Getting back

Adrian Poole

  • A crowd is not company by Robert Kee
    Cape, 240 pp, £7.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 224 02003 X
  • Bedbugs by Clive Sinclair
    Allison and Busby, 109 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 85031 454 2
  • New Writing and Writers 19
    John Calder, 262 pp, £6.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 7145 3811 6
  • Zhenia’s Childhood by Boris Pasternak, translated by Alec Brown
    Allison and Busby, 115 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 85031 466 6

In what is by far the most rewarding item in Calder’s New Writing and Writers 19, the main character of Harry Mulisch’s ‘Antique Air’ thinks of the war as ‘an almost impenetrable barrier of death, fear, hunger’, separating him from his childhood. Yet paradoxically, the war is ‘perhaps his most precious possession, without which he can hardly imagine himself. Nor can he imagine what it can be like to live as he imagines his children have done, a life undivided by such a cataract. In his introduction to A crowd is not company, Robert Kee voices some similar thoughts about the experience of war in youth. In fact, the subject of his book is not so much ‘death, fear, hunger’, as the effects of a unique kind of confinement on a young middle-class Englishman of his generation – namely, the experience of a prisoner-of-war camp. He originally published it in 1947 as a novel and has now reissued it as an ‘autobiographical memoir’, unchanged except for a brief explanatory preface. It might seem odd for an author to claim a more intimate kind of formal responsibility for a narrative that now seems to him in retrospect to have ‘a strange authenticity, almost as if it had been written by someone else’. A meal could be made of this, but it would be a dull one. Everyone knows what it means, and there are many more interesting things about the book than what to call it. ‘Personal Narratives, British’ in the British Library Cataloguing Data on the fly-leaf has a quaint rightness to it.

One of these more interesting things is the shape Kee chooses for his narrative. It is divided into four parts. In the first, Kee is shot down over Holland, captured, interrogated and escorted eastwards to an RAF prison camp; in the second, we are given a generalised account of the routine events and salient impressions of the camp; the third is solely devoted to the most overtly dramatic event, an attempted escape and recapture; the fourth deals with the evacuation and forced march of the prisoners away from the Russian advance towards an unknown destination. Three of these sections are concerned with journeys, but it is only the last that takes us away from base-camp. The isolatable escape-story in Part Three trades very skilfully on a whole lot of familiar anxieties, anticipations and shocks: the reader recognises this sort of narrative and its possible destinations. But it is the journey in Part Four that is the really engaging and troubling one, because we don’t know where the narrator will choose to end it – whether it’s going to reach ‘home’ or conclude on a moment of liberation or simply somewhere in transit. In fact, it closes on the prisoners’ arrival at a new, albeit presumably temporary camp. In the crush of exhausted bodies Kee pulls out the battered poetry anthology that has been his most consistent and comforting companion. He opens it, whether deliberately or not we don’t know, at Rossetti’s ‘Blessed Damozel’. For a moment he escapes from the appalling chaos around him, then he is overcome by disgust and stuffs the book away. And this is, a page later, the note on which the book ends, of utter despair and disgust at ‘what life really was: something foul and heartless, something with no good in it at all’. He reviews and dismisses the possibility that love or beauty might combat or even survive this despair. In his mind, those he has loved died when he entered the prison camp, and the beauty he has found in poetry is now a chimera. He drops the poetry in the mud, and it is trampled out of sight by the boots of the man behind him.

It is a disturbing and unexpected ending, and it may draw on one of the ‘forgotten attitudes’ to which Kee refers in his introduction. One’s first reaction to it is that it is an error, not of the character’s feeling but of the writer’s judgment, to concede the authority which an ending inevitably confers to an attitude for which the book as a whole has not quite offered enough justification. Did those loved ones really die, so swiftly and simply? Isn’t it a bit hard on poetry to have Rossetti represent her at a moment like this (or indeed, ever)? Does that gesture, dropping poetry in the mud, really represent a final and chosen decision? What about that very different moment, recorded earlier on in Part Two, when, on the last birthday he would spend in the camp, the writer celebrated a joy in the goodness and rightness of the world and ‘everything that it contains from the minds of Beethoven and Shakespeare to food and drink and a soft night’s sleep’? What has happened between then and now to turn joy into despair? Isn’t the prisoner-of-war stumbling, however painfully, towards the freedom from which the writer is looking back? And then it occurs to one that he is also walking away from something to which he has become powerfully attached, and that the voice of despair is also a voice of protest.

