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’.

At his mother’s funeral, Bainbridge’s wife weeps discreetly, in relief. That compound, of grief and discretion and relief, seems to be at the centre of this distinguished and beautifully written novel. It begins with a friend’s funeral, at which Bainbridge chooses to be more exasperated by the raucous voice of the priest than moved by the words that it speaks: ‘I am the resurrection and the life ... ’ At another point in the novel, his wife, the daughter of a bishop, is moved by the image of the condemned men in a prison chapel to recall a favourite text of her father’s: ‘And the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision.’ No open vision, but blind understanding. At the close, his wife and her sister interpret Bainbridge’s surprising but unimportunate desire to visit Hungary and its ‘unpronounceable names’ as his cryptic way of talking about dying. He is angry at being understood – he is not used to being surprised. But just before they separate for the night, his wife calls him ‘husband’ for the first time in their marriage, and takes hold of both his hands. He is right to remind the women, tetchily and jokily, that he and they are not dead yet.

‘You haven’t got over that war yet,’ Bainbridge’s wife observes. The more and less admirable aspects of his refusal to nurse illusions about his own and others’ resources are presumably not unconnected to the heart-hardening, soul-shrinking experience of casual, collective slaughter. The war figures prominently in the collection of Fifty Stories by Kay Boyle, most directly in the stories of wartime Occupied France, but also in the ominous atmosphere of pre-war Austria and in the desolate, poisonous recriminations and distrusts of post-war France and Occupied Germany. Yet in many ways the best of these stories belong to a less overtly disturbed and devastated landscape – the tense family settings of an Atlantic City childhood, the precarious European resorts of the expatriate or tourist. At the close of one of the best stories in the collection, ‘Major Alshuster’, the narrating American woman keeps a tryst with what may be the ghost of her would-be lover, the Major, on the edge of an English cliff. It is the most solid vantage that meeting strangers can expect to find in these stories, a momentary ‘perilous edge’ on which to make a desperate avowal of mutual recognition. The earlier stories of the late Twenties and Thirties are more tough-minded, more bleakly precise about the needs and wants that draw the fugitive and lonely together – a white girl and black boy in ‘Black Boy’, an overlooked wife and an inventive, operatic Baron in ‘Friend of the Family’. ‘Keep your pity,’ warns the title of a grotesque story of misplaced charity towards a vicious elderly couple. The majority of these stories are concerned with the distrusts, suspicions and prejudices that keep people of different colours and ages and nationalities at a distance, if necessary by violence. One notices, however, that difference of sex causes surprisingly little distrust, by contrast. There is very little hostility or violence between men and women in these stories; it is largely confined to members of the same sex. On several occasions in very different contexts, a man smites another man to the ground for the sake of a woman: white and black in Atlantic City, middle-aged and young outside an English pub and on a US Army train back to Germany, Austrian and Spanish prisoners in France. In themselves, these incidents are perfectly persuasive, but they have the cumulative effect of making one notice that the stories reserve too easy a tenderness for the relations between men and women in proportion to the enmities they so convincingly discover between men and men.

In another of the best stories, ‘The White Horses of Vienna’, the face of an Austrian country doctor who has survived a Siberian prison camp and now harbours Fascist sympathies is described as so scarred by suffering that it seems split in two, ‘one side given to resolve and the other to compassion’. But the story itself stays whole and impartial as it observes the involuntary distrust and even less voluntary loyalties anticipated and contracted between the doctor and his wife and their unexpectedly Jewish assistant. The story doesn’t strive to resolve the deep and historic differences between these people, nor does compassion need to be conferred or withheld. But the war itself and some of its aftermaths put more pressure on many of these stories than they can bear – pressure, that is, to find events and images that can withstand implicit comparison with the larger catastrophe.

Short stories are bound to be hard on the innocent. Their surprises and revelations being necessarily peremptory, they afford minimal opportunity for recovery. On closing this too generous collection of stories (25 would have shown to better advantage), one feels that too many of Kay Boyle’s characters are too innocent not only for their own good but for our conviction, and particularly innocent about the love of strangers. The most convincing kinds of innocence and subsequent disenchantment have a precise historical ring to them, in the restless homes, inns, resorts, trains and big-city apartments in which desperate fugitives from unhappiness await rescue.

Middleton’s Bainbridge would eschew anything as dramatic as rescue, though he recognises at one point that he needs ‘someone to look after him’, and finds himself drawn to various men who seem to know something he doesn’t – the painter of the naked praying woman, an old teacher and poet, a retired Methodist minister. But such revival as he finds comes not from these men outside at the edge of his life, but from the women inside, his wife and her sister. Jacqueline Simms’s intriguing, uneven first novel, Unsolicited Gift, closes with the promise of a renewal, as the central male character holds the hand of his estranged Japanese wife in the interval of their daughter’s debut as a concert pianist. The apparent certainty of this promise is unsettled by the quizzically precise dating of the scene in March 1985, by an epigraph that hints at association with Shakespearean romance, and by spasmodically artful flourishes which suggest that the main narrator is wilfully composing his life as fiction. The fiction of Michael’s life is a story of guilt, penance and desire for absolution following the accidental childhood death of his sister, Fleur. The ‘unsolicited gift’ of the title would seem to have something to do with the gifts which have to compensate for what cannot be recovered: that is, both the inherited analytic and artistic gifts that Michael assiduously develops to make himself into a successful physicist and professional musician, and also the more volatile love offered by his wife and daughter.

