Plots

Stephen Bann

  • The Prince buys the Manor by Elspeth Huxley
    Chatto, 216 pp, £6.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7011 2651 5
  • Faultline by Sheila Ortiz Taylor
    Women’s Press, 120 pp, £2.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 7043 3900 5
  • Scenes from Metropolitan Life by William Cooper
    Macmillan, 214 pp, £6.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 333 34203 8
  • Constance, or Solitary Practices by Lawrence Durrell
    Faber, 394 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 571 11757 0
  • Mickelsson’s Ghosts by John Gardner
    Secker, 566 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 436 17251 8
  • Beware of pity by Stefan Zweig, translated by Phyllis Blewitt and Trevor Blewitt
    Cape, 354 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 224 02057 9

You have only to glance at the icing-sugar pink dust-jacket of The Prince buys the Manor to realise that there is a factual basis for Elspeth Huxley’s ‘extravaganza’. There, nestling in the wooded Cotswolds, is the familiar facade of the rather ordinary country house which has recently been dignified by the arrival of A Royal Personage. The gossip columns of the evening papers have confirmed, as the reader suspects, that the aliases scattered throughout the novel are transparent to someone with no more than a modest knowledge of the society and geography of Tetbury. The fictional ‘Ah Wong Chinese Takeaway’, not to mention ‘Pellett, the Health Food Shop’, turn out to have their counterparts in the authentic Cotswold world. Scratch the surface a little, frequent the disguised ‘Goat and Compasses’, and you will perhaps succeed in unveiling ‘Lady Evers’, the socially energetic wife of an ex-Governor of the ‘Laxative Islands’, or ‘Judy Mustard’, whose ecological fervour does not shrink from the extreme of offering her fellow believers home-made wine derived from ‘Purging Buckthorn’.

Evidently Elspeth Huxley’s ear has been open to the surging cross-currents of antagonism and recrimination which followed this unexpected visitation on the sleepy microcosm of ‘Shipton Wick’. But she has also seized the opportunity to put these rumblings around the parish pump in the context of a wider world – one of international terrorism and ecological crusading (the two turn out to be curiously intermingled), one of unresolved tensions between the ex-colonial powers and the new, disconcertingly volatile countries of the Third World. Not for nothing has Mrs Huxley been described, with this book in mind, as a ‘cross between Miss Marple and George Smiley’. She engineers a conclusion in which the Royal Personage only just, by a fortunate accident, escapes the toils of an expensively planned kidnapping plot. But the real beneficiaries of the action are a pair of innocent badgers, threatened with gassing by the men from the Ministry, who achieve a final ‘translocation’ to the estate which the terrorists have vacated.

All this is cleverly done. The novel makes modest claims and fulfils them. But it needs to be said that Mrs Huxley’s satirical targets are, on the whole, very obvious ones. The African general who arrives between coups for a spell as an honorary equerry to HRH is at first mildly amusing, but soon becomes an embarrassment. Can we summon up the wannest of smiles, nowadays, to greet the announcement that the Arts Council is subsidising a young artist to make piles of rubbish in the ‘back streets’ of Bootle? Mrs Huxley trades too much on the comic stereotypes of the English scene, and only in a splendidly disorganised ‘Bed Race’ towards the end of the novel does her satire strike a genuinely fresh, anarchistic note.

For the American author Sheila Ortiz Taylor, the stakes of satire are higher and more carefully calculated. When Mrs Huxley requires a simile to denote the process of gathering information, she selects one from close at hand: Lady Evers is described as probing gently for the news ‘rather as people thrust skewers into the turf at a church fête to hit upon the hidden treasure’. Ms Ortiz Taylor sets up her fiction on much shakier ground – not on the turf of the village green but on the thin crust of earth which protects California from the San Andreas fault. If she also selects a homely simile, it is to pile layer upon layer the pretexts for her heroine’s insecurity: ‘Picture, if you will, a tiny child standing next to her mother’s knee, watching with wonder as the water in the toilet bowl swirls and eddies before her wondering eyes. Emblems of change! Those tumultuous waters were but minute symptoms of the larger stirrings beneath our feet, rumblings and burblings that might someday crack the earth, sliding Santa Monica and the Pacific Palisades into the sea like so many biscuits off the cookie sheet of existence.’