This is unexpected and convincing, and it is in startling contrast to the almost cheerful ease with which, near the start, Kee waved farewell to thoughts of ‘home’. When he asks himself at the end about those he has loved, we realise that the family and friends he has left behind have indeed been astonishingly absent from this story. The suddenness and cleanness with which they become ‘mere characters in the novel of my past’ comes as a surprise to him – but it is a surprise that is strangely devoid of regret. As he records the process of adjustment and shrinkage that makes prison life bearable, he says of the world beyond the wire: ‘Of course you could never forget about it.’ But writing makes forgetting easy, and it comes across as a weightless assertion – as drained of weight as the human figures he sees walking along outside the wire like ‘extras walking across a film set’.

One of the book’s fascinations is its choice of what it allows into the record of what we are told the prisoner takes into and out of the camp. ‘It was disconcerting how the desire not to appear a fool followed one into captivity’: Kee is excellent on the motives of manners. On the other hand, one notices how strict are the import controls on the images and memories allowed into this world from beyond the wire. They are almost solely drawn from school and from literature, particularly Shakespeare. Flying over the Lincolnshire coast on the ill-fated mission reminds him of ‘leaving my mother to go to boarding school for the first time’; the scrubby little patch of ground that passes for a lawn conjures up the memory of school, ‘lying in the long grass waiting to bat’; the German official who puts an end to the escape attempt is ‘like a sensible schoolmaster rebuking a boy for cheating’. Shakespeare provides a different kind of authority, in appeals to the vision of Lear’s ‘unaccommodated man’ and to the wisdom of ‘Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun’, and in the startling discovery of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy written up in English on a school blackboard where the evacuating prisoners are billeted for the night. The two sources of authority, school and Shakespeare, combine to provide the writer with his most lyrical apprehension of ‘a voice heard in a dream, an old familiar voice that had made the world and watched it still’.

There is a familiar and admirable decency about these efforts to make sense, to measure and organise the strangely parodic experience of the prison-camp. But behind the making of sense there are the evidently powerful and contradictory feelings of loyalty and loathing inspired by an unchosen adopted home – for which an English boarding-school education is the only appropriate training.

Two sentences which stand formally outside or above the narrative itself lodge in the mind as measures of the difficulty of resolving these feelings. One is the dedication: ‘To the memory of my friend Squadron Leader Ian Cross, DFC and those 49 of his fellow prisoners who were shot with him by Hitler’s orders on recapture after escaping from Stalag Luft III in 1944.’ The reader cannot remain unmoved by this and it is part of the experience of reading the book. It is difficult not to remember this sentence when one comes to the escape attempt narrated in Part Three, and difficult not to notice that at the end of that there is no suggestion that anyone is shot. The emphasis is on a rapid return to normality: ‘Our strange journey had no part in this life and we took it away from the front of our minds.’ There is nothing to tell the reader whether the escape attempt commemorated in the dedication and that described in Part Three are supposed to be supposed the same, and this silence is troubling. The other unforgettable sentence is the epigraph from Bacon, from which the title is chosen: ‘For a crowd is not company and faces are but a gallery of pictures and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.’ Kee’s book offers a wonderfully impartial, unjudging account of the way feelings and imagination are shrunk and benumbed in a cramped and crowded world. But the Bacon motto seems somehow too severe and too magnificent to stand as a judgment over the writer and his fellows. If ‘love’ is not the right word, there is still throughout the book a deeply-felt attachment to a shared experience in the writer’s re-creation of detail: ‘A present from a Russian prisoner: a very fat pink pumpkin’. And the act of dedicating a book ‘To the memory of my friend ...’ might well be thought a kind of answer to the accusation that the Bacon motto implies.

