Water Music

Allon White

  • Oh what a paradise it seems by John Cheever
    Cape, 99 pp, £5.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 224 02930 4
  • Collected Short Stories by John Cheever
    Penguin, 704 pp, £4.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 14 005575 4
  • So long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated by Modupé Bodé-Thomas
    Virago, £5.50, August 1982, ISBN 0 86068 295 1
  • A joke goes a long way in the country by Alannah Hopkin
    Hamish Hamilton, 157 pp, £7.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 241 10798 9

One time in four, and usually to everyone’s surprise, John Cheever’s heroes spring a wry and furtive victory over disappointment. Cheever is irresistible in describing those delicious moments of triumph when a dogged loser suddenly strikes a home run – like Farragut’s escape from the penitentiary at the end of Falconer. Cheever’s fiction is full of the kind of episode in which the amiably incompetent warm our hearts with an unexpected success, and Oh what a paradise it seems is no exception. A short book, it develops two episodes in the life of Lemuel Sears, one of those gentle, even-tempered and articulate male characters who often figure as Cheever’s protagonists. Lemuel Sears is old, but still sprightly enough to embark on a new love affair, and still doughty enough to tackle the local mobsters when they turn the town beauty spot (Beasley’s pond) into a municipal dump.

Success and disappointment mix unpredictably in Sears’s life. Love had ‘always involved some clumsiness’, and his romantic pursuit of the unfathomable Renée must be counted a failure: but one qualified by the way it drives him into the sympathetic arms of the elevator man, Eduardo. Eduardo had always shown concerned foresight about the inevitable disappointment awaiting the aged Sears as he panted upstairs behind the beguiling and agile rear of his lover Renée. Consolation for Renée’s abrupt departure is generously provided for Sears by his equally abrupt homosexual encounter with Eduardo, and their fishing trip together upstate – despite polluted lakes which haven’t seen a fish for years – is a tender and delightful episode in the book.

This is a fiction in which unexpected twists and apparently inconsequential turns of plot are a real source of pleasure. Cheever was always an assured and masterful storyteller (the New Yorker have published over one hundred and twenty of his stories since his first in 1935), and Oh what a paradise it seems is a virtuoso piece in which every irrelevance is made to appear fascinating and necessary even when it isn’t. The plot will break off for a short and mordantly funny history of jogging or of the use of fried food under the Roman Empire (Cheever is at his most lyrical when dealing with fast food franchises). An absurdly irrelevant episode has Sears visiting a fortune-teller in the Balkans. Part of Cheever’s charm was his rueful inconsequentiality, the sense that anything could be made into a story, and the less promising the material the better.

Oh what a paradise it seems is gracious, wry, delightful, and has the best qualities of his short stories. But it is not in the same class as its predecessor, Falconer. Malcolm Bradbury once described Cheever as ‘somewhere between Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike’, and for nearly all of his writing except Falconer this is fair. Mostly Cheever wrote of the lives, loves and manners of suburban America, particularly the fashionable foibles of the upper middle classes of Westchester and Fairfield counties. Much of his output played in an ironic and occasionally affectionate way on the aspirations of the New Yorker’s readership. His range was limited by an ambivalent attachment to middle-class suburban life, and sometimes his humour can seem to tease, while finally vindicating, the readers of that magazine. Oh what a paradise it seems is rather in this mould. It moves from satiric exaggeration to lyrical passages of lament for a passing natural world and a passing youth. This swift movement from pleasure to pathos is characteristic. His romanticism is transparent, touching and rather old-fashioned. Again and again he returns to the pleasures of light and water. In a New York Times interview of 1977 he said: ‘It seems to me almost that one’s total experience is the drive toward light ... My fondness for light is very, very strong and, I presume, primitive.’ Light and water are used as elements of a pastoral counterpoint to private disenchantment and public failure, and to my mind the consolations they afford are unconvincing – no more than a redemptive prettiness. A large part of the plot of Oh what a paradise it seems is about Sears’s attempt to preserve a fine stretch of natural water from the pollutions of a corrupt local authority, and this concern for nature reveals the strengths but also the limits of Cheever’s vision. It shows his delight in all the forms of pure water – gentle rain, irrigating rivers, the millstream and the waterfall – but it also betrays a kind of naive, and even perhaps fraudulent, ecological thinking: a suburban pantheism. Behind the story lurks the liberal middle-class certainty that the essential evil of modern capitalism is its poisoning of the local trout stream. In this respect, despite its moments of macabre humour and wit, Oh what a paradise it seems is less interesting intellectually than a novel with which it shares a liquid affinity – Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies. Kingsley’s Christian Socialism linked potable water and spiritual purity in a sentimental fusion not dissimilar from Cheever’s. But whereas Kingsley was motivated by an indignation which even to this day has a power to carry one on, Cheever tends to take refuge in ironic burlesque or, more disappointingly, in a wistful sense of cultural decline and accumulating social grubbiness.

