Mythic Elements

Stephen Bann

  • Queen of Stones by Emma Tennant
    Cape, 160 pp, £6.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 224 02601 1
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by William Kotzwinkle, based on a screenplay by Melissa Mathison
    Arthur Barker, 246 pp, £6.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 213 16848 0
  • Tales of Afghanistan by Amina Shah
    Octagon Press, 128 pp, £6.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 900860 94 4
  • The Masque of St Eadmundsburg by Humphrey Morrison
    Blond and Briggs, 228 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 85634 127 4
  • A Villa in France by J.I.M. Stewart
    Gollancz, 206 pp, £6.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 575 03103 4
  • Collected Stories: Vol. III by Sean O’Faolain
    Constable, 422 pp, £9.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 09 463920 5
  • Work Suspended and Other Stories by Evelyn Waugh
    Penguin, 318 pp, £2.75, November 1982, ISBN 0 14 006518 0

In order to envisage the curious achievement of Emma Tennant’s Queen of Stones, you must first imagine that Virginia Woolf has rewritten Lord of the Flies. Interior monologues and painfully acute perceptions of a seaside landscape combine to colour in what is essentially a tale of a group of girls wrecked on a desert island. The fact that the desert island is just off the coast of Dorset, and has been isolated by an exceptionally heavy fog, is quite immaterial. It is the isolation from the adult world that counts – and of course the fateful pattern of relationships that emerges from that isolation. But having imagined Mrs Woolf at this recuperative task, you must then take into account the likelihood that she has been nosing through the Hogarth Press edition of the works of Freud. Intercalated with the story of rivalries and affiliations among the hapless castaways is a series of reports by ‘Dr Ross, Freudian Psychoanalyst, aged 76’. Despite his great age, Dr Ross has a shrewd diagnosis to make about Bess Plantain, the adolescent girl who initiates the collective violence.

Emma Tennant’s novel thus proceeds through a kind of lurching counterpoint. One moment we are under the blanket of fog, observing the fact that twins stick together and mysterious foreign girls have an odd effect on the homogeneity of the group. The next moment, we are back in the consulting-room. Dr Ross is painstakingly reviewing the symptoms of Bess’s earlier life, and moving towards an interpretation which seems unashamedly parasitic on Freud’s case-history of Dora. The psychoanalytic commentary is not the only adult vantage-point in this dialogue between event and interpretation. Bess Plantain comes from a wealthy background, and can therefore be offered the luxury of a Freudian psychoanalysis. But Melanie Ayres, a companion on the sponsored walk which led to the fog-bound isolation, is not so fortunately placed. The commentary on her deprived and eventful life is provided by ‘Social Worker Ms S.B. Potts’ (no age given).

It is not all that difficult to grasp Emma Tennant’s strategy at this point. Lord of the Flies is a novel about boys. Queen of Stones is a novel about girls. Lord of the Flies is a story which makes use of the exotic props of the desert island location, and accepts the inheritance of Defoe and Stevenson. Queen of Stones keeps closer to home, making the psychological as well as the socio-economic backgrounds of the children impinge upon the exceptional series of actions which takes place on the Dorset coast. It would be possible to proceed from here to the suggestion that Lord of the Flies is a mythologising book, which deliberately exploits the sacred and mysterious aspects of collective violence, while Queen of Stones is a demythologising book, which places the instruments for analysing the violence in the reader’s hands. That is certainly the implication of the ‘Short Bibliography’ at the close of the novel, which adds Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, the Opies’ Lore and Language of Schoolchildren and Zweig’s Mary, Queen of Scots to the psychoanalytic resources of Freud, Ferenczi and Winnicott. If Queen of Stones is not quite convincing enough to persuade us to accept it on its own terms, that is not for want of clarity and definition. At least we are provoked to think carefully about the different varieties of mythmaking, and their relationship both to the stories we tell and the lives we lead.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is also a novel about what Newsweek calls ‘growing up wise’. But as any American child will tell you, it is not really a novel at all – more in the line of a ‘novelisation’ (Newsweek again) of the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s colossally successful film. Michelangelo’s renowned image of God making finger contact with Adam (known to viewers of London Weekend Television through the surrogate emblem of Melvyn Bragg conducting the live electricity of the Arts) has been hijacked for the dust-cover of this generic hybrid. Let us pause before the engaging image of the outstretched fingers of the human child glowing softly in response to the scaly protuberances of the extra-terrestrial being. Put yourself in William Kotzwinkle’s shoes. How do you actually go about making a novel from the screenplay of a colossally successful film? Who on earth (or in intra-terrestrial space) is your public? Is it the people who, by some quite unexplainable oversight, have happened not to see the film, but feel themselves to be becoming part of a threatened minority? Is it the people who have seen the film but cannot afford to queue from half-way round the block to see it again? Is it (an insidious thought, and one that might have sapped the writer’s morale) the cynical parents who hope to stave off their children’s urge to see the film by this paltry gesture, and thereby save themselves the trouble of queuing from half-way round the block?

