Poles Apart

John Sutherland

Glowacki’s novel makes trouble for itself. The work is translated – one of the two ways in which, notoriously, a British book can be guaranteed to lose money (the other sure thing is poetry). Give us this day was originally published in 1981, and was evidently completed before December and Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law. Its saga of the uprising in the Gdansk Lenin shipyard ends with a cloudy optimism (‘It looks as if it’ll be all right after all’) which unforeseen events, not least the author’s subsequent exile, have sadly contradicted. Give us this day is presented as the historical witness of a hull-welder like Boxer in Animal Farm: dim to the verge of half-wittedness but – ultimately – the salt of the Polish earth. English readers will shrink from the biceps-flexing opening sentences: ‘Can’t complain. Built like an ox, I am. Productive. Efficient member of the workforce.’ Productive and efficient the steel-driving hero may be. Articulate narrator he is not. His solidity makes a point about Solidarity. His humble reflections on the upheaval around him may even be eloquent in his native Polish. But working-class vernacular must vie with poetry in making things awkward for translators. The hero, for instance, identifies the world around him by homely menagerie nicknames: his workmates are Sloniu the Elephant, Roundy, Swarthy, Foureyes, Skinny, Miskia the Bear, etc. Walesa (never named) is ‘walrus face’. One can see the slang equivalences which the translator (Konrad Brodzinski) is aiming at. But by the wildest stretch of the imagination, one can’t hear an assembly-line worker at Cowley or Dagenham fondly referring to his leader as, say, Moss the bullmoose. And it doesn’t help that Glowacki’s workers have such well-soaped mouths. I won’t believe that the great liberation at Gdansk was achieved without a single expletive, or any harder retort by the foiled management than: ‘Back to work, revisionist scum.’

Brecht apparently kept a toy donkey on his desk with the motto round its neck: ‘I too must understand.’ Gradually, the hero of Give us this day comes to understand the historical significance of what is happening around him (although, to the end, he never sees through the agent provocateur in their midst, mining away at Solidarity). Initially a dupe of the management, he finally throws in his lot with the strikers. In so doing, he finds love, recovers his lost faith in God and helps save mother Poland. It’s all very simple, sentimental and ‘uncooked’ (to use Graham Greene’s term). And its well-intentioned soppiness matches the romantic expectations of the 1981 thaw. After the crackdown, Orwell’s consigning Boxer to the knacker’s yard seems a more plausible outcome.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a very different Pole. In 1975, with the Booker Prize awarded (to the accompaniment of some chauvinistic protest), it was commonplace to rank her with Conrad. The follow-up to Heat and Dust has been a long time coming. And, although a fine novel, it’s unlikely to keep her reputation at the sky-high level it suddenly achieved eight years ago. The narrative of In Search of Love and Beauty flits achronologically over the lives of a group of Austrian and German émigrés, comfortably resettled in America. They have contrived to get their money out, and have eluded Hitler. But refuge has its penalty in the pointlessness of refugee existence. Bored and stranded, their lives are historical leftovers, without any cultural significance or moment. Jhabvala’s narrative is correspondingly inconsequential, observing no linear sequence, central action or climax. The novel, as it were, is not told: it takes place. Its intensest effects are those of charm and pathos. In the narrative’s front rank are a trio of characters. Louise is familial: she has husband, children and grandchildren. Regi is a social butterfly: she has gigolos even in her incontinent bedridden old age. Other than her childhood friend Louise, Regi sustains no attachments. Both women have affairs (one long-standing, the other whirlwind, according to their temperaments) with Leo. First encountered as an Adonis in the 1930s, Leo matures into a genial Rasputin in the 1960s. He presides over a sub-Reichian ‘Academy of Potential Development’, where, for hefty fees, clients can learn to be ‘become people’. Jhabvala’s touch is too delicate for satire, but there is a pleasant hilarity in the description of the ritual dances performed by Leo’s students symbolising ‘the harmonious absorption of the Individual into the Universe’. No one, of course, becomes anything in this novel. Nor are the characters absorbed, harmoniously or otherwise, into the fabric of American life. They remain, like their favourite resort, the Old Vienna restaurant, fixed in foreign forms, smart and irrelevant. The novel, after circling aimlessly over thirty years of their aimless lives, concludes with Regi, alone and senile, blowing out the candles on her 84th birthday cake.

As elsewhere, Jhabvala contrives poignant effects out of the post-imperial futility of characters whose elegant élitism has lost any connection with power. But the Austro-German past, and the American present, are only thinly re-created. There seems none of the ‘excitement with place’, for instance, that worked Evelyn Waugh up to his refugee-in-America satire, The Loved One.

Sally Emerson’s The Listeners shapes up as if it is going to be a rather conventional and thoroughly English novel of the kind Malcolm Bradbury describes as chronicling the female orgasm in Hampstead for female readers in Hampstead. The heroine, Jennifer Hamilton (carried over from Emerson’s first novel, Second Sight), is a bright, young and pretty lady of letters. In the enjoyment of what is apparently the most enviable of modern lives, she is unexpectedly deserted by Martin, her Classics-don-at-London-University husband. A ‘black sea of despair’ engulfs Jennifer. She lies awake until three o’clock in the morning in the empty marital home, ‘afraid; afraid of the future, afraid she was going mad, afraid of the wind rattling on the windows’.

