Holy Roman Empire

Rosemary Dinnage

  • Cold Heaven by Brian Moore
    Cape, 271 pp, £7.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 224 02099 4
  • Time After Time by Molly Keane
    Deutsch, 247 pp, £7.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 233 97587 X
  • Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
    Weidenfeld, 673 pp, £8.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 297 78329 7
  • August by Judith Rossner
    Cape, 376 pp, £8.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 224 02172 9
  • Kiss of Life by Keith Colquhoun
    Murray, 159 pp, £8.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 7195 4082 8

If Greeneland is the most famous sex ’n religion territory, its next-door neighbour must surely be Mooreland. Brian Moore has staked out a very specific American-Irish, Catholic subject-matter and has rightly earned high praise. Unlike Greene, he usually makes his central, guilt-ridden character a woman, and he is more inclined than Greene to take off into the fantastic or supernatural. The idea behind Cold Heaven is neat and unsentimental. Suppose an authentic, impeccable vision of the Virgin were to appear to someone who clung to the ordinary, who dreaded piety, and was only reluctantly a Catholic. Instant conversion? Or rage and rebellion?

Marie, American and convent-bred, is haunted by something more than the usual sense of sin and sexual guilt. On a working holiday in France with a husband whom she finds self-absorbed and unsympathetic, she is planning to break the news to him at any moment that she is leaving him for her lover in California. But Alex, as the book opens, runs straight into a disastrous accident: a motorboat rams him head-on while he is swimming. The ambulance drive, the French hospital, the comings and goings of doctors, the half-understood pronouncements, establish the book’s mood of dreamlike, strangulated tension. Then a verdict is given. Alex is dead; there was nothing that could have been done.

All this, Marie knows, is her fault. ‘They’ arranged for it to happen. Who they are we don’t know: but they showed her something, they gave her instructions. She disobeyed the instructions, and Alex has been punished for it. Certified well and truly dead, his body is taken down to the morgue. And the next day the body has gone. The morgue was locked: no one could have got in – though of course the door could have been released from inside. In their hotel room, Marie detects signs that someone has been there and finds some of Alex’s things moved. She discovers that he is listed for a flight to New York, packs up, follows on the next plane. Again, their New York apartment shows signs of occupation: again, he has checked out, this time on a flight for California. Desperately Marie keeps following.

In Carmel, California, not a mile from the convent of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate, where the statue of Our Lady of Monterey is kept in a glass case, Marie finally catches up with Alex. Zomboid, glassy-eyed and brutally scarred, he is curiously silent about what has been happening to him. Yes, he came round in the morgue, knew that a mistake must have been made and let himself out. It must be kept quiet: she must stop asking him questions.

From here on Alex veers horridly between deathlike trances and apparent recoveries as Marie – the good Catholic name being another small irony about a modern woman who only wants to be a happy adulteress – resists or follows what she believes to be her instructions. Tension is strung out tight, and tightened yet again. Carmel is where she first stayed with her lover, and also where ‘they’ sought her out. What can the nuns at the Carmel convent do for her? What is really happening to Alex?

With great skill Brian Moore avoids coming down for either a commonsense or a religious backing for his story. He is not explicitly on the side of heaven’s ambitions, nor of Marie’s, which are of escape to sexual happiness: so till the last possible minute we are kept uncertain about what will happen and what it means. It is indeed a very cold heaven that Moore depicts, ruthlessly intent on holy empire-building and not above stooping to blackmail in the process. Cold Heaven is a wonderfully chill story of being on the run from heavenly gangsters, and not without a touch of black Catholic humour. As for the vision and final conversion – surprise ending.

Irishness hovers in the backgrounds of Moore’s American Catholics; Molly Keane’s characters are the Protestant Anglo-Irish, inhabiting a decaying estate where Mummie’s room, smelling of violets and kept reverently swept and dusted, still houses the hunting boots and feather boas and silver-backed brushes of long ago. Mummie’s four elderly children, kept together by financial strings and their memories of her, live there in cordial mutual hatred: deaf April, mutilated May, retarded June, and brother Jasper, whose ruling passions are cooking (in a filthy kitchen) and spiting his sisters. It is the same world as that of Molly Keane’s last novel Good Behaviour (a brilliant come-back after 26 years’ silence), a world of festering family secrets, hidden pain and tiny savageries, constructed from beautifully nuanced English and Irish dialogue: but Time After Time is more complex and grotesque than Good Behaviour. Molly Keane is, however, blessedly given to neatly happy endings, at least for those who deserve them; her black comedy would otherwise be almost unbearable. A long-lost foreign cousin, once an irresistibly pretty disturber of masculine peace in the family, turns up on the doorstep, blind, and with a story of wartime suffering in the concentration camp. She is a welcome distraction from inbred feuding, and April, May, June and Jasper fall over themselves to please her and make friends with the bloated old creature. Blind Leda and deaf April, who keeps little drinkies in her room, get on especially well together:

‘I had blue accordion pleats for the dancing class ... Bronze sandals, elastic straps ... ’

‘Thank God my feet were too big for your old sandals, she’ld have had me in them too ... ’

‘Even in children’s clothes Mummie had such marvellous taste ... ’

‘Say that again and I’ll hit you.’