Arden Bembow, heroine of the aptly titled Faultline, does not have to experience this final cataclysm. But she does have to cope with the prospect of a more modest one. An ill-advised neglect of the breeding habits of the family pets results in wild proliferation. Rabbits are undermining the property, honeycombing the subsoil at an alarming rate. Naturally it is out of the question to attempt a drastic solution like poisoning or gassing. The rabbits (like the fortunate badgers of Shipton Wick) must be ‘relocated’. In a series of brief chapters, Ms Ortiz Taylor plays this slightly improbable plot for all that it is worth, convoking new characters from time to time, like the ‘feed man’, Griff, and ‘Muncey from Muncey’s Old English Sheepdog Farms’. If we cease eventually to hear about the rabbits, that is because a more important theme takes over – Arden’s flight to Mexico with her Aunt Violet (absconding from hospital) and a motley crew which finally includes the private detective who is chasing them.

What makes Faultline rather more than a frantic exercise in the picaresque (and what accounts for the prior appearance of certain sections in magazines with titles like Lesbian Voices) is the almost didactic tone of advocacy which runs through it. The San Andreas fault promises eventual chaos, and the motif of the rabbits economically combines the idea of subterranean subversion with that of a family gone wild. After the Aunt Violet episode, we are given various glimpses of Arden Bembow’s dedication to a new type of family – one in which herself, her lesbian lover and an indefinite number of children live together happily in a kind of modulated chaos, drawing the odd person magnetically into their circle but firmly resisting the pressures of the sloughed-off husband. It is an image which has great charm, particularly in the section titled ‘With Friends like These’, where a visiting cook performs a minor miracle, turning pot-au-feu into Boeuf Bourguignon before our very eyes. A modern version of water into wine?

Ms Ortiz Taylor knows what she thinks, and has the formal ingenuity to convey it. But the restless contemporaneity of her vision makes a stark contrast with William Cooper’s impeccable Scenes from Metropolitan Life, written in the 1950s but held back from publication up to the present day for legal reasons. Cooper’s work, falling between the celebrated Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Married Life, which he published in 1950 and 1961, can hardly fail to have the effect of a time-capsule. Whatever the legal reasons for non-publication – and one is tempted to speculate that Mr Cooper all too accurately recorded the footsteps in the corridors of power – the work today seems to have an immense gentility, almost an old-world courtliness, in its dealings with the reader. Patently, this implied reader is not a man of 1982, but someone who would respond with appropriate bonhomie to a gentleman’s confidences: ‘You may be thinking that when Myrtle and Robert made up to each other I made fun of it, and that when Myrtle made up tome I solemnly took it all in. You are quite right.’ With a little practice, of course, one comes to respond to this respectful consideration. The cosseted reader starts to enjoy, not only the intimate little details that belong specially to the period – like the narrator’s habit of calling former girlfriends by affectionate nicknames like ‘My Last One’ and ‘Headlamps’ – but also the bits of local colour which are amusingly out of place. ‘Cork Street’, for example, now puts one in mind of art dealers and not of prostitutes. Within the topography of May-fair, however, pride of place is reserved in the novel for a location which has stood the test of the intervening decades remarkably well. No wonder the narrator and his friends return to it so frequently, granting it (under its transparent alias) the status of a still centre of contentment in the changing world of post-war London:

The Carlos restaurant was charming. It was panelled in rose mahogany, and had a high, pleasantly moulded ceiling. The tables were far apart, and there were shaded lamps on those near the walls. There were flowers on our table, three chrysanthemums, with curled pink and bronze petals, in a little silver-plated vase. We sat holding large white menu-cards folded down the middle, and glanced around at the other diners. The room was warm, busy and quiet. We were delighted.

Steadily, and without the slightest straining for effect, the picture is built up. The last sentence frames it off with just a touch of irony. But the next paragraph restores the mood of candour. ‘A born aristocrat can have no idea of the innocent pleasure that going up in the world gives to people.’ It is one of the most beguiling features of Scenes from Metropolitan Life that statements like this can be made, in all ‘innocence’. This does not imply that the social judgments are naive and simplistic – far from it. There is a tight control of socially significant detail, and if we are left occasionally in doubt about where to place a new character, this is because our own perceptions must keep pace with those of the narrator, and not outdistance him. When he pays his first visit to Julia’s flat, for example, we are offered a little group of descriptive details which he has recorded ‘mechanically’: ‘Dust on the keys of the piano, ostrich plumes in the hair of one of the women in the photographs, the heels of a pair of bronze kid shoes peeping from under the sofa.’ It is not much. But, when we come to consider it, it tells us just about everything we need to know about Julia’s social position.

Unobtrusive effects like this help to explain John Braine’s statement, reproduced on the dust-jacket of this new recruit to the trilogy, that a ‘whole generation of writers is in William Cooper’s debt, just as the previous generation was in James Joyce’s debt’. But this comparison, justified though it may be, is bound to make the deliberately small-scale character of Cooper’s achievement all the more evident. Scenes from Metropolitan Life is largely about the withering of worldly ambitions, ranging from the prospect of heady promotions in the Civil Service to the more personal goal of a happy and socially advantageous marriage. In the final scene, the narrator and his still unmarried friend agree to retire from Whitehall and devote themselves (like those vieux garçons Bouvard et Pécuchet?) to Art. William Cooper’s talent, by contrast, seems to have thrived on a judicious compromise between the claims of art and the highroads of ambition.

