Playing

Robert Taubman

  • Sabbatical by John Barth
    Secker, 366 pp, £7.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 436 03675 4
  • Distant Relations by Carlos Fuentes
    Secker, 225 pp, £7.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 436 16764 6
  • Keepers of the House by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Cape, 183 pp, £6.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 224 02001 3
  • An Old Song by Robert Louis Stevenson
    Wilfion Books, 102 pp, £5.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 905075 12 9

‘There was a story that began –’ begins Sabbatical, and the story is then interrupted for two nights and a day by a storm at sea, itself interrupted by a dialogue on Aristotle’s distinction between lexis and melos. Like most Post-Modernist fantasies, Sabbatical takes a lot of unpacking. But this is John Barth in holiday mood, and a virtuoso display of techniques brought together from different kinds of novel is here frankly offered for enjoyment. One of its methods is purely realistic: it is full of information, for instance, about sailing in the Chesapeake Bay. In the summer of 1980 Susan and Fenwick Turner are returning in their cruising sailboat from a nine-month voyage to the Caribbean. Sabbatical is as devotedly a novel about sailing as The Riddle of the Sands; and like that rather staid classic it uses a sailing trip to get its crew involved in a real-life mystery story. Where Erskine Childers was writing about the Kaiser’s invasion plans, Barth is writing about the CIA. An island not on the charts, a shot in the morning mist, deaths and disappearances occur, to a running commentary of texts and footnotes documenting CIA practices. And then there’s realism of a more sociological cast, in a trip ashore to Susan’s family at Fells Point, Baltimore. The period is almost exactly that of John Updike’s last Rabbit novel, and one recognises the same obsession with the placing of America at a moment in time – the stuff in the shops, the news items, the current stresses of family life, the curious national mood of confidence combined with irony, shame and foreboding.

But this novel is capacious. A legendary sea-monster appears, looking no more out of place than the one in Phèdre. Fenwick and Susan – he an aspiring writer, she a professor of classic American literature – have literary imaginations; and symbolism out of Poe and erudition about luc-bát couplets in Vietnamese oral poetry help to feed the fantasy. They themselves have Dopplegängers who belong to the darker side of recent history: Fenwick’s twin Manfred of the CIA, known as ‘The Prince of Darkness’, and Susan’s twin Miriam, freaked out after multiple rape at Virginia Beach and torture by the Shah’s police in Iran. When not fully employed in sailing the boat, they have weird dreams in common which include flashbacks and flashes forward. Or again, at the same healthy level as the sailing, this is also a love story: a shipboard romance after seven years of marriage. Fenwick and Susan tell it themselves, with much banter and some concession to sentiment (‘With a man like Fenwick it’s a pleasure to be a woman’), and with outbursts and certain concealments – she of a secret pregnancy and abortion, he of a second heart attack. Setting out to tell their story, they agree that ‘the literally marvellous is what we want, with a healthy dose of realism to keep it ballasted.’ The ‘literally marvellous’ is evident enough elsewhere in the story, but where love is concerned Fenwick adds that ‘at this hour of the world I guess we’ll take whatever kind of marvellous we can manage.’ Realism does its job, so that when they conclude that their story has their love in it, this is convincing. A happy love story is a rare event in the Post-Modernist novel.

Playing like this with mixed modes of fiction tends to foreground, as they say, the author. Barth sidesteps by engaging Fenwick and Susan as supposed authors, as if to divert suspicion of too much authorial cleverness. Even so, the technical aplomb, the stylishness of the cutting between one mode and another, do have the effect of focusing the attention on a game of skill, and of distancing the reader from what isn’t altogether play in the book. How truthful is it, for instance, about the United States? The sociological observation and the documentary evidence about the CIA make use of plenty of real facts: but all they can tell us, in their context here, is that the ostensibly real world is even more fantastic than sea-monsters and the novel’s other mysteries. Susan and Fenwick themselves have a broad suspicion that ‘we have been, in the main, indulging ourselves, amusing ourselves,’ and even that ‘our years together, precious as they’ve been to both of us, are themselves a kind of playing: not finally serious ...’ It shows in the kind of playing which is the story they make of their lives. And this becomes a moral question when the novel touches directly on real horror, as it does in the episode of Susan’s sister’s rape – which the subtitle calls ‘The Story of Miriam’s Other Rapes’ (‘Mim’s other rapes! Jesus, Susan!’). This is as full and particular as realism demands, and it sickens Susan, telling it. But for the reader it is horror distanced into fantasy, even into a kind of black comedy. So was the horror of the Dresden bombing in Slaughter-house Five; perhaps there is no other way of dealing with maximum horror. But here, in a mainly sunny and engaging book, one comes up against a limitation. The note of fantasy looks like an evasion. If the scene belongs perfectly to the tone of the book, that is because the book guards itself against being taken too seriously.

