Generations

John Sutherland

  • The Survivors by Elaine Feinstein
    Hutchinson, 316 pp, £7.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 09 145850 1
  • Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss
    Cape, 361 pp, £6.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 224 01843 4
  • The Great Fire of London by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 169 pp, £7.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 241 10704 0
  • A Loss of Heart by Robert McCrum
    Hamish Hamilton, 282 pp, £7.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 241 10705 9

The survivors are two Jewish families, the Katzes and the Gordons, fled from Odessa and settled in pre-First World War Liverpool. Within their ethnic class and shared past they are markedly different. The Gordons are adaptable and individualistic – sharp even against each other. The Katzes are a warmer, happier, less steady family. The Gordon gifted son makes himself a leading London publisher, wilfully disowning his origins. The Katz gifted son is a lame duck, unable to leave home. Benjy, the youngest Katz, has artistic talent, but he buries it for the service of the family. No Gordon would so waste himself.

We follow the first generation and their children through war and slump. The Gordon fortunes rise; the Katzes have a rougher ride. The families intermarry and the offspring of the union, Diana, harmonises their clash. She goes to Cambridge (no longer the son’s prerogative), takes a first-class degree and is poised, as the novel ends in the 1960s, for complex fulfilments which the reader must guess at.

Family sagas have been the thing in popular fiction for a few years past. The fashion seems to have taken off in the American bicentennial year and had a terrific boost from the Roots mania. In spring last year no less than five of W.H. Smith’s ‘top ten’ titles were in the genre. Feinstein has clearly drawn from its current vitality, although she might prefer comparison with Mann and Lawrence rather than Howard Fast and Alex Haley. But whatever their literary elevation, these sagas tend to conform to the same narrative movement. At the beginning there is solidarity, togetherness, a spirit of one for all. Then younger members make their break, rebelling or deviating. The larger self of the family falls apart. Eventually, a point is reached where the youngest glimpses, as from Pisgah, the possibility of a fully individual life. Wild horses gallop, stars are apostrophised.

It’s never a straightforward journey, these novels aver. The two brightest spirits of the Gordon second generation, Francis and Dorothy, break loose, but only to wither in absolute loneliness. Having got to the top of the slippery pole of English publishing, Francis is last seen alone in his hospital room suddenly aware that his career has been built on the Faustian contract of worldly success in return for denied Jewishness:

It came to him clearly for the first time what he had taken against in Betty’s daughter. Diana looked Jewish in a way none of the Gordon family had ever done. He was ashamed at the thought. It left him cold, heartless and isolated.

Dorothy, the only child her harsh father ever loved, broke away in the First World War to turn into a nurse. Disowned by her family, she denies her urge for wife and motherhood to turn into a frigidly self-sufficient administrator.

Diana recapitulates these family trials and errors in her early adult life. For a while she is arrested in a condition of aloneness, ‘a huntress; and if not chaste, cold’. But finally she advances, solving the paradoxes of polarisation and connection. She will, she determines, have ‘children and poetry’, and Jewish identity too, we understand. It is, to borrow Lawrence’s metaphor, the farthest reach of the wave. Put another way, Diana demonstrates that no less than with the gentlemen of the Victorian age, you need three generations to make a truly free woman.

The Survivors is engrossing, and adds to the range of Elaine Feinstein’s already considerable achievement: but there are some things that don’t go quite right. Aiming to show how it was, Feinstein strips her style to bare bones of data and chronicle. This is how the novel begins, grudgingly giving out information without any grace of syntax:

Two families. Two ways of life. And one city, Liverpool, planted on marsh and meadow. A city made by Irish traders first, and then slavers and shipowners, and at last a city of merchants and brokers, who put down their own great mercantile slabs. The town hall. The Liver building. Lime Street Station.

This terseness could be seen as a mark of embarrassment and I wonder if Feinstein may have felt inhibited by certain pieties. There seems a kind of nihil nisi bonum at work in the novel. Neither family contains a character who is at all sternly dealt with. Cruelty is recorded – old Solomon’s leaving his one faithful child out of his will, for instance – but is seen as understandable quirkiness. By the same authorial good will, virtue is gilded. Benjy, Diana’s father, is idealised to the point of cloyingness.

