suffers when Jean falls in love with Sophie, the beginning of a separation which, for the rest of the novel, leads Paul in a world-wide search for his other half.

Tournier’s technique is to refract this geminate experience through the lives of others who are striving for its perfect reciprocity without the advantage of twinship. Jean and Paul are outsiders in the quality of their sensitivity and they celebrate themselves in a number of fantastic theories – for instance, about their congenital innocence, all single children having murdered their notional twin in a prenatal enactment of Cain’s fratricide. The novel’s form, in which several different persons expound their theories, creates the semblance of a free expression of autonomous personalities, though we rapidly come to see that the novelistic circumstance is a mere pretext for an orchestration of ideas in which all the speakers (the twins, their Uncle Alexandre – ‘the prince of refuse’ – Sophie and other characters) sound exactly the same. The novel is about identity without being about, or even much bothering with, the fictional machinery of character. Certainly, the people represent different intellectual positions, but subjected to the figurative counterpoint of the structure, none of them has access to our sympathies. The more the separation of Jean-Paul becomes the excuse for an abstract or pseudo-philosophical argument, the less the dogmatic geminate intuition and the alienating light of a non-twin’s reaction can register at a human level. Unlike Johnson’s italics, Tournier’s are not finally ironic, although there are properties which link Gemini with the tradition of Rasselas, Shandeian encyclopedic fantasies such as Jean’s ‘concrete calendar’ of twinned months, as well as digressions and mythological sanctifications of experience more in the manner of Proust. Whatever its fantasy, and however amusing (or unamusing) its laborious jokes, its aim is a serious and psychological one. But there is something unsettling and unconvincing in its mode of asseveration, for where Proust reveals his verities through a playing of the imagination on society, Tournier strives for his in a hypnotic reiteration of premises and positions unsupported by naturalism or even common sense: hence the wearisome feeling of familiarity with the ideas, and a lack of transmitted conviction in their meaning. The most rationally convincing parts are those closest to social history, the descriptions of the twins’ father and his search for heroism in the Resistance; this realism is identified with the morality and normality of the world which the principal narrators leave behind them – the twins in their odyssey and Alexandre in his life among the great rubbish-tips of France and Morocco and his pursuit of boys. In the twins self-interest has an inevitable ambiguity, but Alexandre is a tyrannical egotist who, for Tournier, poses the problem of the interesting presentation of an irremediable bore. His twinship theories about same-sex love are as unimpressive as his eulogies of rubbish and Genet-like rejection of the ‘heterosexual desert’ are monotonous; his philosophy and sociology of homosexuality dissipate their wayward and essentially epigrammatic cleverness in Tournier’s besetting overkill.

The novel works by massive rhymes and juxtapositions, and the later wanderings bring into play the metaphorical attributes of a multitude of places, sometimes, as in the evocation of Venice, no more than the sum of their clichés. It is here that character is least relevant and that the opportunism of a kind of symbolic picaresque dominates: its climax comes as Paul tunnels under the Berlin Wall to join Jean, and is badly injured. The new Berlin becomes a symbol of the new existence of Paul, his legs amputated, his own person split in two. His earlier physical ubiquity is replaced by free-ranging imagination and minute perception: in his immobility he contemplates life as if it were a miniature Zen garden in which only the eyes may walk. Like Cain and Romulus founding cities after their fratricides, Paul’s eventual achievement of singleness is accompanied by the sublimation of his physical self into a new state of identification with the natural world, with the meteors – manifestations of a sublime logic independent of humanity. Whether all this means anything, or is simply an overblown caprice, may depend on the susceptibilities of the reader.

