Pushkin’s Pupil

Christopher Driver

  • Ararat by D.M. Thomas
    Gollancz, 191 pp, £6.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 575 03247 2

Not since Arnold Bennett, Elizabeth Bowen and Vicki Baum can a novelist have looked so readily for resonance in the name and function of hotels. After his world-beating Freudian serve with The White Hotel here is D.M. Thomas again, standing on the baseline at the start of his new novel in yet another hotel setting. The Soviet poet, Rozanov, is sharing his bed with a blind woman whom he has arranged to meet because he fancies a literally blind date, and she is a fervent admirer of his verse. The hotel is in Gorky, so lacks character: you will not expect to find it among Mr Rubinstein’s Quaint Little Hotels of Britain and Europe, as might have happened with Thomas’s previous hotel by the lake where ‘your son crashed through my modesty, a stag in rut. The staff were wonderful. I’ve never known such service as they gave.’ It is a caravanserai of convenience only. Rozanov is by no means a reluctant rutter – hardly anyone in Thomas-land is – but on this occasion he is too bored by his admirer to perform until she appeals to his other talent. He is an improvisatore, grandson of an Armenian storyteller who perished in the genocide of 1915. ‘Ararat’ the tale takes shape on his lips between night and morning in the hotel bedroom armchair. The twin peaks of his desire, to borrow the soft porn expression, are those of Mount Ararat itself, the sacred mountain of the Armenians, which lies beyond the Iron Curtain (from the point of view of a Soviet Armenian) because it was annexed by the Turks.

To reach the mountain, the narrator has to change personality more than once. He travels to Yerevan as Surkov, another hard-bitten Soviet poet, eminent enough to be allowed abroad, via an agreeably-evoked press conference of the kind that gets arranged in New York for literary Russians. The extended Armenian family embraces him. The Gorky hotel room is merely the frame that enables the unities to be observed. It is even too obscure to be bugged, Rozanov reflects with relief, remembering a few indiscretions he has dropped during the night’s narration, about the imminence of military despotism in one of the Soviet Union’s dependent states.

Ararat is a shorter book than its predecessor, but it picks its way through similar no man’s lands between fact and fiction, life and literature, erotic fantasy and historic massacre. The poetic or cinematic structure challenges the reader to absorption, as into a hall of mirrors, without any tiresome demand to follow the sequence of thought and event: it is fides quaerens intellectum. The listener to Rozanov’s story is blind, and the listener-by-extension to the story-within-the-story sometimes feels like a blindfold hostage, permitted glimpses of half-recognised street furniture that leave him well short of secure orientation. Unless, perhaps, he is as familiar as Thomas is with the life and work of Pushkin, whose ‘Egyptian Nights’ is translated and reinterpreted as the structural core of the book. The lambent presence of Pushkin, the author’s guru or second skin, saves Ararat from being written off as a relatively lightweight re-creation of a popular success, and it also rescues Thomas’s writing from sprawling psychoanalytical self-indulgence. Perhaps it is with justice that Pushkin’s elegant strength is sometimes compared with Mozart’s.

Certainly the effect of moving as a reader from The White Hotel to Ararat recalls a process familiar in the history of musical composition. Ideas, themes, patterns and juxtapositions of tonality that have been employed for a large-scale work often suggest to a composer in their working-out a further series of possibilities which demand subsequent exploration in a more intimate medium, a quartet or a sonata. In chamber music, tone can be lightened or darkened and an atmosphere changed in the space of a bar or two, without portentous build-up. This happens here with the mixture of emotion and embarrassment in the love-making of two Armenians, Khandjian and Mariam, at the close of Rozanov’s long improvisation. When the couple begin to share ‘the sorrows and miracles of their origins’ in the holocaust and diaspora of their people, they are able to pass from affection to violence, and from a ‘soapy erection’ under the shower to a snowy vision of Ararat from an upstairs window, in the space of a paragraph or two, without apprehension of the mixture curdling under pressure of haste.