Since 1980, Brian Aldiss has been thrashing around somewhat. We have had a rewrite of Wells’s Island of Dr Moreau, a text which, together with Frankenstein (which he also rewrote), Aldiss conceives as central to SF’s evolution. In the same year he published the very different Life in the West. This was announced as his ‘first contemporary novel’ and played tricky games with narrative sequence. ‘Its partial success,’ we are told in the preface to this latest work, ‘left me ambitious and dissatisfied.’ Hence migration to the mode of Helliconia Spring, his first Tolkienian novel.

The novelist is always frank about his ambitions. He is quite prepared to take advantage of a handy centenary to compare his work to Joyce’s, as he did in print a few weeks ago. In a recklessly chin-leading pre-publication advertisement for Helliconia Spring, entitled ‘The Making of an Epic’, he has confided to a doubtless under-awed book trade the initial impulse behind the venture: ‘Originally I had thought to write a kind of allegory of the decline of the West. Now something much grander emerged, a pattern buried deep in the human psyche.’ One can surmise the musing author’s debate with himself: ‘How about having a go at Spengler? No, no Brian. Not grand enough. Think big.’

Big it turned out to be. What Aldiss has come up with is the invention of a new solar system, a new terran planet, new animal and plant creation and new social orders to inhabit it. He evidently took care and specialist advice in putting the whole together. Plausibility has always been a fetish with him (he disdains, for instance, the conveniently easy tricks of Faster than Light travel in his SF, thinking it scientifically illogical). The Helliconian conception, if hardly grand, is certainly ingenious. Discovering just how the astrolabe works is a main pleasure. Helliconia, it emerges, revolves around two stars – Batalix and Freyr – and has two ‘years’. The smaller comprises 480 Earth days, giving roughly similar calendar reckonings. The large year is 2,592 times as long as Earth’s. The consequences for the planet are drastic: ‘In many respects Helliconia was earth’s sister planet. Yet on that elliptical journey across thousands of years, it became almost two planets – a frozen one at apostron when farthest from Freyr, and an overheated one at periastron when nearest Freyr.’

Earth civilisation has needed two millennia to reach the pitch of writing SF and journeying to the Moon; more importantly, it has had a stable climatic base on which to build. Within the same period, the inhabitants of Helliconia (who seem to occupy one vast continent) are swung from polar cold to tropical heat. The change in environment is too fast for efficient adaptation and far too fast for genetic mutation. Aldiss’s way of solving the problem for his Helliconians is very elegant. The planet is infested with lice which carry a virus. Normally dormant, this ‘Hellico virus’ rouses to rampant life in the long year’s spring and autumn. The epidemic ‘bone disease’ and ‘fat disease’ wipe out the larger part of the population: but the survivors are equipped with metabolisms and physiques appropriate to the coming extremes of temperature. The virus has the benefit of also preventing watching Earthmen from landing (though how they arrived without FTL is a mystery – Helliconia is ‘roughly a thousand light years from earth’). Less beneficially, the virus annually wipes away all accumulated science and technology, rudiments of which have to be rediscovered every spring.

Helliconians have a perfect, if unenviable adjustment to their bi-solarity. But their supremacy is constantly threatened by the Phagors. These are a-human ‘ancipitals’. They have horns, funny joints, lungs beneath their guts, shaggy pelts, yellow blood, and hate humans. The end of the novel finds the Phagor hordes massed and ready to attack. Can they be repulsed before the ravages of bone disease? The second volume of the planned trilogy will tell.

Aldiss has always favoured a climatic or ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ theory of human behaviour. I suspect it could be traced back to the moment (which he has recorded in fiction) when as a young soldier he disembarked in wartime India, to be astounded by the heat and the seething, alien mass of humanity. The best things in Helliconia Spring are vivid descriptions of cold, wet and warmth. But as in other SF and fantasy epics, the too-large scale reduces human (or near-human) actors. Another irritation for me in the book is the manner in which the author throws around unglossed neologisms as if his reader were entirely familiar with Helliconian flora, fauna, environment and mores. The result recalls Stanley Unwin rather than J.R.R. Tolkien. For instance: ‘Beside the kzahn’s kaidaw stood a creaght, or young male phagor, bearing a towering standard.’ If it’s any help, the kzahn’s name is Hrr-Brahl Yprt, his kaidaw is called Rukk-Ggrl and the standard is, I think, made of stungebag horn.

