Carry on writing

Stephen Bann

  • The Two of Us by John Braine
    Methuen, 183 pp, £7.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 413 51280 0
  • An Open Prison by J.I.M. Stewart
    Gollancz, 192 pp, £7.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 575 03380 0
  • Havannah by Hugh Thomas
    Hamish Hamilton, 263 pp, £9.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 241 11175 7
  • Sunrising by David Cook
    Secker, 248 pp, £8.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 436 10674 4
  • Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori, translated by Joachim Neugroschel
    Picador, 282 pp, £7.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 330 28325 1
  • It’s me, Eddie by Edward Limonov, translated by S.L. Campbell
    Picador, 264 pp, £7.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 330 28329 4
  • The Anatomy Lesson by Philip Roth
    Cape, 291 pp, £8.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 224 02960 6

‘Putting on again joyously the hateful harness’. That is how Robert Pinget’s diffident and slightly dotty narrator, Monsieur Songe, describes the process of taking up his pen yet again, and adding one more to an already considerable cavalcade of novels.[*] Then he crosses out the word ‘hateful’. And then he crosses out the word ‘harness’. Over on this side of the Channel, the native-born author John Braine chooses for his epigraph a snatch of neo-Romantic whimsy from the lyrics of the group Supertramp:

Just as long as there’s two of us, just as long as there’s two of us
I’ll carry on.

Mutatis mutandis, here is the same, rather deprecatory authorial persona, apologising for the length of his list of previous publications like an enormous but docile hound which tries to hide behind a chair. But at least, in John Braine’s case, we have the assurance that there will be a dialogue, rather than the maundering monologue of Monsieur Songe. The Two of Us, as the novel is called in an act of homage to Supertramp, sets its tone effectively before we start to read with an evocative jacket illustration. Pink clouds portending passion and doom mass over a pleasantly green West Riding landscape, while a man and a woman, with their backs turned, contemplate the view over a workmanlike stretch of dry-stonewalling.

It seems fair enough to take the dry-stonewalling as a complimentary metaphor for John Braine’s craft. The Two of Us is one more hefty, rough-hewn block of a novel added to the existing structure; it balances strategically on its immediate predecessor, Stay with me till morning. Here, once again, is the industrial Yorkshire of the late Sixties, where Fine Worsteds can still hold up their head, though they had better watch out for the incipient sniping of predatory American multinationals. Braine knows this vanished world, but he is also sufficiently identified with it for us not to feel that the point of view is ironic or superior. There is even a kind of charm which emanates from the gaucheness of the reportage. Bookstore proprietor Norman evidently thinks that the mythical antagonist of Hercules who couldn’t keep his feet on the ground was called ‘Antoneus’ – or is he perhaps cunningly conflating Antaeus with Antinous, since his thoughts seem to run in that direction? Norman’s own Antinous happens to be Gary, the proprietor of a gift shop whose stock-in-trade must be renewed to satisfy the demands of a new and fickle generation. When he decides to seek a financial injection from a designing woman acquaintance, we observe the preliminaries filtered through Gary’s innocent eyes: ‘Gary and Miriam Cothill and her accountant Cyril were at that moment having coffee and liqueurs at the Benissimo, a new Italian restaurant in a bow-fronted Victorian building off Parliament Street in Harrogate. Gary had enjoyed his fried whitebait and Scalappa [sic] Marsala and had asked for a bottle of Pellegrino so that it was absolutely apparent that he was taking it easy with the wine. Now he and Miriam Cothill were sipping Strega, Cyril was sipping Scotch.’

There it is – the scene itemised as methodically as if it were listed on the menu. No wonder Gary confesses a few lines later that ‘he didn’t suffer from what Norman called the Wuthering Heights syndrome.’ But where the dry-stonewalling method becomes a little obstreperous is in the phrase ‘at the moment’. John Braine reiterates to the point of overinsistence what I am tempted to call the ‘Dallas cut’, since it appears so obviously to derive from the technical requirements of television soap-opera. ‘At the moment that Donald was phoning Bruce, Norman was sitting in Desmond’s Club in Charlbury and his friend Monty had just joined them.’ ‘Robin, at that moment in the cottage near Skipton, was eating dinner with Stephen.’ Surely the art of narration ought to be a little less blatant than this? Since the novelist can hardly simulate the essentially voyeuristic pleasure of the Dallas cut – when we observe with our own eyes the switch from the legitimate domicile to the adulterous couch – he had better not try to compete: he can, after all, employ more diverse and subtle forms of narrative articulation.