Allan Massie’s development as a novelist has been less ambitious, though with each novel he has become more solid, circumstantial and impressive. The Death of Men, his third, though it lacks the very individual mordant melancholy of The Last Peacock, is his most open and wide-ranging book; like Tournier, he uses a scheme of interlocking narrations, and his principal teller is a dandy – one who, unlike Alexandre, can ‘no longer be troubled to dress’. He is an elegant but nostalgic figure, aware of his advancing years and apathy, combining qualities of wit, resignation, common sense and culture in a way characteristic of Massie, but brought into a new focus of sympathy and criticism: his inconsequentiality is examined but exonerated by understanding. He has the last, as well as the first, word.

The novel is based on the abduction and murder of Aldo Moro in 1978. Massie tells his Roman story through a series of accounts and imaginary explorations by the characters involved, so as to create, as he avows, not reportage, but a moral examination of situations of this kind with the freedom offered by the historical novel. He knows (from Conrad, for instance) how to fracture historical events in an imitation of the diversity of political reality. Through the words of Raimundo Dusa (the dandy and brother of the abducted Corrado Dusa) and Christopher Blake (an English journalist), and through an authorial account of Tomaso, one of the terrorists, Massie with great economy constructs a history of Italy since the war, the thirty, ostensibly prosperous years of Christian Democracy, the growth of American interests, and the moral decay which has thrived under the protective corruption of the State, at last absorbing the Communist Party too into its self-defensive establishment. Corrado Dusa has two children: Bernardo, who participates in the plot on his father’s life, and Sandro, elegant and brainless, whose ‘indolent sensuality’ is seen as typical of the new Italy. Raimundo identifies this indolence in himself as ‘the effect, not the cause, of lack of belief, of the inability ... ever to commit myself whole-heartedly to any course of action’. During the war he wrote a novel to vindicate his liberal idealism; now retired from the Washington Embassy, he works intermittently on a study of Augustus, ‘sanest of our race’, the stock focus for conservative national nostalgia. His world has avoided confrontation with certain political realities, and he has never known the Conradian ‘cleansing savagery of action’ which is precipitated when his nephew finally puts his own theorising into practice. Raimundo’s actions have seemed real but insignificant, and now, as his life takes on a new seriousness, its sense of reality fades: the Rome he knows intimately becomes in his mind a surreally grand environment in the momentous manner of De Chirico – who is pastiched on the cover of the book.

Christopher’s narration is far more abrasive and enables Massie to set up a typically tart contrast to Raimundo’s Anglophile elegance: Christopher loathes England, recalled in vignettes of familiar suburban nastiness. Bella, Corrado’s niece, with whom he has an affair, also sees England as a backwater, an essentially non-political place, where ‘you couldn’t imagine anyone killing anyone else for politics.’ By these devices Massie reiterates a disaffection with England as well as ironising its political complacency, the ineffectuality and corruption of its ruling classes. The characters are probed for love, but are capable only of self-indulgence, sentimentality or lust – not bad in themselves but deployed as analogues to the uncaring indolence of a political life that promotes and depends on consumerism. At the centre of the novel is a nexus of negatives – innocence, ignorance, indolence, impotence. Dusa’s murder is taken as an ironic illustration of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s axiom that ‘society rests on the death of men’: as Dusa explains, in his courageous last days, ignorance confronts ignorance, and the revolutionaries, the ‘feeling, self-important young’, know nothing of ‘the limits of action, of the complex obscurities of the human heart’.

The book is compelling to read, bolder and more sombre than Massie’s earlier novels, and much better written, though still lively with allusions (one minister has the Puccinian name of Gianni Schicchi) and occasionally very funny – as when Raimundo remarks of the director of a mental home, ‘He exuded unreliability like the manager of a suburban cinema’; or when Christopher mercilessly records the behaviour of Tomaso’s American girl-cousin. The different narrative voices enable him to set up a more provocative and spacious dialectic between qualities in his own creative temperament.