But fantasy, in Barth and others who have revived it recently, is not a substitute for life. In Carlos Fuentes it seems nothing but a substitute. His model is literature – and of the most depressing, fin-de-siècle kind. Distant Relations asks to be admired for the quality of its settings (Toltec ruins in Mexico, Gabriel’s pavillon on the Place de la Concorde), for a style that has twilight ‘like a recumbent woman stretching out a hand to brush our cheek with her fingertips’, and for the intelligence of its conversations. The intelligence often dwindles to a dutiful respect for French ‘reason’ and for Mexican heredity: ‘the wounds of my country never heal; we never grow the new skin of an aristocracy; we do not have an élite that can close our wounds.’ The plot belongs to a very old order of fantasy: family secrets, ancient rancours, lost loves, revenants, phantoms. If it’s highly mysterious, this is for the sake of mystery, not because it conceals a meaning. Yet gestures towards meaning are always being made – emphatic and unsuccessful gestures:‘the bottomless crevasse of another’s timeless memory, the memory of a being demanding a new soul as haven for its poisonous pilgrimage.’

Where souls are concerned, much the same portentous vagueness occurs in Keepers of the House: ‘his loneliness ate into his soul, and the wilderness that they all held in their hands warped inside him, and he wore it like a cloak ...’ This is the work of a young English writer drawing on her own experience of a remote valley in Venezuela, but recording it with an eye more on the bizarre or appalling than on ordinary life. Even the domestic details seem hardly ordinary – such as vulture’s eggs for supper, or catching leprosy from the cheese. The family history of the Beltran family who rule the valley goes back 200 years, some of them highlighted by feud or massacre, or by locusts, drought and pestilence. Only rarely is it mentioned, in a couple of tributes, that the Beltrans have had among them creative minds, inventors and innovators who in the 19th century brought prosperity to the valley. This interests the novelist much less than the literary tradition that sees South America as a metaphor for hell. Not that she has an antecedent in Graham Greene: her stark portraits of the eccentric and afflicted would be more at home in Dante’s Inferno. General Mario, a national hero who has also devised a new way of making sugar and built a hospital, is celebrated here for his 23 years of dying alone of leprosy. Arturo Lino, until he’s put away, expresses his disgust at the tediousness of the valley in a series of murders. Cristobal, 110 years old on the last page – ‘his shock of wild hair became a blaze of gold, and around his head there was a strange halo’ – is a one-legged tramp whose other leg was amputated by brothers jealous of his energy. Lisa St Aubin de Teran isn’t writing fantasy – only, one suspects, exaggerating. Successful exaggeration gives some of these characters a superhuman grandeur, compounded of their energies and obsessions, but it’s less than enough to make them humanly interesting. The two most ordinary characters are sisters who survive behind the barred windows of a town house until 1961, tending a collection of china: for them it’s boredom that has become a ruling obsession, and turned into a lifelong game of Bezique.

A change in R. L. Stevenson’s reputation has come about since such masters of modern fantasy as Borges and Calvino have acknowledged him as a forerunner. I find their high regard for him a bit strange, as if based, as in the notorious case of the French view of Edgar Allan Poe, on qualities that aren’t really there in the original – and also a bit unfair, since he had’ more deserving qualities than those evident in his spooky thrillers. An Old Song is a useful discovery: his first published story (anonymously, in 1877). It deals with love and conflict in a Scottish family, and concerns a Colonel father-figure of unbending principle and two young cousins, one wild and prodigal, the other honourable and boring; and with only a hint (‘Their eyes met in the mirror’) that these two could be aspects of the same person. It seems to stand about half-way between Stevenson’s real-life conflicts with his father and with himself in Heriot Row, and what he afterwards made out of this story in The Master of Ballantrae – which is both far more masterly and more spooky. An Old Song is admirably unspooky. It’s an immature piece, yet with a sure touch for the restraints and reticences that bring out the best in the unromantic side of Stevenson. Bourgeois respectability is its subject, not romantic excess. If religion dominates and explains a good deal about the household, it’s not a fanatical brand of Calvinism, only stout Victorian piety. But bourgeois pressures from all sides provoke their corresponding reactions, and Stevenson is already extraordinarily good, in the vein of psychological realism, with the workings of a boy’s imagination, and the conflict in him of good and evil predispositions. There’s no tendency here to runaway romanticism. The style is plain, the narrative beautifully direct. The characters themselves show restraint, as when the Colonel comes to die: ‘“I’m too old and tired for this sort of thing,” he said; “I think I’ll go to bed.” He looked at Malcolm queerly. “I don’t mean to get up again,” he added.’ The honourable one of the two young men is almost murdered at the end, but the last sentence (suggesting that Stevenson must have been reading Flaubert) is simply, and finely: ‘It rained without intermission, and the roads in that part of the country were hardly passable for travellers on foot.’