Certainly this is what occurs whenever J.I.M. Stewart joyously resumes the hateful harness. Indeed, I doubt whether there are many novelists now writing in English who are his superior in sheer narrative strategy. John Braine’s The Two of Us chugs along episodically until it ends, provisionally, with the possible suicide of a minor character (Norman again – somehow his tarnished history seems more winsome than the eternally recommenced affairs of the J.R. and Sue Ellen of the West Riding). J.I.M. Stewart’s An Open Prison is splendidly paced, and ends absolutely without remainder. This is not dry-stonewalling, but the most skilled dressing of an elaborate façade, which leaves no sign of any nook or cranny, let alone the evidence of mortaring. But I am not going so far as to suggest that An Open Prison is pure dexterity and performance. I was surprised but delighted to find that J.I.M. Stewart’s last novel, A Villa in France, was a good deal more than the rather off-beat comedy of manners which it initially promised to be. An Open Prison reads at first like a latecomer to the minor genre of the public-school story, with references both to Greyfriars and to Stalky which show the self-consciousness of the enterprise. But, just as the cleverness of A Villa in France involved the central female character in overcoming the plot which had been laid for her, so An Open Prison turns the instruments of the narrator, a wise old housemaster, against himself. To the extent that we, as readers, have shared his worldly-wise, slightly prurient view, we also get our comeuppance.

J.I.M. Stewart recently reviewed Kipling’s Letters to his Children in these columns. The review dwelt upon the obtrusiveness of Kipling’s letters to his son John, and pointed revealingly to John’s periods of silence when the over-anxious moralist placed too great a burden of obligation upon the schoolboy’s shoulders. An Open Prison is largely about the way in which such projections of guilt can turn out to be misplaced. Or rather, it is about the way in which the reader can be enlisted in the game of speculating upon a schoolboy escapade, only to share with his friendly narrator the indignity of being disabused. The schoolboy in the novel, Robin Hayes, makes a very poor impression on us at first, and we are willing to believe the worst of his disappearance, in the company of a younger boy. But the dénouement (of which I hesitate to reveal more than a fragment) reverses our shabby expectations. By this stage, the narrator himself has been captured; he begins to communicate with his fellow prisoners:

  ‘Robin, it’s me: Robert Syson. They’ve caught me too.’

  ‘Whyever ... ?’ The single word revealed Robin Hayes as strained, exhausted, but in command of himself as the unfortunate younger boy was not.

  ‘They’ve taken me for a snooping policeman. I was prowling around Uptoncester some days ago – and again today. If it still is today.’ I paused to collect myself. ‘Robin, we’re not gagged. Is it no good shouting?’

  ‘I’m cold.’

  ‘Definitely not. I’ve tried ... ’

Of course, traditional narrators are snooping policemen, and the ‘command’ which the slighted schoolboy achieves over himself is also a command over the subsequent termination of the adventure. But J. I. M. Stewart’s real cunning is to be found in that italicised ‘I’m cold,’ spoken by ‘the unfortunate younger boy’. As Roland Barthes wittily declared, the objet d’amour has no discourse. It is a precondition of the ending without remainder which attests J. I. M. Stewart’s craftsmanship, that the equivocal motive for the escapade, the fictional lure that has been dangled before us, should vanish into thin air.

An Open Prison is, as much as anything else, a book about the peculiar kind of voluntary imprisonment which we submit to as readers of a novel. It could only have been written by an author who had tested his resources many times before. Hugh Thomas’s Havannah is a very different kind of achievement. Here is an accomplished writer actually changing harness, and exchanging the sober caparison of the historian for the showier trappings of the historical novelist. In his capacity as Lord Thomas of the Centre for Policy Studies, he has indeed made public his desire for a new, self-confident mode of national historiography, and the question arises inevitably: is this an earnest of his intentions? The first chapter, entitled ‘The City of Opportunity’, makes an ominous overture. Liverpool is being presented to us at the very height of its 18th-century prosperity, in a period when Toxteth no longer means the ‘old deer park’ of the Normans, and has not yet become the awesome symbol of ‘inner-city’ deprivation. In fact, Toxteth is something sublime – an enclosure of farms whose inhabitants have by their Puritan zeal won for it the appellation of ‘The Holy Land’. It is from the bosom of this righteous congregation that the young hero sets out to win fame and fortune, through the immemorial English practice of tweaking the King of Spain’s beard – or, in this particular case, stealing a more vital part of his anatomy, the port of the Havannah, which is the key to the Spanish possessions in the New World.

It would, however, be uncharitable to insist that this is a historical novel with a simplistic message. Hugh Thomas knows a great deal about the history of the period, and his many contributions to the English knowledge of Spain, in the Old World and the New World, need no underlining. What he has written is, perhaps, still identifiable as a historian’s historical novel. There are many small bonuses for those who know something of the period, like the fleeting appearance of Madame Tascher de la Pagerie whose daughter is destined to marry Napoleon, or the introduction of the Lloyds’ broker J.J. Angerstein, in whom some will recognise the collector of the original nucleus of the National Gallery. (These rarely reach the esoteric level of ‘Brigadier William Draper, the only senior British soldier to have been a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge’.) As far as the local colouring of the period is concerned, Hugh Thomas does perhaps on occasions fall into the fault of that other protagonist of self-confident national historiography, Lord Macaulay, in his scrupulous concern for hard figures (‘The transports, which would carry over 4,000 men, were to total over 8,000 tons.’) But, in general, he carries us with him, buoyed up by the sheer interest of the historical material, for which his supple and economical narrative style is more than adequate.