The Great Fire of London’s preface is a scenario based on Little Dorrit but falsified by an inauthentic sentimental climax. Dickens’s novel, and his fiction generally, echo disconcertingly through Ackroyd’s. The main character, Spenser Spender (a poet manqué, what else?), struggles to get a film version of Little Dorrit off the ground. His Circumlocution Office is found in the Film Finance Board. Various Dickensian look-alikes cross Spender’s path. Miss Flite appears for a moment in the King’s Road, pushing a pram ‘filled with scraps of old clothes and newspapers, empty tins of Horlicks and old bottles stuffed with rags’. Bradley Headstone (here Job Penstone) pops up as a grimly self-righteous Poly lecturer, pontificating on Dickens’s male chauvinism to a troop of doltish students. Spender is destroyed by a schizoid female Rudge who fires his Marshalsea set. ‘London’ burns. Spender, unlike his namesake, is no fireman and dies fighting the flames. Meanwhile a Quilpian dwarf throws open the prison where the film has been shooting.

It would be a mistake to think from the last episode that Ackroyd is at all deferential to such readings as Lionel Trilling’s ‘the informing symbol or emblem of Little Dorrit is the prison.’ The novelist is known to be of John Carey’s persuasion on the subject of the Dickens industry’s symbol-hunting. He makes his point with a heavily satirised gay Canadian Cambridge don who researches ‘his’ author, surrounded by congenial works like Dickens: The Baroque Lamp and Dickens and the Twisted Metastasis. So much for the academics.

Ackroyd is a versatile writer (though this is his first novel). One of his earlier productions was Notes for a New Culture. This novel recalls Eliot and his maxim about the impossibility of gumming leaves back on trees: the culture of the past, that is to say, cannot easily be brought into line with that of the present. The Great Fire of London plays with this idea of cultural irrecoverability. The Cambridge expert (whom Spender hires as a scriptwriter) cannot bring back the Dickens world. Nor can Audrey, a lunatic telephonist who claims to have séance contact with Little Dorrit and thinks herself possessed by the Victorian heroine. Least successful of all is Spender’s film reconstruction, for all its authenticity of set and location. In elaborating this pattern, Ackroyd may have had in mind that Dickens himself was describing Marshalsea not as it stood, but consciously inventing it. As he tells us in the 1857 preface, he deliberately neglected customary field work: ‘Some of my readers may have an interest in being informed whether or not any portions of the Marshalsea Prison are yet standing. I myself did not know, until I was approaching the end of this story, when I went to look. I found the outer front courtyard, often mentioned here, metamorphosed into a butter shop.’ Spender is thus engaged in reconstructing, not Dickens’s London, but Dickens’s imagination of London. The Great Fire of London is cleverly resonant and sharply observed as to scene and character. Ackroyd is especially good on Cambridge high tables and low London gay bars. But he seems reluctant to surmount his favourite level of bitchy caricature and offhand smartness. In the flood or fire manner of the great Hollywood novels, the narrative ends apocalyptically: but the event is given with all the drama of a Kessing’s Archive entry: ‘it inflicted disaster and destruction on the city,’ we are told.

Robert McCrum’s first thriller was unusually well received. Follow-ups are notoriously hazardous, but he will not lose many readers with this second effort. The hero of A Loss of Heart is a 30-year-old Polytechnic lecturer. (McCrum, like Ackroyd, has an Auberon Waughish misconception of what these maligned institutions are actually like.) Everything about Philip Taylor proclaims him a wet: second-class degree, balding, shortsighted, his wife has left him out of sheer boredom and even the University of Pittsburgh Press won’t look at his thesis on hagiography in 12th-century Northumbria. He is morbidly oppressed by his Quaker background and the family pharmaceutical business which he refused to join. Philip is jolted out of his seedy torpor by a phone-call. His brother has gone missing and is later found dead. Daniel was a different kind of Taylor: possessed of a first-class mind and dynamic personality, he went into investigative journalism rather than the refuge of Medieval history. His great coup was to uncover the scandalous dumping of drugs in Africa by the family firm. Looking into this and other episodes in his brother’s past, Philip is gradually drawn into a love affair, radical politics and a violent change of life. There is a brilliant police interrogation scene in the opening sections of A Loss of Heart and a gripping siege-and-hostages climax.

But it should be said that there are also too many long, inactive conversations in which the hero pieces things together as painstakingly as he would presumably assemble the life of a 12th-century saint.