Among the English novelists who certainly did not take the path of Cooper rather than Joyce – who have continually raised the stakes of a purely artistic ambition – Lawrence Durrell holds a secure and honourable place. The dedication of Constance, or Solitary Practices to ‘Anais’ and ‘Henry’ (and indeed to ‘Joey’) indicates the cosmopolitan range of his affiliations. Its last chapter, ‘The City’s Fall’, evokes a dialogue with historiography which has become ever more explicit. The great French historian, Fernand Braudel, cited Dur-rell in the provocative conclusion to his study of the Mediterranean world, illustrating his concept of the longue durée with Durrell’s claim that the Greek fisherman of today enables us to understand Odysseus. The last chapter of Constance reverts to this image of historical stasis. ‘For the historian everything becomes history, there are no surprises, for it repeats itself eternally, of that he is sure.’ As the German troops retire from Avignon in the closing stages of the Second World War, a stick of bombs falls upon the nearby asylum of Montfavet and liberates the insane – ‘the Crusaders of a new reality’. Filing out of the asylum into the festive town, they bear the names of the condemned Knights Templar of seven centuries before.

Several other indications point to Durrell’s serious and intensive study, not only of the recent period in which the action of the novel is set, but also of the reverberating mythic structures which cast their patterns backwards and forwards upon the course of history. A prefatory Author’s Note acknowledges, among other things, the help of ‘Kenward’s’ (actually, Kedward’s) study of the French Resistance. It also prepares the reader for the full transcription of Peter the Great’s Testament as an appendix to the novel, and warns us that we have narrowly avoided getting the Protocols of Zion’ into the bargain. What is the function of this mythic sounding-board to contemporary history? In a sense, the answer could be very simple. Peter the Great’s megalomaniac vision of a Europe divided and subjugated by the force of Russian arms is not only the double face of the plan for world domination hatched by Hitler in his Zweites Buch, and thus germane to the narrative: it is also a kind of monstrous projection and inversion of the novelist’s own omnipotence through fiction. Durrell utilises his filigree network of people and places (Avignon, Geneva, Egypt) for a kind of counter-strategy of offence against the paranoid potentate: he pits the Resistance against the Nazis, Cathars against Catholics, Templars against Monarchs and, above all, the ample, life-giving matrix of the Mediterranean against the sterile and destructive frenzy of invaders from the North.

Whether this very general gloss on Constance is plausible will be decided by the final appearance of the full ‘quincunx’ of which this is the third part. Three novels have now been published, and one assumes that there will be two more. But the primary sense of ‘quincunx’ is not, of course, the number five: it is the arrangement of points, or objects, in the same pattern as the black or white squares of a chessboard, or the ‘five’ of a pack of cards. Logically, this might imply that Constance, as the third element, has a central part to play, being the focal point through which all the remainder intercommunicate. However this may be, there can be no doubt that the reading of this superbly accomplished text offers the effect of an intricate and many-layered structure, whose overall laws of organisation can perhaps already be glimpsed through the imagination. The relations between male and female, between psychoanalysis and mystery cults, between fictional characters and their no less fictional authors – all have their special roles in structuring the symbolic space of Durrell’s world. It is not the Treasure of the Templars (eagerly sought by some of the characters) which will be the promised reward of our reading. It is the no less imaginary ‘quincunx’ of trees which marks the site of the treasure: in other words, the structure of freely circulating symbols which both creates the fictional lure and negates its reality.

As Durrell well understands, paranoia is the indispensable aid of the writer of fiction. We would not strive so hard to make sense of fictional ‘plots’ if we were not so effectively predisposed to converting random indications into potent symbols. John Gardner’s new novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, utilises that extreme resource of the armoury of paranoia which is the depiction of gradually intensifying madness. His breezy opening acknowledgments offer us (not unlike those of Durrell) the list of widely disparate sources which have been drawn into this fictional vortex: the philosophical writings of Hare and Maclntyre, the works of Luther, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and such treatises on the history of Mormonism as William Wise’s Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Legend and a Monumental Crime. We are also assured about the status of the ‘hero’: ‘I’ve done my best with him, but the man’s a lunatic.’ Thus far, we have been led to expect a learned and perhaps slightly ponderous exercise in what Todorov calls the ‘uncanny’: ‘a narrative of events which can perfectly well be explained by the laws of reason, but which are in one way or another incredible, surprising, exceptional, disquieting, extraordinary’. In a sense, Mickelsson’s Ghosts is just that. But its ‘disquieting’ characteristics seem at the same time to overspill the generic boundaries. This is not simply another story about a haunted house in the vicinity of New York – another ‘Amity – ville horror’. Why it should be different is a provoking question.

