Submission

Robert Taubman

  • A Chain of Voices by André Brink
    Faber, 525 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 571 11874 7
  • How German is it by Walter Abish
    Carcanet, 252 pp, £6.75, March 1982, ISBN 0 85635 396 5
  • Before she met me by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 183 pp, £6.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 224 01985 6
  • Providence by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 183 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 224 01976 7
  • Getting it right by Elizabeth Jane Howard
    Hamish Hamilton, 264 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 241 10805 5

The voices in A Chain of Voices are those of 30 characters, Boer farmers and their hired labourers and slaves, in the Cape in the early 19th century. The voices are ‘all different yet all the same’: they have a situation in common, and its main features are oppression and revolt. The novel is a series of interior monologues, which record the events of a local slave rising in the Bokkeveld in 1825, the individual histories of those concerned, and the folk memories that help to explain the situation:

We of the Khoin, we never thought of these mountains and plains, these long grasslands and marshes as a wild place to be tamed. It was the Whites who called it wild and saw it filled with wild animals and wild people. To us it has always been friendly and tame. It has given us food and drink and shelter, even in the worst of droughts. It was only when the Whites moved in and started digging and breaking and shooting, and driving off the animals, that it really became wild.

The Khoin, whom the Dutch called Hottentots, barely survived in the Bokkeveld by this time. The Boers were cultivating the fertile valleys. The economy was dependent on slaves imported from other parts of Africa and from Batavia. The British had a remote presence in Cape Town, seven days away by wagon. The large, complex, changing scene is vividly realised – more so than the individual psychology of the characters: although the monologues take place inside their heads, it is the outside scene in all its detail that gives the novel its substance. What it has to say about the psychology of revolt may seem thin beside – and in any case is dependent on – the assurance with which it treats of Boer family life, Khoin legend, crops and cattle, stonework and mud walls, smithy and threshing-floor.

The slave Galant grows up on the farm at Lagenvlei with his foster-brothers Nicholaas and Barent van der Merwe and the white girl Hester. The natural equality among them in childhood soon disappears: Hester becomes the reluctant wife of Barent, Galant is allocated to Nicholaas as his slave and the overseer of his farm. ‘We were no longer heedless boys but master and slave: could either really blame that on the other? It was something neither could avoid or even wish undone: the very condition of our mutual survival.’ These are Nicholaas’s thoughts; he is a tyrannical but weak master, who looks to God or predestination for excuses. Self-righteously, or with God as his excuse, he flogs Galant and the other slaves for every offence. In a fit of rage he beats Galant’s child to death. The resistance he encounters in Galant is an animal one, like the resistance of horses to their breaking-in.

A similar instinct prompts Hester’s rejection of her husband: ‘My revolt had become unavoidable lest in my continued subjection I became as corrupt as he in the exercise of his male power.’ Galant’s revolt, too, becomes unavoidable. He kills Nicholaas, but the planned uprising of the oppressed – not all of whom are slaves – is bungled and they are rounded up for execution.

The style of these dramatic monologues has a lot of the Old Testament about it. There are florid patches and the sing-song of the Khoin woman’s lamentation: ‘Only the wail of the jackal is heard, and the cry of the hammerhead bird treading the waters of death.’ But the Biblical note is also realistic and apt. It is apt in African voices to the themes of ancestral land and Babylonish captivity, and in Boer voices it takes the form of Calvinism. Slavery and flogging are not the only forms of oppression. Sexual oppression, in the elementary right of the male to female flesh, is as common as flogging. But it also takes a religious form, and spiritually the Boers seem hardly less oppressed by their God than the blacks are by the Boers. This is partly a matter of a mystical belief in ‘submission to the land’, which in turn means ‘submission to God’ – ‘that was what made it tolerable’ – and in turn, too, justifies a man’s need of slaves: ‘to make the farm prosper with the help of those God has given me’. All this gets its warrant from the Old Testament. The sense of sin, however, probably owes more to Calvin. The Boers’ is an argumentative kind of submission to God: ‘So where did I sin against you?’ asks the dying man, because he is going to die. ‘Is it something I did wrong?’ But the answer is plain enough. Everyone has sinned before God simply by being alive. ‘God has turned his face against me,’ meditates Nicholaas. But he himself cannot turn his face away from his illegitimate child – ‘my sin had to be kept in front of my eyes’ – because this was God’s punishment, ‘leaving me no choice but to throw me on His mercy’. Submission is no less the novel’s subject than oppression, and this includes some awful forms of instinctive submission. The most pitiable symbol in the book is Bet, Galant’s Khoin woman, who lusts after a white man because he has beaten her child to death.