‘My first ball dress – can you see it? Do remember: yards and yards of white tulle, tiny bands of satin and a simple string of pearls.’

‘That was the night she said I couldn’t embarrass her in my German fancy dress.’

We realise that Leda is a very sinister lady, that she is out to avenge indignities suffered at the family’s hands in youth, and that she still imagines she must be beautiful. She very definitely is not, and her attempt to seduce cousin Jasper is a humiliating fiasco. She has her revenge, and the family lies in ruins about her. But Molly Keane sets going a satisfying train of felicitous coincidences; the people we feel for are given nice prizes, while cousin Leda entangles herself in an inexorable life sentence to boredom.

Back to New York for Winter’s Tale and August, but the cities they celebrate are as different as if there were an Atlantic between them. How to do justice to Winter’s Tale? For a start, it is so long – nearly seven hundred pages – that it inevitably instils just a shade of resentment in the reviewer. There are books which one wishes would go on for ever, and one can imagine that for some people Winter’s Tale might be one of them. But here fantastic and magical events crowd after one another so fast that in all honesty it is hard to remember half-way just how the story started, since characters who were dead reappear, and a century can pass in a single flash. But if you can stay the course and keep track, the long strange winding tale is seen to be structured, and all the threads eventually tied into the pattern.

Perhaps this is indeed the real, magical thing and is going to last: at first reading one is amazed, amused, bemused. It is about a horse that flies, a baby found floating at sea by a tribe of primitives, a consumptive rich girl who lives on a rooftop, a flight over a frozen waterfall, a mystic golden salver, heroic journeys, a fight between good and evil forces. It is about winter and is saturated with imagery of icy brilliance. Above all, it is about New York as a city, a complex and beautiful mechanism that seems ruthless but has a justice of its own. And it is about the nature of time, which also seems cruel but restores everything it steals. ‘Time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given – so we track it, in linear fashion, piece by piece ... In the end, or, rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.’

Judith Rossner’s New York is a deadly prosaic place in comparison. Psychoanalysis, the cure of souls, that should surely be about time, and good and evil, and dreams of flying white horses: but Rossner’s account of a girl’s analysis, told in consulting-room dialogue of flat banality, makes one realise how boring the average person’s distresses can be and almost convinces one that the shrinks’ high fees are well earned. Not that Dawn is exactly the average person: orphaned by suicide and accident in infancy, she has been brought up by a kindly lesbian couple, and since their ‘divorce’ the girl has understandably been a bit of a mess. Judith Rossner runs parallel stories of the psychoanalyst’s own life and her patient’s – in particular, the relationships with her own hostile daughter and with her daughter-in-analysis, who worships her as a saviour. Something of the interweaving of an analyst’s real life with what goes on in the consulting-room is suggested. Needless to say – would it make much of a novel otherwise? – Dawn’s treatment is slowly but strikingly successful.

After a while the reader does experience a certain almost reluctant involvement in the progress of the therapy. Rossner has attempted to show how adult problems can go back to very early events in life indeed: Dawn has experienced a dramatic trauma when she was no more than a baby, and this is gradually brought back to memory. Unlike some of the more fantasy-laden accounts of psychoanalysis and psychoanalysts that appear in novels, this one is pretty carefully related to reality. But as a voyage into the interior it is more plodding and prosy than it should be and not a patch on a really good professional case-history. It won’t persuade many people to put down their money for the trip.

There are other ways to self-realisation if we are to believe Keith Colquhoun, and – best news of all – none of us need fear we are too far over the hill to find them. At the centre of his third novel, Kiss of Life, is ex-headmistress Miss Macgregor, experiencing the death-in-life of retirement in a seaside hotel. The horrors of extreme loneliness – the hoarding up of crumbs of conversation, the eking out of tiny tasks and routines – are unblinkingly noted. The terrain is no less terrible for having been fictionally surveyed a good many times before. But this is not a heartbreaking social tract on the way we neglect our senior citizens (although it has an incidental message to that effect which is more pointed than many worthy pieces of reporting). To her own and everyone else’s surprise, Miss Macgregor becomes the target of ardent, respectful attentions from a new waiter at the hotel. A flower is placed by her plate, she is engaged in unexpected conversations, she is taken to meet some rather unconventional friends. From being treated as though she were a real, live person of interest – from the stimulus of this kiss of life – a whole forgotten personality returns to her. We find that she was once a witty, crisp, sexually liberated and commanding lady, and that she can become so again.

Julius the waiter’s attentions to the old lady are not without ulterior motives – not sexual ones, either – but this doesn’t faze Miss Macgregor at all. We leave her discussing sexual consummation in old age with her doctor, and assuming leadership of the small gang of odd-balls which is Julius and his friends. ‘How good it felt and how just it was that she should be able to exercise her talents again.’ We should all be so lucky in the seventh decade. The novel is professional, polished and nicely put together.