Perhaps the first point to be made is that, as well as being an exercise in the ‘uncanny’, Mickelsson’s Ghosts is also a campus novel. At a time when Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man is repeating its triumphant serialisation on English television, the genre certainly needs no special introduction over here. In a sense, the stock-in-trade of Mickelsson’s Ghosts is precisely what we are used to: an assemblage of faculty wives, predatory Marxist sociologists, brilliant students with personal problems and an ambiguous, philandering academic hero at the centre of it all. But Mickelsson is not Howard Kirk and, despite similarities in the satirical portrayal of academic dinner parties, Marxist sub-plots and melodramatic seminars, Gardner’s novel is not essentially satirical. The differenceis that, instead of being a sounding-board for the special absurdities of an academic community, Mickelsson actually cares. He is in a curious transitional state of formal disengagement from most of his responsibilities – as a taxpayer, husband, father and teacher. But he is continually being dragged back, by the law and by his conscience, into the arena of moral action.

In effect, Gardner has achieved quite a feat in the consistent portrayal of a fluctuating point of view. He explores both the distance of disengagement – here the satirical streak becomes more pronounced – and the pathos of involvement. The intellectual counters which are moved around in the seminars develop into the obsessional themes of Mickelsson’s inner voice. There is particular artistry in the way in which Gardner explores his hero’s relationship with the haunted house which becomes the major focus of his activities, and with the mountain community which resides around him. Freud’s ‘uncanny’ is the unheimlich, literally the ‘unhomely’, and he draws our attention to the abrupt reversal whereby the ‘homely’ tips over into its opposite. Gardner shows us Mickelsson creating the house anew, with resourcefulness and love, and then he shows us him destroying it, as the demonic forces finally take on a human embodiment. This is a disturbing book, whose effect lingers on after the loose threads of the plot have been tied up into a rational knot. It is a worthy memorial to its author, who died in a road accident only a few weeks ago.

If I keep the bonne bouche to the last, it is because such a source of rare, unmixed pleasure deserves to be hoarded and treasured. Stefan Zweig’s Beware of pity is not, like Cooper’s Scenes from Metropolitan Life, a novel whose appearance had been inordinately delayed. It was published in an English translation in 1939, but had long since gone out of print. Doubtless it is the renewed popularity of Zweig’s short stories that has led to the reissuing, in a new translation, of this, his only novel. And it is the significance of Zweig’s mastery of the short story that first strikes the reader of Beware of pity, suggesting an explanation for its uniquely powerful effect. This novel has the type of plot that we might expect of a short story, with all the tightness of structure and sureness of overall design that we associate with the genre. It proceeds in an almost seamless narrative flow, without so much as a chapter division, from an initial, framing ‘Introduction’ to a dénouement whose inevitability is always sensed. It delights us with continually fertile contrivance.

Indeed, the only conceivable way in which the delight of Beware of pity could be improved, would be if Max Ophuls had decided to make a film of it, as he did of Zweig’s ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’. Zweig’s text unites perfect narrative control with exceptional psychological subtlety. But it also shows an extreme attention to visual detail – never the set-piece description but the kind of ‘close-up’ at a moment of high drama which seems to call for the aid of Ophuls’s perpetually gliding camera. One such moment, chosen almost at random, takes place during a chess game between the young lieutenant and the rich, crippled girl who is the victim and beneficiary of his ‘pity’:

She kept her gaze fixed on her lap as I got out the chessboard and set out the pieces, methodically, so as to gain time. As a rule, in order to decide who should start I held a white and black chessman behind my back, one in each fist, according to the rules of the game. But this method of deciding would have necessitated the uttering of the word ‘Right’ or ‘Left’, and even this one word we avoided by tacit agreement. We must avoid speaking at all costs! All our thoughts must be imprisoned within this chequerboard with its four-and-sixty squares.

Ophuls would have appreciated this. But, of course, the black-and-white board which displaces such an intensity of emotion is already re-created in our own imagination. And virtually every page of Beware of pity maintains the intensity, the necessity and the objective explicitness of this passage. Ably seconded by his translators, Zweig has brought off a truly fascinating achievement. Like one of the glasses of Tokay which the lieutenant drinks in the villa of Herr von Kekesfalva, Beware of pity is rich, exotic and fragrant – to be savoured to the last drop.