It is a full novel on the subject of submission. It seems to me less full on the subject of freedom, though this is what Galant dies for. One looks in vain for an inwardness with what freedom means for Galant before he dies. The subject is approached warily and indirectly in the figure of Joseph Campher from Brabant, who has survived the Napoleonic Wars discreditably, and through whom, as in a character out of Brecht, mere ideals such as liberté and égalité are equally discredited. More directly, there are plenty of facts serving simply to explain Galant’s actions. A certain innate insolence provides the energy, the floggings provide sufficient cause. He is misled by gossip about the emancipation of slaves, and by the equivocations of British policy (it was at this time, apparently, ‘the benevolent object of the British Legislature to abolish, not slavery, but the slave trade’). He has heard of freedom somewhere ‘beyond the Great River’. It is also just that he wants to wear shoes. This is a lot, but if it were all it would make him no more than a racial stereotype out of the Mark Twain era. I think a failure of inwardness occurs because, to avoid this stereotype, André Brink substitutes for it at crucial moments a very different model – and in the historical circumstances of 1825 an unlikely one: a modern existential and political model. ‘Galant, who are you?’ asks his woman. ‘Don’t ask me yet. Only a free man can answer that.’ And his voice at the end: ‘But to choose, with open eyes – even if it is in the dark! – willingly to bind oneself to that tomorrow which does not yet exist, but which is brought into being by the choice itself: that is perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. Perhap’s this is freedom.’ Easy to want to believe Galant on such occasions, but difficult not to feel here that one is being coerced by a 20th-century novelist: one is not left free to believe. And there’s coercion in the culmination of the story itself. Galant’s one act of freedom, in the time between the rising and his arrest, is to take the white woman Hester up to the loft for sex. Or rather, they take each other there – as if sleep-walking: for everything demands this act, which is symbolic as much as sexual; the story leads inevitably up to it, and it invites the banning of the novel in South Africa. But so inevitable, so political an act has no hope of feeling for the reader like a free act. It is engineered, and a novel working in this way has itself less in common with freedom than with Calvinistic predestination.

How German is it might seem to have all the freedom in the world on its hands, so little is it concerned with any of the usual meanings of events or character. For most of the time it doesn’t allow them a meaning at all. Its subject rather is the positive absence of meaning in the disconnected, anonymous features of modern German life – blocks of flats, café conversations, the loud noise that may or may not be a terrorist bomb. The may or may-not principle is carried far into the actual method of the novel. We know that Ulrich Hargenau, a writer, arrives in Würtenburg from Paris, and has had connections with a terrorist group. He stays with his brother, a fashionable architect busy constructing modern Germany. An American girl, Daphne, appears at the beginning and again at the end, but she may not be American, and, indeed, the data we have on all the characters confirms nothing, or only raises suspicions. They drift around in a way that they may be just that of the beau monde, or may have to do with terrorism. Shots are fired, perhaps by accident. Scenes occur in Würtenburg, Geneva, Brumhold-stein, the East Frisian islands – some of which are real places, some not. Themes – terrorism, prosperity, infidelity – appear and disappear, not developed but momentarily arrested, as if under strobe-lights.

The title How German is it seems to lack a question-mark, as do many such phrases in the text. It’s not clear if a question is meant. But there are also barrages of real questions: ‘Why is it that you don’t ever wish to speak about your mother?’ or, ‘Could everything be different?’ In any case, no questions are answered. Besides questions, there are games: ‘His niece entered the room ceremoniously carrying a tray on which she had placed an assortment of shells, small polished stones, a few beads, several foreign coins, a pine cone, the skeleton of a frog. Uncle Ulrich, Uncle Ulrich, she said, in that clear voice she loved to adopt for certain special public occasions, will you pick out one of these ... the one you like best ... I am conducting a test.’ And the novel itself plays a game with names. The philosopher Brumhold is clearly Heidegger under another name, and the former concentration camp called Durst is recognisably Dachau. But here the author is not just playing with names: he is pointing a moral. In the unaccountable present, where it seems that nothing can be tested and confirmed by experience, there are certain ominous reminders of the past. And there are, indeed, obvious symptoms of malaise in the present. Franz, a restaurant waiter in the plush new town, howls in secret; the girl featured in the magazine Treue as the current image of a life-style that is ‘clearly an attempt to achieve perfection’ in real life crouches in a corner of her room.

The meaning of these symptoms is only revealed when, in the new town of Brumhold-stein, a hole opens in the ground: it is a mass grave. No less explicit is the reminder that Ulrich’s father had been a hero of the resistance to Hitler and his death a purposeful act, to be contrasted with the casual violence of modern terrorism. But the strength of the novel certainly doesn’t lie in this pointing of morals by pointing to the past, in which it somewhat slavishly reflects a current mood of self-contempt in German literature and the cinema. It is better and more original at the less moralistic task of examining the present in its mere contingency. Life presents itself to Ulrich without prior explanation, as haphazardly arranged as the objects on the tray; not in a familiar format but with all the freshness of the unfamiliar. A lesson on the ‘familiar’ is taught in the school at Brumhold-stein: ‘What do we mean when we use that word?’ It’s an excellent lesson, doubtless owing something to Heidegger. It defamiliarises, which is what this novel itself is good at doing.