One’s first impression is that The Listeners is repellently written – or, to be fairer to the author, written in a deliberately trashy, novelettish mode just this side of burlesque. It offers, without irony, maxims drawn from the heroine’s sufferings that even Barbara Cartland might balk at. ‘Time erodes painful memories but it erodes sweet ones too; little by little everything is taken from us.’ The writer elicits this world-weary profundity from her heroine as she stands ‘wearing only her white knickers’ trailing a listless finger across the window of her bereft bedroom. For consolation, Jennifer takes a lover, which leads into a rather jollier bodice-ripping episode where fingers and knickers are more actively employed:

She had a hand on his leg and his thigh was very strong. It was like metal. His lips touched hers and again an electric shock sent her mind reeling. His tongue was in her mouth, deep in her mouth, searching down into her open mouth ...

The Listeners can be enjoyed as an undemanding romance, but also displays some interesting topicality. Among the consolers the heroine turns to are a sinister spiritualist congregation. Not content with making contact with the other side, they are recruiting for it. A half-hypnotised Jennifer is invited to join (or be put down) by the séance leader, Mrs Maugham: ‘We encourage people to take their deaths into their own hands ... Suicide is a noble end.’ Koestler’s euthanasia, his interest in (and bequest to) parapsychology and his leadership in EXIT make The Listeners a more thought-provoking novel than Emerson could reasonably have expected when she wrote it.

Flying to Nowhere is announced as John Fuller’s ‘first work of adult fiction’. It rather comes at the reader from all directions. The author is best-known as an English poet, the narrative is set in Wales with a strong folkloric element, and its publication is subsidised by the Scottish Arts Council. Nor is Flying to Nowhere easy to categorise. Short (82 uncrammed pages of text), it cannot comfortably be termed novel, novella, fantasy or tale. The publishers settle for ‘fable’.

Whatever its category, or true national source, Flying to Nowhere starts excellently with a teasing mystery. The setting is Medieval. Vane is dispatched by the Bishop to investigate strange reports from an isolated Welsh island monastery. Pilgrims to the nearby well have disappeared. Reports of heretical preaching and pagan ordination rituals have come back to the mainland. The abbot, it emerges, is conducting Faustian experiments on cadavers. For the first half of the work, things happen very satisfactorily. But, true to its title, the narrative finally goes nowhere. The climax (as best I can construe a tantalising last page) is the Icarus-like drowning of the abbot in the bursting waters of the miraculous well, which inundates his study. More effective, I found, than the supercharged indefiniteness of the abbot’s end is the parallel death of Vane’s horse Saviour, at the beginning of the story, which is described with documentary precision. ‘It seemed as if the glistening torso would try to move by itself in a series of wriggles and lunges, dragging with it the bunched and useless withers and fetlocks. One rear leg was flattened at an unusual angle from the knee; the other seemed caught between two rocks.’ The slaughterhouse exactitude of this is most effective. Effective too, if increasingly nauseating, is the subsequent reappearance of Saviour’s carcass in the novel: part is consumed by Vane in an unwitting profanation of the sacrament. And his servant Geoffrey is moved by the desire to understand the ‘radical metamorphosis of death’ to thrust his hand among the heaving maggots which have erupted into life in the horse’s body. The incredible warmth, ‘like that of a freshly baked loaf’, is satisfying. More satisfying, we suppose, than the abbot’s surgically expert investigations into dead tissue. Flying to Nowhere is packed in this way with suggestive imagery and thematic patterns. And it generates a clammy and genuinely nasty atmosphere. It all promises a future for Fuller as a writer of fantasy-horror.

With the simultaneous reissue of four of his works in three volumes, Secker and Warburg supply a generous retrospective sample of Junichiro Tanizaki’s (1886-1965) extraordinarily diverse achievement as a novelist. Some prefer nettles was first published in Japan in 1928, and in England in 1956. Frankly autobiographical, it records the author’s ambivalent attraction both to the Westernised modernism embodied by Tokyo and to the older Japan represented by Osaka (where he moved after the 1923 earthquake that devastated the capital). In the novel, the hero Kaname’s deliberations are complicated by his being a ‘woman-worshipper’. As such, he is drawn to things contemporary and American: ‘For all its vulgarity Hollywood was forever dancing attendance on women and seeking out new ways to display their beauty.’ Traditional Japanese art (here typified by the Osaka puppet theatre) presents idealised abstractions of femininity. Kaname is committed to a civilised separation from his wife. But whether the future lies with his Eurasian mistress, or a traditional doll-like wife of the kind his father-in-law has taken, is left unclear at the end of the novel. As the translator, Edward Seidensticker points out in an instructive preface, Tanizaki always made a narrative virtue of vagueness, observing that ‘we Japanese scorn the bald fact.’

The Makioka Sisters (1949) is longer and even more oblique. Osaka, the merchants’ capital, again features centrally. The work is set in the Thirties, and extends to the eve of the Second World War. The four sisters of the title belong to a class whose social supremacy has come to an end. They are unaware of the fact. For the Makioka family, life is preoccupied with rituals, natural disasters, and, above all, with arranging marriage. The consuming business of the decade (which historically marks the end of their era) is contriving to find a suitable match for the difficult sister, Yukiko. On 29 April 1941, the great affair is finally settled. The last paragraphs of the work are sublimely complacent and trivial, in the light of the national horror to come: ‘Thus the future was settled ... Yukiko’s diarrhoea persisted throughout the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.’ The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot are offered in English for the first time. Like Some prefer nettles, they are early works. The first is a macabre psychological study of the psychopathology of a samurai hero, obsessed with decapitation and the slitting of noses. This sadistic taste (which is also the source of the warrior’s potency) is traced back to a primal scene when, as a youth, he saw women dressing the heads of enemies killed in battle. Arrowroot, the least accessible of the works offered in this set, is an ‘essay-novel’, a form which seems less tractable to the translator.