Dark Places

John Sutherland

  • Wise Virgin by A.N. Wilson
    Secker, 186 pp, £7.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 436 57608 2
  • The London Embassy by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 211 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 241 10872 1
  • The frog who dared to croak by Richard Sennett
    Faber, 182 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 571 11989 1
  • Vintage Stuff by Tom Sharpe
    Secker, 220 pp, £7.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 436 45810 1
  • Rogue Justice by Geoffrey Household
    Joseph, 174 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7181 2178 3

With Wise Virgin, A.N. Wilson continues his bleak investigation of trauma. The Healing Art (his most acclaimed novel so far) scrutinised human sensibility under the sentence of terminal cancer. Wise Virgin takes the life term and solitary confinement of bereaved blindness. It’s played out with Wilson’s customary geometric neatness of design. Giles Fox, as the novel’s retrospect finds him, was once a fulfilled man – someone who could have represented the happy ending of some other story. He is a librarian and a scholar (his ‘period’ is ‘somewhere between 1213 and 1215’), and the best efforts of his intellectual maturity have been happily applied to editing a Medieval text, the ‘Tretis of Love Hevenliche’, a work eventually destined for the dusty glory of Early English Texts Society publication. It’s not my period, but despite some convincing quotation and an authenticating footnote, this work by ‘Robert of St Victor’ appears to be invented. (Readers of Wilson’s earlier novels will expect highly specialised pockets of expertise on church and university matters.) The treatise celebrates the anchoretic life: or the wisdom of virginity as the path to true marriage with Christ. For all his obsessed attention to his text, Fox had lived the life of its antitype. He was worldly, carnal and atheistic. Happily married, he was prone to flippancy about the ‘much over-rated joiner’s son’. Then, in the way of Wilson’s world, there fell on him a rain of shattering blows. His wife died in childbirth with her baby. He went blind. His second wife, a Moorfields nurse, was run down and killed by a hit-and-run driver (the miseries in Wilson’s narratives are invariably the acts of a God who may perhaps just be an insurance company fiction). Giles remained, a sightless scholar blundering uselessly in his library. As we encounter him, he is attended by two virgins: his luscious teenage daughter Tibba and his dowdy amanuensis, Miss Agar (PhD, failed). With all this wretchedness stacked behind it, the novel opens: ‘ “Marry me,” said Louise Agar.’ Will he?

The monstrously tragic prelude (given in terse and intermittent flashback) permeates Wise Virgin with a kind of post-operative exhaustion. It is as if the writer had aimed at a juicy plot, missed and hit the epilogue instead. But, of course, depression is the level Wilson has chosen for his novel: its mood swings in the narrow range between glum stoicism and the suicidal. The action, slight by comparison with Fox’s earlier trials, revolves around Agar’s proposal. Should he try again for fleshly gratification, or should he retreat into his dark, ascetic cell, tended only by Tibba? Accompanying the dilemma there are some lively scenes: a trip to Cambridge where a preposterous Girton don serves beans (thinking Giles will be embarrassing with a knife in his hand); a raucous Christmas visit to Giles’s aseptic house by Miss Agar’s mum; adventures with a diabolically randy schoolboy, determined to ‘have it off’ with Tibba. Wilson indulges a merry vein of satire with this boy’s public school, where Giles’s sister and brother-in-law live in the teacher’s condition of arrested adolescence: ‘It was years since either of them had used the words lavatory, wastepaper basket, prayers, bath, cane, or, except in a specifically liturgical surrounding, master.’ Pangham’s world of loos, beaks, tosh and Bodger the devious head recalls the tyro Wilson of Kindly Light. (It also echoes the current offering of his Secker stablemate, Tom Sharpe, who is into public schools as well.) Alongside Giles’s extreme plight, the school comedy is discordant. But presumably that is another desired effect in this uneasy novel.

As used to be said of Thomas Hardy, Wilson turns his screw of misery once too often. The end of the novel has Giles alone: a Milton, Oedipus or Lear without even a daughter by his side (and Tibba’s devirgination is anyway imminent). Miss Agar has been turned away. The great edition of the little book has finally been dispatched to Oxford. But after years of heroic effort, the general editor of the EETS finds it philologically wrong, critically out of touch and inaccurately transcribed. It will not be published. The last scene moves us to the solitary Christmas celebrations of Captain de Courcy, the mysteriously romantic object of Tibba’s virginal passion. He is discovered to be a bewigged, homosexual con-man. It would be unbearable if Wilson’s narrative were to let us feel. But response is anaesthetically frozen by the Arctic objectivity of it all.