Of course the fact that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is being published in England invites a more exact and prosaic reply. For almost a month between the publication of William Kotzwinkle’s novel and the Charity Premiere in Leicester Square, the written text will offer the only access (barring pirated videos) to the much publicised pleasures of E.T. Is it a good, or even a passable substitute? I must declare my interest as a genuine enthusiast for E.T. (the film) and say that it most certainly is not. Indeed William Kotzwinkle has not even bothered sufficiently about the language habits of English readers to remove, or at least palliate with an informative note, a detail of local colour which makes the opening action almost unintelligible. Young Elliott first makes friends with the Extra-Terrestrial, and revives him from incipient exhaustion, by laying a trail of ‘M&Ms’ from the forest to the backyard. ‘The great M&Ms have given me my vitality back,’ comments E.T., in interior monologue. ‘A miraculous food.’ Of course any English reader will be mystified by this ambrosial trail. Any English spectator of the film will clear up the mystery in a moment. They are simply Smarties.

An even more unwelcome surprise is in store for the enthusiast when he finds that the novel has let him in for a good deal of psychologising, most of it quite unnecessarily insulting to the protagonists of the film. Young Elliott, a prodigy of energy and sensitivity, is described in crude terms as ‘a blossoming neurotic’; more than that, he is roundly branded as a ‘twerp’. His little sister Gertie (charmingly played, in the film, by a scion, or scioness, of the Barrymores) fares hardly better. Intrusions into their mother’s sex life seem irresistible to William Kotzwinkle, and even the Extra-Terrestrial’s equivocal feelings towards a female so dramatically unlike what he has been accustomed to are luridly explored. But the unforgivable infidelity to the image lies in the various descriptions of E.T. Here words fail the novelist, and metaphor offers a tempting lure. William Kotzwinkle describes him as looking like ‘a prickly pear’ and treasuring a nose which satisfies the extra-terrestrial standards of beauty by being ‘like a bashed-in Brussels sprout’. In spite of the rigorous legal prohibitions which govern the use of E.T.’s image in the press, I can reveal that he is nothing like a prickly pear, let alone a bashed-in Brussels sprout. The only thing with which E.T. is remotely comparable is a sea-potato, or salp (commonly known in Southern France as a bijou). But even sea-potatoes do not have large, brown, glossy eyes and an intelligence extending over several million years.

If Emma Tennant’s novel exists in a somewhat uneasy relationship to the analytic and theoretical texts which she specifies, William Kotzwinkle’s novelisation remains uncomfortably adrift in the wake of the cinematic image. There is a general problem here for the writer of fiction, which goes beyond these two obviously ill-assorted examples. How should the writer of fiction position himself in relation to myth? Is he to be the analyst and demystifier of the mythic structures which permeate our culture? Or is he simply engaged in transcribing and translating myths, giving a new fictional credence to the patterns which recur and resist interpretation? Obviously there is a sense in which the techniques of such disciplines as psychoanalysis and structural anthropology have made us discontented with the supposed naivety and transparency of stories. The English publishers of Le Roy Ladurie’s Love, Death and Money in the Pays d’Oc took a reasonable gamble when they recently distributed free copies of the 18th-century tale, ‘Jean-l’ont-pris’, which forms the basis of Le Roy Ladurie’s account. Isolated in this way, in all its circumstantial detail, it seems to evoke with irresistible magnetism the learned apparatus of Le Roy Ladurie’s structural analysis.