Toni Morrison’s much-praised and highly successful novel Tar Baby has now reached England, and it, too, is more spacious and complex than her previous work, though its gain in scope is accompanied by an intensification of some of her idiosyncrasies of manner. Like other black writers, Morrison creates stories which appear to emerge from a rich background of communal memory; events take on their moral force from the shared knowledge and prejudice in very limited societies where people rapidly become invested with a quality of legend, as Sula does in her first novel. Morrison moves through her characters’ lives with tenderness and respect, as if among the members of her own family, among people whose pasts and habits are well-known and to be celebrated; and treats her principals with a mothering, proud and sad conviction. The same is true of her settings, which are imbued with an exceptional specificity and pathos. Whether it is a town of the Deep South or, as in this case, an imaginary Caribbean island, Morrison conveys her own habituation to a place and its people as if she could assume that they play their part in the often-rehearsed geography of the reader’s private world, when the very vividness of mannerism with which she evokes them is inevitably singular and alienates them into a kind of freakishness.

Fog came to that place in wisps sometimes, like the hair of maiden aunts. Hair so thin and pale it went unnoticed until masses of it gathered around the house and threw back one’s own reflection from the windows. The 64 bulbs in the dining-room chandelier were no more than a rhinestone clip in the hair of the maiden aunts. The grey of it, the soil and swirl of it, was right in the room, moistening the table linen and clouding the wine ... Patience was hard to come by in that fuzzy caul and breathing harder still. It was then that the word ‘island’ had meaning.

The claustrophobic sense of the place that she wishes to exhibit is striven for with a definiteness, an insistence of rhythm and imagery (the grotesque hair of the maiden aunts is still going strong 15 pages later), that challenges the reader’s belief.

Morrison has been praised for the ‘poetic’ quality of her writing, though it is something which can attract attention to itself by being too heavy or peculiar. There is a good deal of personification of nature which is, at one extreme, romantic and mythical – as in her account of the geological formation of the island – but which, at the other, replaces the sought-for depth of a more metaphorical style with whimsicality: ‘ “Oh, horseshit!” she said aloud ... The avocado tree standing by the side of the road heard her and, having really seen a horse’s shit, thought she had probably misused the word.’ The repeated images take on a responsibility of their own which makes this the most genuinely poetic of her novels: its crises unfold not simply in terms of plot but in patterns of imagery with an accumulation of meaning: ‘She just lay there, stroking her raw silk thighs the colour of natural honey. There was sealskin in her eyes and the ladies minding the pie table vanished like shadows under a noon gold sun.’ Such devices yield us little ironic distance: we are forced to share that intimate collusion of Morrison and her characters, to accept the figures of their fantasy in their unashamed seriousness. Her style is extremely manipulative and rhetorical, and is the agent of a particular black cultural and political stance.

The political figuration of Tar Baby has a subtlety which is secured only by the detail in a flat and over-extended series of conversations early on in which Valerian Street, a retired white confectioner, and his wife Margaret are preparing bitchily for Christmas in their Caribbean home, waited on by their black servants and accompanied by the more sophisticated Jadine, a black girl. The mean, neurotic, insular world of the Streets is sustained by loyal but unsentimental servants, the aunt and uncle of Jadine – who is engaged to a white Parisian whom she met while modelling. Their unhappy world is intruded on by Son, a young black of extreme beauty who has jumped ship and reached the island. On Christmas night, the tensions and repressions within the group explode, and Son and Jadine escape to New York. The climax of the novel reveals the complicated interdependencies and expectations of blacks and whites, the exploitative and abusive generosity of Valerian, and the clash between Jadine’s determination to seek success in co-operation with whites and Son’s rejection of white patronage. Blacks and whites discriminate against each other and against themselves, and Jadine, like the tar baby to which Brer Rabbit stuck, presents a threat as well as a lure to Son’s proud solitude; though their relationship is destroyed by the differences in their cultural beliefs, he is fixated on her to the end. In a nightmarish coda the primitive myths of the island resume their power, and the legendary aura of Morrison’s world translates its occupants from modern social reality into a region of racial memory and superstition. The meaning of this finally rests in its repeated images, which, though powerful, retain an ambiguity which leaves us mystified rather than enlightened.