Paul Theroux’s gaze is not quite as reptilian-cold as Wilson’s. But no one would call his eye genuinely benign. A collection of linked short stories, The London Embassy is a sequel to The Consul’s File. The ‘narrator’, teasingly anonymous, has been promoted from far-flung Ayer Hitam to the plum job of political officer at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. It sets up that narrative cage, or hide, which is now a Theroux speciality. He is the spectator indulging an affectionate – sometimes a whimsically sentimental – sense of place: but protected from any messy involvement by being merely ‘stationed’ or breaking his journey. Having a ticket and an exit visa in his pocket allows Theroux his favourite narrative stance: that of the normal man passing through a freak-show world. Genetically, one could link The London Embassy with the traveller’s observations of Maugham’s Creatures of Circumstance. But Theroux’s pedigree is less naturalistic. His manner is young-man smart and generally stops on the good-humoured side of callousness. Thus the best story in the collection, ‘Tomb with a View’ (Theroux is not averse to a broad jest now and then), opens with routine office business:

Mrs Fleamarsh had come in a few days before. Her husband had complained of chest pains on the train to Salisbury, missed the cathedral, collapsed on the bus, and died at Stonehenge. She insisted on having him cremated, so that she could carry him in her handbag. Is there a more presumptuous statement than ‘He would have wanted it this way?’ Accompanying his coffin back to Baltimore would have meant her missing the tour of the Lake District, and Stratford was tomorrow.

It’s hilarious. And the subsequent story (which promptly ditches the promising Mrs Fleamarsh with her urn ‘the size and shape of a white crock of Gentleman’s Relish’) gets even funnier. As an expert in the ways of exotic foreigners, the narrator is asked to solve the mystery of a Muslim who has some unpleasant bits and pieces in his Mortlake lodgings. He turns out to be a fanatic who has been robbing the grave of Sir Robert Burton. The narrator traps him in the tomb, and masquerading as the avenging Christian, exorcises the holy vandal by terror. The story resounds with nice jokes about national decline and reverse colonialism. And the whole thing hovers on the edge of the utterly ridiculous – one of Theroux’s favourite territories.

Not all The London Embassy’s stories work as well. Some are one-shot affairs, like that of the garlanded American liberal poet, who has to be locked away during his periodic bouts of manic anti-semitism. Another story has a beautiful girl help the narrator find a flat in Battersea. He wants her more than he wants it, but to his surprise he finds that what she wants is 2 per cent commission. As a final sting, it emerges that she also extorted 2 per cent from the vendor and that she lives with an Iranian: ‘they all want Iranians these days.’

Theroux has a well-publicised love affair with London, particularly South London. He relishes its seediness and recently, it would seem, he has become a connoisseur of its death throes. His IRA-in-Wandsworth novel, The Family Arsenal, began with a well-observed snapshot of one of the area’s streets losing its mature trees and having the replacement saplings ripped out by kids the same day. This melancholy vandalism can be seen happening any day, all over Lambeth, Southwark and Wandsworth. But more than trees are going. The London Embassy ends with what must be among the first serious treatments in fiction of the April 1981 Brixton riots. The American narrator watches, safely behind his windows in Prince of Wales Drive, as London goes native. Here also, as Marlowe would say, is one of the dark places of the earth. Ayer Hitam, Zaire, SW9 – what’s the difference? Personally, I find Theroux’s attitude towards London insufferable. I suppose if I was Burmese or Indian, I might feel the same way about passages in The Great Railway Bazaar. Another ugly American, one would call him, were he not so strikingly handsome in the ubiquitous publicity photograph. The zoo looks different to the English animals inside it. On 18 October, precisely at the time when Theroux was eulogising South London on TV as a delightful urban safari park, I was robbed at knife point in Brixton.