Perhaps this is a clue to the reason Amina Shah’s collection of Tales of Afghanistan proves more than a little unsatisfying. It is an assortment of brief folk-tales with charming and enticing titles, like ‘The Unforgettable Sneeze’ and ‘The Water-Carrier’s Fabulous Sons’. It does not spare the ‘Once upon a time’, and guides the reader to each appropriate conclusion with a narrative expertise worthy of Scheherezade. But we look for something more than this, well aware that exotic folk-tales are not just devices for whiling away sleepless nights. There is the occasional, provocatively distorted proper name to remind us that such stories have their basis, after all, in a rich and resonant cultural background. ‘Suli-man-Son-of-David (upon Whom be Peace)’ is a recurring invocation – and for what reason, precisely, has he been naturalised among the Afghans? A reference to ‘Iskander the Great’ is easily decoded by those who know their Kipling – but how can we avoid wishing to interpret further the lingering myth of the world-conquering Alexander among these frontier peoples? This is to say nothing of the fact that these folk-tales abound, like all folk-tales, in more or less formulaic elements whose structural role is important, though their literal sense is baffling. Afghan kings seem to have a facility for ending any story by the expedient of ‘filling someone’s mouth with gold’. It would be interesting to know more about these excessive feats of dentistry.

One conclusion which could be drawn from the very disparate works of fiction under discussion is that mythic elements should not be left hanging about. Either they should be brought out unambiguously into the open, and squeezed for the last drop of hidden meaning, or they should be so cleverly concealed that we come upon them almost unawares, and perhaps only sense very obscurely the additional richness that they have given to the tale. Such is the case with Humphrey Morrison’s The Masque of St Eadmundsburg, which begins by seeming like a rather tedious exercise in historical reconstruction, and yet succeeds eventually in drawing us into a resplendent and satisfying conclusion. How it achieves this is worthy of investigation. On the surface, Humphrey Morrison has just tried to write a lively historical novel about intrigue and rivalry at a Swabian university in the Early Modern period. Acknowledgment is generously offered to one of the author’s history teachers, Professor Walter Ullman of Cambridge, ‘who inspired in me a fascination for past perceptions of society’. Yet no course of lectures on Medieval political theory and the heterodox role of Marsilius of Padua could have produced writing of this kind. I am tempted to suggest that the presiding influence was not Walter Ullman but Walter Pater. Part of the evidence lies in passages like this: ‘Everywhere, and with increasing licence, the anti-masquers decked themselves in the attributes of venerable masters and indulged unrestrained for the shrieking crowd, throughout the night, the imitation of their quirks, their manners and their vices. Only at the University Gate, beyond the pitching fires of tapers and torches, did the crowd hush its cheering, and watched in moonlight and the even brilliance of an enormous circle of flames the homage of the Seneschal in golden robes before his King.’

This is fine writing of a very particular type, hardly conducive to the equable flow of narrative and producing instead the occasional, carefully judged effect of an accelerating pace which falters before the moment of vision. It is a type of writing which recurs continually in Imaginary Portraits, Marius the Epicurean and Gaston de Latour. But, for The Masque of St Eadmundsburg to be more than an intermittent Paterian pastiche, there must be a more integral incorporation of mythic and cultural themes. Humphrey Morrison has solved the problem by taking as his central theme the relationship between an elderly and respected scholar, Dr Eberhard Dolke, and a young, brilliant and noble student, Friedrich von Fluorn. Dolke, who has been charged with the responsibility of organising a masque in celebration of the history of the university, listens too assiduously to the advice of Von Fluorn, and thoroughly alarms his academic colleagues with the plan for an ‘anti-masque’, which will invert and perhaps parody the ancestral values of the Medieval university. Von Fluorn’s appeal is both seductive and subversive; he personifies both the lure of youth and the individualism of the new, modern age. It can be said of him (as it might have been said about Gaston de Latour): ‘From such days his youth preserved some hope of a sudden, an apparently accidental perceiving, on which a whole work might be elaborated.’