Julian Barnes’s characters might have stepped out of a novel of the Sixties: well-armed, on guard against themselves and others, prone to interesting traumas but masters of social strategy. The successful novelist, the historian (‘he was, he knew, a very sensible person’), the bright career woman with a less bright past in films-if these are stereotypes, they seem to accept the imputation voluntarily, like a kind of protective clothing. The novel is very bright and acute, diving in and out of their minds, contriving misunderstandings and catching them out in bêtises. But what Before she met me seriously proposes is more original: a study of retrospective jealousy. Graham is increasingly obsessed by the idea of his wife’s infidelities before she met him. If this turns out to be a dud theme, it must be because this is, after all, a peculiarly modern novel – its method, if not its characters, wholly of the Eighties. Its game is to balance on the knifeedge of the true and the untrue – kidding that it might have something true and revealing to say, but coming up instead with the unexpected and fantastic. Graham’s problem with jealousy seems a genuine one, but it’s exploited more to give the reader a frisson than to aid comprehension. The come-on is played for both comedy and horror. The task of identifying Ann’s former lovers means going back to her films, and takes Graham on an absurd peregrination of suburban cinemas to sit through old British comedies – themselves described parody-fashion to exaggerate their absurdities. On the other tack, absurdly horrible rather than just absurd, the author gets more than the usual measure of detachment and disgust out of Graham’s sessions with girlie magazines. And then he hits us with Graham’s ghastly and unexpected suicide. With that ends any hope that the novel might be about something true to human experience. The only point is that of any successful coup: the reader is simply taken unawares.

Kitty in Providence is the sort of heroine an author invents in order to subject her to a life of disappointments. These are mitigated for her by academic interests – hers in the Romantic tradition, her lover’s in French cathedrals. The novel is warm and delightful about donnish life, exhibiting its own kind of donnishness in a sentence like ‘The dog was very old, and did not seem particularly viable.’ But Kitty’s plight is to be half-French, and her common sense, her clothes sense and her solid affections are all on her French side. She lives in Chelsea, but her England is a fantasy constructed around a dead soldier-father and a lover she cannot picture: ‘it was so difficult when he was not there.’ Worse: the lover is indeed as near as one can get to a fantasy Englishman, a professor with a pleasant vague smile, ‘wandering around with a cup in one hand and a saucer in the other, a signet ring just visible on the finger beneath the saucer’. Ruth, in Anita Brookner’s first novel, was in love with a professor with ‘a neutral, faintly resigned presence’: but Kitty’s case is even more hopeless. Maurice is not only English, but specifically upper-class Gloucestershire; and Kitty loses him to a girl in her own seminar, out of the same Gloucestershire top drawer, who does what Kitty can’t and wouldn’t ever do – wear her brother’s pullovers. Providence is absolutely a love story, and restates, without accounting for, the fact that neither reason nor objective grounds for liking or disliking have anything to do with falling in love. Kitty, an expert on the Romantics, only confirms the 19th-century stereotype: one thinks of Lucy Snowe in Villette. Yet Kitty doesn’t get as much support from her author as Lucy Snowe. It’s made to look only ironical that she is intelligent and sensitive and teaches two strenuous seminars on Romantic love in Adolphe. But one wonders why Anita Brookner should spend so much delicacy and irony on situations which she has planned from the start will come to nothing. This is now her second novel about the subjugation and defeat of an intelligent heroine.

Getting it right reminds me of the comfortable romances of the Thirties that consoled us for the Depression. Cecil Roberts, author of Pilgrim Cottage, wrote lots of them. They rescued their hero from the work-bench or the dole queue by means of a ticket to upper-class privilege in Venice or love in the Tyrol, but they brought him safely back to home cooking and a childhood sweetheart. They were not wholly escapist. They just used a bit of glamour to reinforce a belief in decency, the work-ethic and the class system. They depended on all sorts of assumptions that the author unconsciously shared with his characters and his public. Gavin, a London hairdresser, is such a hero, with his shyness, virginity and pimples (‘he did not know that his smile made everything not only all right but unusually better than that’). He finds himself in the world of high life and penthouse parties – some of it surprisingly unchanged from the Thirties romance: the box at the opera, a night of love, the people glamorous but neurotic. But he puts it behind him and falls for the girl at work, whom he sets out to educate with his favourite records and books, beginning with The Secret Garden.

Elizabeth Jane Howard does a good job where she can feel as confident in her values as Cecil Roberts. She enters with zest into the details of hairdressing or Gavin’s mother’s cooking. She is no less confident with good, worthy sentiments that wouldn’t disdain the name of sentimentality. But it’s another matter with nuances of taste and class-consciousness, where all the old certainties have disappeared. It’s awkward to find Gavin so screwed-up about his voice: ‘knowing that she would think he was common, and feeling he wasn’t, and minding her thinking that, and then hating himself for minding what someone whom he didn’t like thought’. The social situation is distinctly edgy: a plastic dish-rack or someone calling rabbits bunnies is enough to remind us of our insecurities. The characters seem to use social nuances to put each other down. Or else the author, no longer at one with her characters, is putting them down. Or maybe not. But she ventures too far out of romance into areas where no one feels secure.