The frog who dared to croak is Richard Sennett’s first novel and umpteenth book. Like other philosophers (Russell, Wollheim, Scruton, Koestler), he evidently sees fiction as something he ought to chance his arm at, once at least. I’m no judge, but his social-philosophical writing (notably The Fall of Public Man) strikes me as hugely ambitious in its reach, but very lucid and readable in its exposition. The same can be said of this novel. It takes the form of a set of documentary fragments, gathered into a loose dossier which the reader’s imagination must stitch into biographical narrative. The subject is Tibor Grau. ‘Von Grau’ and Jewish, he is born into the Hungarian social élite of the late 19th century. Precociously brilliant in philosophy and aesthetics, Grau is a youthful convert to Marxism. He plays a leading part in the abortive Hungarian revolution of 1919. Thereafter exiled, he works and writes in Vienna, pre-Nazi Germany and Moscow. He returns to Hungary with the victorious Red Army, and is rewarded with a string of cultural, educational and government posts. By cunning, he survives the Stalinist purges. By holding his cards close to his chest he even survives the 1956 uprising. And by the 1960s, he has achieved a massive reputation in the West as the leading Marxist thinker of the century. The title alludes to a folk tale, emblematic of his career. The frog who dares to croak invites the wolf to come and eat him. But Grau is a frog who has ventured a modest eructation and escaped ungobbled. Finally, records show him consigned to an important-old-folks home. It’s incarceration, but preferable to the psychiatric ward or provincial exile, and infinitely preferable to a death camp. And he will get his entry in the International Dictionary of Socialist Biography. It won’t tell the truth (not being a novel), nevertheless Grau’s journal can finish on a note of career triumph: ‘I tried to help my countrymen; I spoke out. Yet, miraculously, I am still alive and well.’ The piquancy of this novel is that it must be ‘about’ George Lukacs (born von Lukacs). Publicly, Lukacs is still the Marxist theoretician best-known and most cited in the West (although Brecht and Benjamin are catching up with him). Sennett uses the novel’s penetrative licence to explore the pathology of Marxist commitment: juxtaposing public and private man to reveal duplicity and remote, secret motivation. Grau is identified as a Marxist by virtue of perversion; he is ideologically rigorous because he is sexually bent:

I would lie in bed at night stroking myself, thinking of the many men I had had. I would think of them, and the pleasure would come, and I would smear my belly with it, and then I would sleep. And this is how my interest in Marxism began, gentlemen. I read your literature in sympathy, but I found out very little that bore directly on my experience.

In some ways, it is Lawrence’s point in ‘The Man who Died’. One can’t love ideas, one has to love men. More plausibly, it is Sade’s analysis of politics as the extension of sexual desire. (Sennett inserts a number of meaningful references to the ‘Margrave von Sade’.) But The frog who dared to croak never relaxes its documentary formality to pursue these lines in any flexible or fully dramatised way. One could go on to complain that the narrative is insufficiently artful for its ambitious subject matter. Nevertheless, within his restricted frame, Sennett achieves successes. Particularly good is a long section of inter-office correspondence recording the delicate surgery needed to convert a decadent poem into ideological rectitude. Here and elsewhere, Sennett is adroit in his mimicry of bureaucratic jargons.

As best as I can describe it, the comic catastrophe of Vintage Stuff is as follows: the main character, a public-school master, is perched on a rocky ledge over a French river. Human excrement, and occasionally human bodies, fall on his head. Above him, in a chateau, a bizarre international conference is taking place. Several members have been assaulted by garrotte or gunshot. One is ‘dog tied’ in the vagina of a fellow delegate. The schoolmaster fancies he is rescuing the countess who owns the chateau from a dastardly gang of criminals. She is convinced he is a Mafia hit man, come to reclaim the $100,000 she stole in Las Vegas. In the woods opposite, a homicidal public schoolboy, intoxicated by too much Frederick Forsyth, is taking pot shots at anything that moves. Since he’s a demon marksman, the casualty rate is high.

Like Restoration Comedy, Sharpe’s plots defy summary. But the comic machinery by which this bloody and beshitted climax is reached will be familiar to his admirers. In the largest sense, Vintage Stuff carries on the author’s bilious and apparently inexhaustible analysis of the British power élite. Having dealt with the aristocracy (Blott on the Landscape), the meritocracy (Ancestral Vices) and the University (Porterhouse Blue), he now proceeds to the public school. I’m hopeful that his next work will be a Wilt III: that line seems to me one of his strongest.

One of the thrillers burlesqued in Vintage Stuff is Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. Sharpe, not unnaturally, looks on that bestseller of four decades ago with the same nostalgia with which Orwell regarded Raffles. But Household’s productive longevity is one of the curiosities of modern literature. He has, after all these years, brought out a sequel, Rogue Justice. Having survived the Gestapo and been victorious in his epic duel with von Lauen, Raymond Ingelram sets out once more on his one-man big-game hunt for Hitler. Although there is nothing quite as good as the original underground siege (where the hero literally goes to earth, like a fox), the chase and escape sequences in the new book are excellent, and the general tone of the thing is pristine.