The poem that Kee should have been looking for at the end of the forced march that ends his narrative was not Rossetti’s ‘Blessed Damozel’ but a poem called ‘Forced March’ being written at about this time by the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti. Radnoti, like Kee and thousands of others, was being driven away from the Eastern Front as the Russians advanced. Less than two months after writing this poem he was shot by the Germans, along with other members of the forced labour battalion too weak to continue. In this poem he contemplates the unreason of struggling out of the ditch into which you’ve collapsed, despite the prospect of a waiting wife and ‘a saner, more beautiful death’. But even as he weighs the knowledge that he has no home left on earth, the memory quickens of what has been lost, swells to a promise too vivid for reason, and he struggles off the ground with renewed desire.

The shade of Radnoti materialises in one of Clive Sinclair’s short stories in Bedbugs. Joshua Smolinsky, private eye, is being interrogated by the Czech secret police; he is wilting and his guardian angel intervenes to encourage him by introducing Radnoti, who reads the conclusion to his poem ‘Letter to My Wife’. Like ‘Forced March’, it sings the will to home:

                                  through scarlet ash
I’ll charm my way if need be, through the crash
Of worlds on fire – and yet I shall get back.

But getting back is exactly what there is no chance of in a Sinclair story, though occasionally a wistful voice from the past drifts through. This is his second collection of stories and they are every bit as fearfully funny as his first, Hearts of Gold. In the title story a Jewish summer-school tutor is distracted from sex with a German student by the wise and courteous ghost of Isaac Rosenberg, who cannot, however, remember kissing his admirer’s grandmother when he was ten and she was seven:

‘What does she look like?’ he asks.
‘An old lady, white hair, in her eighties,’ I say.
He smiles. ‘Everything changes,’ he says, ‘except the dead.’

Elsewhere a Russian dissident reminds us of Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel the Fool, who cannot find it in himself to disbelieve his wife, though all the world knows of her infidelities. These are holy and heroic innocents, but they are only momentary visitants. Faithlessness and fear are what Sinclair’s characters usually writhe in.

The writhing is funny, if that is the right word, because Sinclair gives his storytellers, invariably Jewish and guilty, a talent for dazzling switches of tone and tempo. The most distinctive quality of these stories is their speed: they start fast and get faster, as the logic of consequences closes in on its victims. ‘Better keep quiet and skip the consequences,’ one narrator suggests to himself, but although the consequences follow with nightmare speed, their logic remains unbroken in the telling. There is a weird combination of phlegm and hysteria in the way these lurid confessions race to their climax. ‘This horror is too shocking to be true!’ exclaims the narrator of the title story, as he tries to dismiss the image of the three-day-old corpse of his wife, which he has just described with elaborate and repellent detail. ‘Art, not life.’ One likes to think so.

Many of these stories play dangerously with what one likes to think, with the blurred exchanges between ‘art’ and ‘life’, ‘fact’ and ‘fantasy’. ‘We are chameleons, not leopards,’ remarks another guilty husband. At the end of this story his wife is raped by an angel-faced maniac called Robin. Its last line is: ‘I am Robin – out of character, as it were. “You whore,” I say.’ Nothing and nobody stays for long in anything as archaically reliable as ‘character’. In ‘Kayn Aynhoreh’ a midwife’s thermometer falls to the floor and smashes: ‘A delivery from Mercury, messenger of the gods, but what was the message?’ We discover an answer at the end of the story when the messenger of the gods hovers above the holocaust of London: ‘His helmet was silver, his body was glass, mercury filled his veins.’ The thermometer is an apt emblem for these stories, with its implications both of the feverish and of the clinical. The point of explosion towards which the temperature is constantly rising often takes a sexual form, but in ‘Kayn Aynhoreh’ and in ‘Ashkenazia’, the terrifying final story, the sense of history and prophecy that has never been far from the surface becomes explicit. These stories and their author were littered under mercury, having the qualities, as the dictionary puts it, of ‘eloquence, ingenuity, aptitude for commerce’.

