Fiction and Failure

Adrian Poole

  • Blind Understanding by Stanley Middleton
    Hutchinson, 159 pp, £7.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 09 146990 2
  • Fifty Stories by Kay Boyle
    Penguin, 648 pp, £2.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 14 005922 9
  • Unsolicited Gift by Jacqueline Simms
    Chatto, 151 pp, £6.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 7011 2616 7
  • Nellie without Hugo by Janet Hobhouse
    Cape, 192 pp, £6.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 224 01969 4
  • Levitation: Five Fictions by Cynthia Ozick
    Secker, 157 pp, £6.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 436 25482 4

There is a point in Stanley Middleton’s Blind Understanding at which a man does not eat a dry biscuit. Listening to the sound of the nine o’clock television news from the distance of his kitchen, a 70-year-old retired solicitor remarks his immunity to the sad record of violent death, industrial disorder and foreign famine in worlds elsewhere. ‘Such did not touch him nearly; he could be disgruntled without adventitious help. He decided against eating a dry biscuit.’ By such minute and precise notations (‘piled up, fragment by fragment’, as another character observes) is this rich and dense account of a life rendered. As John Bainbridge sifts through his rag-bag of memories, we close in on the events and people and things that have nearly touched him nearly: the death of a young subaltern in the war, an adulterous affair with his sister-in-law and with many others, a painting, an unsuccessfully defended murderer – but usually, death. He is a man who has devoted himself to shrinking feeling to the point where the renunciation of a dry biscuit can signal a tiny, disgruntled triumph of the will.

Middleton’s title, drawn from Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, is cunningly oracular. The relation between seeing and understanding is left nicely unresolved by a phrase in which ‘blind’ may suggest either the loss of the means to understanding or the grace of an understanding that decides its own means. Bainbridge is not a man to let understanding have its own way: he will interpret his life to his own satisfaction. He is shrewdly alert to his own and others’ weaknesses, and exempt from vanity and self-pity. He doesn’t imagine that he or they have much to give, that promises are worth making or grieving over when broken. Death has been memorably frequent in his life, and birth rare.

One of the few gifts he remembers making is associated with the birth of his sister-in-law’s only child, whom he may or may not have fathered. It is a painting of a naked woman, praying at a bedside, ‘dragging up, curling the mattress out and back with stretched arms in her frenzy’. It is a strange gift for a prospective mother, but in its oblique and enigmatic way it is as near as Bainbridge ever gets to confiding a feeling. The painting he offers his sister-in-law marks the end of their adultery, but it also seems to prophesy the despairing prayers of a bereaved mother over an empty bed. The boy will die at the age of four.

On this evening of recollection, Bainbridge goes to view the painting in the bedroom of this widowed and bereaved woman who now lives with himself and his wife. He is disappointed with it; the woman’s body is unradiant, ‘reduced, in this neat room, to a kind of propriety’. But he is pleased to be disappointed, we infer. The painting frames and reduces the prospect of grief, or guilt, or passion. It leaves him ‘bored rather than disturbed, but forced to shrug, to demonstrate to himself that these memories were controllable, that he did not mind them.’ But mind them is what he must do, for controlling these memories, keeping them at bay, does not require no effort. The shrug, his characteristic gesture, recurs at the end of the novel, when he turns out the light and stands in the dark. ‘He made nothing of it, shrugged, peered again, shook his head, went bedwards.’ But shrugging is not quite the same as shaking the head, and we are made to attend, wonderingly, to the incomplete resignation that makes him ‘peer again’ between the two gestures. It is a typically unemphatic and meticulous sentence, with its five exactly and simply chosen verbs, and its choice to conclude with a direction rather than a location, ‘bedwards’ rather than ‘to bed’.

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