The Paterian mould is set. But The Masque of St Eadmundsburg in the end decisively breaks it. In Pater, the clash of the old and the new, of Apollo and Dionysius, creates violence and madness. In Apollo in Picardy, the old Prior sinks into senility (‘Deliquio animi’), after the Dionysian shepherd boy has committed his moonlight murder. Humphrey Morrison has engineered it so that Dolke breaks away from the influence of Von Fluorn, but takes upon himself the responsibility of both masque and anti-masque – and eventually secures an unqualified triumph. It is not unlike the outcome of Szymanowski’s opera, King Roger, where a parallel is deliberately established with the doomed King Pentheus, of Euripides’s Bacchae, but the Norman King escapes ritual dismemberment and triumphs by admitting the Dionysian element in his own personality. This is indeed strange company for a contemporary novel to be keeping – but The Masque of St Eadmundsburg is a very strange book, which points to quite exceptional gifts of intelligence and originality in its young author.

There is nothing remotely Paterian about J.I.M. Stewart’s A Villa in France, despite the fact that the anti-hero is a sexually ambiguous, Oxford-educated aesthete. If a 19th-century paternity exists for this novel, it is surely in the mannered accomplishments of George Meredith, who is credited in passing with being the most recent novelist to be studied in the Oxford English School. A Villa in France has that that beguiling property – so eminently characteristic of Meredith – of seeming to slide more or less uncontrollably between epochs. This is partly because the characters themselves seem to be based as much on well-known fictional prototypes as on anything specific to period and place: the Rev. Henry Rich is described on the first page as coming ‘straight out of Mansfield Park’, and it is a matter for debate whether he succeeds in emerging from that rarefied world. It is partly because Henry Rich’s obsession with Time – which at one point he characterises as moving in our imaginations from left to right, like the reading of a book – spills over into the construction of the narrative. Events that might have been supposed to be important, like the deaths of two principal characters, are relegated to a dismissively subordinate position. This is how we are told: ‘In fact Caspar looked like coming into his own at last, and it was therefore the sadder that he was killed in a railway accident within a few months of his work being published.’ A few pages later, we read: ‘And then there occurred the first event in Penelope’s life justly to be described as strange to the point of amazement. Fulke Ferneydale died abroad after what appeared to have been a fairly long illness.’

The fact that J.I.M. Stewart is also the detective writer Michael Innes leads me to think that a clue may be lurking around these uncompromising demises. An innocent question is asked at the mid-way stage of the novel: ‘Who wrote a novel called The Amazing Marriage?’ Penelope Rich, the heroine, knows her Meredith, and can reply to the question, which has very little relevance to the issues being debated at the time. But the ‘amazement’ provoked by Fulke Ferneydale’s death and legacy (the ‘Villa in France’ of the title) suggests that what we have in fact been following is an immensely protracted peripeteia, a plot which must be called devious even by Meredith’s standards. Penelope must be placed in the deliberately contrived circumstances set up by Fulke Ferneydale’s will, in order for her earlier, unsuccessful marriage to be nullified and superseded. When, like Homer’s Penelope, she has been rescued from the attentions of the over-assiduous and dishonest suitor placed by Fulke to capture her, she can herself take the initiative in setting matters right. She proposes to, and is accepted by, her rescuer.

It really seems as if Dr Stewart has tried to write something which is as distant as possible from the design of a detective story. Instead of resolving the carefully distributed clues into a satisfactory solution, A Villa in France is full of random indications which both stress its literariness and resist incorporation into the plot. Penelope’s eventual triumph is a triumph over plot, since the story of her seduction which Fulke has designed as his sadistic legacy is transformed into the story of her independent proposal of marriage. The feminist assertion (as in Meredith) implies a derangement of the customary strategies of narration. One is left with the puzzling conclusion that this, just as much as Emma Tennant’s theoretically overloaded Queen of Stones, is a feminist book.