There is much stylistic and technical ingenuity in the Calder anthology, as one would expect, but few of the pieces are as consistently adroit in its deployment as Sinclair’s stories. The signal exception is Mulisch’s delicate and crafty novella. Of the shorter pieces, Edward Bond’s ‘Fables’ are predictably but pleasingly pointed and Kenneth White’s two sketches attractively haunted. Time on a Dark River’ revisits Glasgow and mournfully, wittily traces the relics of home, the novelties of geography, the quizzical humour of a beggar’s chalked sign: ‘God Blessed You.’ The only extended piece other than Mulisch’s is a dreary novella by the German Martin Walser.

‘Antique Air’ is built on a wry conceit. Arnold, a chemical engineer, is struck with the idea that the air sealed in a rubber tyre or a ping-pong ball or a hollow decanter stopper is literally air that belongs to the past, arrested and preserved at the point of enclosure. (Is this true, I wonder – that it’s perfectly preserved?) His work leads him to collect samples of old air in pursuit of evidence for the changing equilibrium of our planet’s gases. But it’s the metaphor that attracts him: he wants to breathe this air, not just to study it. He associates it with memory, in particular with swimming across the Rhine at night as a boy of 17, a dangerous wartime mission in which ‘he swam through the centre point of his life.’ He also remembers an allegorical Bellini painting that seems to preserve a similar image of miraculous preservation, a child floating in water. And beyond the character’s consciousness, there are various hints and allusions that associate this image of the marooned air-pocket with dreams and fantasies of certainty and conclusion and loss.

It is difficult in summary to avoid making the story sound portentous and ponderous in its symbolism. Getting back inside the bubble is associated with the passionate and desperate love which Arnold still feels for the wife he has never fully possessed. When they board the boat that takes them away from their Mediterranean island villa, the wife leaves her shoes behind by mistake. ‘Empty and forlorn they stand side by side on the quay, as if an invisible woman is standing in them.’ Near the start we are given a long and detailed account of the wife’s dream of what is called ‘the concluded garden’. When the aeroplane taking Arnold alone back to Holland crashes, he walks away from it towards what we recognise to be the garden his wife has dreamed. The story concludes: ‘Here he comes. Soon he knows where he really is, here, with us in the concluded garden.’ This is more playful than it may sound, as the reader has been amiably involved in the pursuit of Arnold’s love and death from the opening words: ‘Look – if you follow my finger you can see him.’ And the first account of the garden suggests to us that ‘this is all very familiar is it not? We feel at home there.’ The beautifully orchestrated climax of the narrative comes at the point at which Arnold and his wife are about to part at the airport, and Arnold suddenly sees her with the finality, the conclusiveness of a painting, perhaps specifically the Bellini painting. The narrator entertains a lyrical expression of all that he might now say to her but doesn’t. This unspoken speech is touchingly heartfelt and embarrassing and finally sinks into maudlin fatuity until the narrator puts it out of its misery and returns us to the misery of the ‘actual’ silence in which husband and wife have been sitting out their last minutes together.

Mulisch’s intricate and elegiac story is translated from the Dutch into an English version that reads with remarkable fluency and elegance: the translator, Adrienne Dixon, deserves credit. Whether the translator of the four Pasternak stories published for the first time in English as Zhenia’s Childhood deserves credit or not is very difficult for the Russianless reader to decide. For a start he is strangely unnamed, but I understand that this is an error and that his name is Alec Brown. The stories were first published together in Russian in 1929 and one assumes that the Russian is highly coloured and densely textured. One assumes this because the English version impresses the reader with a sense of helpless and heroic approximation. Much of it reads as absurdly stilted (‘On the ceiling freshly danced the flaky alabaster’), and some of it is pointlessly verbose, but there are occasional moments of evocative precision: ‘as things always are when clandestine, night hearts aching at the gates, with all the town abed’. The book as a whole makes exasperating reading, and the three shorter pieces are too elliptical to make much impact. But the title story has enough substance to pass something through the exchange of languages. Through murky bewilderments and tentative apprehensions, Zhenia grows towards an understanding of her childhood’s finality. The image of a limping, half-glimpsed stranger lodges and grows in her mind until his death is linked with that of the child to which her mother gives premature birth. It makes a rich if tantalising – ly fugitive account of the precious pains of initiation.