On the one occasion when Cheever moved beyond these limits, the result was his astonishing novel Falconer. Suddenly, after the urbane comedy of Wapshot Chronicle and the polished virtuosity of Bullet Park, Cheever produced a hard, brilliant work which revealed quite a different kind of depth and power. Falconer pushed the usual Cheever hero – a mildly anomic, gently humorous and lonely man – to new areas of exultant exploration. Falconer was written at a time when Cheever made public his struggle against alcoholism and drug addiction, a time, too, when he taught creative writing to the inmates of Sing Sing, and it has a gutsy and triumphant prison obscenity about it which takes it beyond the early fiction. The nightmare confinement of prison educated Farragut into a tougher kind of realism: ‘With the exception of organised religion and triumphant fucking, Farragut considered transcendent experience to be perilous rubbish. One saved one’s ardor for people and objects that could be used.’ Falconer was John Cheever at his best and it was an extraordinary novel. Oh what a paradise it seems is a lesser work, full of good things, closer to the earlier Cheever: ironically perhaps, it is more confined by its geniality than Farragut was by the bars of Falconer jail.

Virago have just published a first novel by a Senegalese woman, Mariama Bâ. So Long a Letter has qualities which put Cheever’s playful fictions into perspective. It reminds me of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station: this, too, is an intense elegy of loss and rejection. It has the same grief, the same courage, and the same need to counter self-pity by a hard retelling of bitter memories. In her middle age and after 12 pregnancies, Ramatoulaye is suddenly rejected by her husband, who takes a new young wife. This wife is Binetou, a teenage friend of her daughter, and literally overnight Ramatoulaye finds herself exiled with her children from her husband’s life and forced by Muslim custom to pay homage to this young girl. Relegated to the old house, deprived of her status and way of life (she is left without transport whilst Binetou is indulged with an Alfa Romeo), Ramatoulaye refuses to accept the self-abnegation which custom requires. She rebuilds her life out of the misery of her rejection, while continuing to love her husband. The novel consists of a heroic epistle to a woman friend who has had to face the same rejection and has responded by divorcing her husband and making her own life elsewhere. Both women emerge from the novel with awe-inspiring dignity. One could not wish for a more politically alert and more passionately involved account of what life is like for educated Muslim women. The struggles of Ramatoulaye take place against rituals of family life which at times have an almost intolerable strangeness for the Western reader. Yet there is also something remarkably familiar about the tone of the book. The voice that speaks from these pages may seem to echo the voices of Western feminists and socialists of the last century, the Pankhursts and the Webbs: it is a voice which seems old-fashioned now in England but which, encountered in this book, commands respect. The feminism of Senegal – a society in transition but still suffused with religious values – emerges as strongly moralistic, and engaged with paradoxes through which a generation of European feminists have already lived. Ramatoulaye’s radical moral strictness creates freedoms for her children, especially the girls, which leave her perplexed. Her daughter, still at college, becomes pregnant; she finds her other daughters smoking cigarettes secretly in their bedroom and feels deeply betrayed. The book begins as a profound elegy for her dead husband, and the narrative is often dominated by the poetry of lamentation. But it ends in hope, and in political courage. ‘Too bad for me,’ she writes wryly, ‘if once again I have to write you so long a letter.’

Alannah Hopkin is another writer who seeks dubious rural solutions to urban problems. A joke goes a long way in the country is a novel fashioned out of an idle fantasy common among the professional middle-class: how can I spend all my time at the holiday home in the country and yet still contrive to keep the stimulus and contacts of the job in London? Such is the aspiration of the novel’s young heroine Alex. Should she opt for a life of pleasant obscurity with the yachting crowd in West Cork or ‘make a go of it’ in the tough world of London journalism? She chooses Ireland, but it hardly matters. So much of the feel of Hampstead and Kensington ends up in Cork along with her that, give or take the odd cliff or seagull, she needn’t have bothered. Alannah Hopkin tries to be shocking and searching, and the novel is mildly experimental in form, interspersing its chapters with pieces taken from travel books, poems and local histories. But it is a book without much sense of the wider implications of the world it describes. Thus it can use with apparent serenity extracts from some nasty imperialist tracts about the adopted country.