For that matter, the art of the improvisatore itself is in modern times associated with music rather than literature, though it is a couple of centuries since it ceased to be a gift considered indispensable in major composers. Pushkin, Thomas tells us, was inspired by the improvisation of Mickiewicz to start (but not complete) ‘Egyptian Nights’. The Neapolitan improvisatore in the story accepted the theme ‘Cleopatra e i suoi amanti’ from his Moscow audience much as Mozart might have accepted a tune for variations from a Viennese one. This combination of spontaneity and impermanence now strikes fresh chords from contemporary creative artists in several fields. There is an urchin delight in uttering, however paradoxically clothed in hard covers, words imagined as writ in water, notes from a supreme fiction that well up from a collective memory, to be caught and trapped by recording mechanisms only by chance or under duress. In a world of tape libraries, sacredness clings to the one-off, on which the listener must exercise his atrophied powers of memory to recapture the nuances of sound and sense before they fade. On this view, the greatest pianist is the one who never cuts a disc, the greatest chef one who never tins a product or commits a recipe to paper, and the greatest novelist one who shuns publishers. Economic conditions in the arts industries naturally make this principle of esteem somewhat theoretical, but as Freud apparently used to say, quoting Charcot, ‘la théorie c’est bon, mais ça n’empêche pas d’exister.’ Besides, and increasingly, economics can work in two different directions simultaneously, as poetry-readers and buskers have discovered. The other day, on the way to hear Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet in a highly-polished Viennese performance for the BBC, doubtless arranged at least a year in advance and bound to be repeated, I passed a group of young professionals delivering the C minor one in a performance doubtless arranged that morning, but delivered with verve and demanding attention: no chance here of a repeat.

The central role allotted to Pushkin in this book allows Thomas the poet to deploy his virtuosity with translation from the Russian. But it is also important at a deeper level to Thomas the novelist. In The White Hotel – the hotel which was ‘just my life, you see’ in the dream the young Lisa Erdman related to Freud – Pushkin was parenthetical, but he was significantly present at the climax, after Lisa and her stepson had arrived at Kiev in September 1941. At Babi Yar:

During the night, the bodies settled. A hand would adjust, by a fraction, causing another’s head to turn slightly. Features imperceptibly altered. ‘The trembling of the sleeping night’, Pushkin called it; only he was referring to the settling of a house.

This apparently casual quotation precedes the unifying paragraph of the whole novel, where fantasy meets reality and unites the dreamer-victim not only with the Jewish dead but with their German and Russian exterminators, who had encouraged each other – as a perceptive concentration camp graduate once remarked – to act out in public the most secret fantasies of the European mind. ‘The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored.’

For the coda to that fearsome climax, Thomas then side-slipped into a curiously Bunyan-like vision of a workaday heaven, where a routine of human service freely given is punctuated by specifically Biblical references evocative of transcendence and inexhaustible resource: the wine at Cana, maternal milk, the image of an infinitely expandable refugee camp ‘where Israel’s tents do shine by night’. Pushkin, too, admired Bunyan, and wrote a poem called ‘The Pilgrim’. He also lived an adventurous sexual life and died in his duel with d’Anthès as a jealous cuckold, which probably helps rather than hinders a modern writer’s appreciation of his far-reaching humanism, his instinct for the universal. Pushkin, according to one critic, ‘could think and speak as a pagan, a Christian, a medieval knight, a Renaissance man, a votary of Voltaire and a disciple of Rousseau’. It is surely as his disciple that Thomas in these two books seeks to embrace in the same unifying vision both the characteristic horrors and the fresh starts of the 20th century: in The White Hotel, the holocaust and Freud; in Ararat, the Armenian genocide and the Cold War. Surkov at his New York press conference is stumped to explain even his sense of the Cold War without help from Pushkin:

If my country didn’t exist you’d have to invent her, yah? And I guess we would have to invent you. Well, the only way I can explain it is the soft woman and the hard woman. In Pushkin’s ‘Fountain of Bakhchisarai’ ... the two favourites in the Khan’s harem are a gentle Polish girl, Mariya, and a Georgian girl, Zarema, who’s wild – you know, real hard, bitchy. Well, they are of course rivals. In the end their rivalry kills them both. But they are really only two sides of the same woman in Pushkin’s mind, yah? Well, that’s what I mean about the Cold War, about each side having to invent the other.

The miniature scale and – except when windows are suddenly flung open – emotional restraint of this novel leave no room for the confessional haemorrhage of The White Hotel. Instead, the blood dream of our time is pushed slightly aside into reported speech, as the Greek tragedians did with their Messengers’ speeches when real nastiness had to be presented. Surkov, on his ship to America, is accosted and pursued by a horribly garrulous Ancient Executioner, Finn, who has been present and active at every serious extermination exercise from the Kazakh gorge in 1915 to Babi Yar and Treblinka and beyond:

  After the war was over, I worked in India, Africa, and later in Indo-China.’

  ‘When did you retire?’ I asked him.

  The old man sighed. ‘I’ve never truly retired. One becomes indispensable. Or at least one thinks one does. Actually nobody is indispensable; there is always someone ready to step into your shoes.’

Finn has presumably been working in Beirut lately. Thomas-Pushkin will have been hovering in the vicinity, too: after all, for lovers of hotels and women, Beirut used to be the place.