One of the puzzling things about the novel is the uncertainty of Michael’s status as narrator. He has much to be forgiven but he is not a good enough writer to dispose us in his favour. He is apologetic about this: ‘I am having this problem of finding the right language for the story.’ He is numbed, earnest, ponderous and mortified, and perhaps intended to be so, but he is nothing like as witty and sprightly a writer as his wife Kiyoko in the astute and delightful chapter in which she transforms some of his sufferings, needs and desires into children’s fantasy. She might have been given more of the story to write. The promises the novel makes, like the promise of its ending, remain tantalising, coyly uncertain of their own weight.

‘Michael without Fleur’ might have served as subtitle to Unsolicited Gift, if one wished to match the calculated inelegance of Janet Hob-house’s title, Nellie without Hugo, also a first novel. This novel, as its title announces, is also concerned with an absence and its effect on a marriage, though in this case it is less complicatedly a husband rather than a dead sister who inspires the main character to seek compensation and understanding and revival. Nellie seeks these things in various places – in bed with a charmlessly lustful old boyfriend, in conversations with a more briskly adventurous elder and more catastrophe-prone younger sister, in interview with an old art critic and buddy of the Abstract Expressionist painters (Pollock, Rothko, Gorky, de Kooning) on whom she is working at a New York museum. Both Nellie and her author are good at rendering the look and shape and weight of things, the ‘stout and weighty life’ that objects assume as they recover from human use. Nellie’s best chance of recovery from the shrinkage she feels she has suffered in marriage would seem to be the admonition and encouragement she finds in the life which objects and paintings preserve. She is heartened by the confidence and pleasure with which Matisse’s odalisque basks in the untouchability that seems mutually agreeable to the artist and to what he represents. But though intelligent, she is too extendedly reflective and self-conscious about the analogies between Art and Life. Middleton’s use of a painting is by comparison appropriately discreet and dramatic. In this novel the characters spend too much time attitudinising and the narrator too easily colludes with their mannerisms.

The reader feels a bit sorry for the husband Hugo: a sufficiently substantial feature of Nellie’s life to make her feel mild relief at his temporary absence and mild panic at the prospect of a more permanent one, but no more than that. There is nothing unremarkable about marital facelessness, but neither is there anything particularly comic or sad or enlightening about the emotional and mental dither produced by Nellie’s glum assumption, uncombated by anyone or anything else in the novel, that a five-year-old marriage naturally reduces its cohabitants to mutual boredom. Though some of the writing is vigorous and shrewd, the novel as a whole strikes one as the modern equivalent of a 19th-century ‘discussion’ novel about, say, Religious Doubt – a prolonged meditation, in fictional form, on the subject, this time, of Marital Doubt.

‘She believed in the uses of fantasy,’ writes Cynthia Ozick of the charmingly earnest heroine of the most extended of the five inventive, flamboyant fictions collected under the title Levitation. Puttermesser (‘Butterknife’) is introduced to us in an earlier story as a City employee in New York’s Municipal Building, ‘a kind of swollen doom through which the bickering of small-voiced officials whinnied’. In the face of the various human corruptions collected into the living catastrophe of the city, Puttermesser harbours a touchingly naive vision of a City of Sweetness and Light, presided over by her literary idols: ‘George Eliot doing Social Services, Emily Brontë over at Police, Jane Austen in Bridges and Tunnels, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe sharing Health.’ She gets a chance to realise some of her dreams, when she inadvertently creates a female golem who calls herself Xanthippe and helps her ‘mother’ to power. But as the other stories in this collection also suggest, fantasy obeys laws of logic that sooner or later make it indistinguishable from and certainly not preferable to the ‘reality’ it was initially supposed to displace or make up for. Puttermesser’s Utopia collapses.

Ozick has a gift for lugubriously comic rhythms and juxtapositions. The large ears and tight tie of the new commissioner of Puttermesser’s department give him ‘the posture of a vertical turtle’. The miserable husband of an impossibly perfect wife lists among her interminably virtuous achievements the repair of a broken harp, which she now plays like an angel: ‘You think you’re in heaven inside that hell.’ Immovable unhappiness, private and collective, naturally spawns the levitating fantasies and fictions required to transform and redeem it or simply keep it at bay. They don’t and can’t: but it’s the failure of fictions that makes good fictions, whether they are as fantastic as Ozick’s or as frugal as Middleton’s.