Collections of short stories as rich and copious as those of Sean O’Faolain are impossible to review in a short compass. But this third volume of the collected works, which includes stories published from 1971 onwards, has the advantage of concluding with a group of unpublished texts; these are not only individually enthralling, but suggest a general position on the range and possibilities of the short story. Already in ‘How to write a short story’, first published in 1976, Sean O’Faolain implies a sardonic critique of the pattern associated with Maupassant. The young county librarian and amateur author who is gathering literary material from the confidences of a friend exclaims at the untidiness of the story:

Sequel? What sequel? I can’t have sequels. In a story you always have to observe unity of time, place and action. Everything happening at the one time, in the same place, between the same people. ‘The Necklace’, ‘Boule de Suif’, ‘The Maison Tellier’. The examples are endless. What was this bloody sequel?

If Maupassant stands for the short story in its classical form, there could scarcely be a more convincing sign of the opposite strategy than in the stories of Kipling. In place of the observance of unities, and the controlled progression to a pointe or punch-line, we have a deliberately wayward use of time and space, and an inclination to make of the mysterious oppositions and convergences of cultures one of the principal sources of subject matter. Sean O’Faolain’s subtle and haunting ‘One Fair Daughter and No More’, among the unpublished texts, could indeed be described as Kiplingesque. Through the intermediacy of a neutral, official narrator, it sets up an imaginative parallelism between Italy and Northern Ireland, focused on the character of a young woman who is Italian by origin but has been adopted by Northern Irish parents. Through the light which it casts on terrorism in Italy and Ireland, and the parallel illumination of the violence of Latin love in the inappropriate context of Belfast, this story sets up a resonance which cannot easily be dispelled. The same is true of ‘From Huesca with Love and Kisses’, where the transplanted heroine is a cosmopolitan Jewish painter taking a working holiday in Western Ireland. Sean O’Faolain exploits to the full the vivid counterpoint set up by the clash of cultures. His Ireland is not an untarnished, uncontaminated domain of pure ethnicity, but the site of a play of conflicting allegiances. Principal among them, of course, is the allegiance to Rome, explored in two stories dealing with Irish priests: ‘Marmalade’ and ‘The Unlit Lamp’.

Yet Sean O’Faolain’s most recent stories also contain an exercise in the differences between the novel and the short story form, polemically labelled ‘The Wings of the Dove – A Modern Sequel’. You have only to glance through Evelyn Waugh’s Work Suspended and Other Stories to sense the very specific formal constraints which a novelist thinks appropriate to the short story. Waugh’s works most frequently have the crisp, clear and economical structure reminiscent of Maupassant; they build up to their pointe and are cut off cleanly. If they do not observe this rule, this is because they have an unresolved, problematic relation to a novel, written or about to be written: ‘Work Suspended’, which chronicles the interruption of a novelist’s life by the war, and ‘Charles Ryder’s Schooldays’, which is a kind of abandoned apocrypha to Brideshead Revisited, both have this rather uneasy status. It comes as some surprise in the context of O’Faolain’s latest stories to find that he has tried to give the resolution and clarity characteristic of the Maupassant story to a novel which is eminent among all others for its obliquities and evasions. He has in fact written a sequel to The Wings of the Dove in which Morton Densher, updated to c. 1970, glimpses the middle-aged Kate Croy dining with her husband (Lord Macbane, alias Lord Mark) at the Café Royal. It is as if those periphrastic schemers had been catapulted without ceremony into the world of Waugh. O’Faolain’s explanation for this undertaking is odd.

I have made no great discoveries, and it is more than possible that my reader will have made them all long ago without going to any bother at all. They are: that the writer of a short story does not travel – he is content, like an astronaut, or somebody on a package tour, to be shot to his destination; that he then, unlike the gregarious novelist, can proceed to operate quite successfully with as few as two or three characters; and that the novelist, again like the astronaut or the package tourer, does not always arrive at journey’s end.

I think that we can disregard this discovery, at least to the extent that it would imply fitting O’Faolain’s short stories to the astronautical type. Clearly there is sureness of design, precision of engineering, in his most recent work. But, more important than that, there is a cultural and historical density, never more apparent than in the Kiplingesque ‘A Present from Clonmacnois’ which concludes the collection. As O’Faolain finally expresses it: ‘The artist is a mere tiller of ancient soil.’