I am still tempted to look for a message. Certainly the novel does not work exclusively as an adventure story, as the young hero’s brief sortie behind enemy lines lends only a momentary suspense to the working-out of the plot. Perhaps we get closest to Thomas’s purpose when we meditate, with the hero, on the similarity between the ‘great expeditions’ of this period of English history, and the Syracusan expedition dispatched by the Athenians and recorded by Thucydides. ‘Surely God, remembered by me after such neglect, had sent his plague on the expedition in order to punish its leaders for their pride. Surely England deserved to die because of her awful hubris.’ There is indeed a hubristic side of national self-assertion, and Hugh Thomas is too good a historian to exclude that particular thread from the multicoloured skein of English achievement.

Sunrising, by David Cook, is also a first historical novel, though its author has received justifiable praise for earlier writings like the dramatically successful Walter. You could say that it was written from a very different point in the political spectrum from Havannah. Where Hugh Thomas’s book-jacket is charmingly illustrated by the needle-sharp painting of the Siege of Havannah by Dominic Serres, David Cook’s novel features an impressionistic Summer Morning by Constable. As we have been taught in recent years, these Arcadian prospects of the English landscape can be interpreted as masks for rural discontent. And David Cook rapidly plunges us into the thick of it, taking as his heroine a young woman who is involuntarily caught up in the rick-burning and riots of 1830. He has not had to do all his historical research on his own, as the History Workshop pamphlet on the enclosures at Otmoor, in Oxfordshire, appears to have come in useful. But the records of the period have certainly not supplied him with his richly suggestive and often very moving descriptive style, which is perhaps less like Constable than the Pre-Raphaelites in its loving enumeration of details:

Cath crossed the small front garden, in which cornflowers, michaelmas daisies and golden-rod had been overgrown by bindweed and pennyroyal. The door of the cottage was open, and she could just make out the profile of an old man, sitting motionless by an empty fireplace and staring at a bare wall. The earthen floor of the one-roomed cottage had been strewn with straw. Lying on this in one corner, with her skirt rolled up and her legs wide apart, was the woman who had screamed. An older woman knelt by her, wiping the sweat from her forehead with a bloodstained cloth.

There can be no doubt at all of David Cook’s skill in managing passages like this one. Again and again, he brings the reader so close to an imagined scene that one’s nose seems almost to be grazing against it. Also, he is capable of extending his range from the individual, pictured scene to the dynamic sequence of related events. Cath’s experience of the riots at Otmoor, and her subsequent exploration of the phantasmagoria of St Giles’s Fair at Oxford, are both splendidly realised. What is perhaps less effective is the design of the novel as a whole, which is split rather uncomfortably between the scenes of rural disorder and the descent into the maelstrom of London life, which Cath undertakes in the company of two admirable young friends, James and Boy William. Cast adrift in the capital, these three innocents move from milieu to milieu as rapidly as one of Dickens’s protagonists. To call both them and the types they run up against ‘Dickensian’ is indeed to acknowledge David Cook’s remarkable gift for characterisation.

It is no disparagement of Havannah and Sunrising to say that they are both thoroughly researched. The rich historical context of 18th and 19th-century England has yielded up, for the one, a success story and, for the other, a saga of victimisation. Gregor von Rezzori, however, does not have to collate the documents, and mould the brute matter of circumstances to suit his theme. Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, his ‘novel in five stories’, springs from the most vivid and concrete historical experience: its narrator is both hero and victim of the enthrallingly turbulent history of Central Europe in the 20th century. To say this is not to fall into a naively direct identification between the Gregor von Rezzori who figures as author, and the mythomaniac narrator who constructs his own personal history out of the fragmentary saga. However confidential the tone of these ‘memoirs’, the brilliance of their overall design and construction presupposes a very high degree of artifice. Yet the fact remains that the personal history is grafted on a pre-existent narrative. Scion of a ‘most complicated family’, the author began his life, so to speak, spreadeagled across the map of Europe. Cataclysmic events like the First World War intensify, but do not radically alter this existential predicament:

In the oppressively hopeless dove-blue of the twilights, as in the dramatics of blood-red and sulphur-yellow sunsets, I experienced the shock that the war had brought to my parents’ lives. Under such skies, the flag of our allegiance had sunk in the tumult of battle and amid the croaking of ravens over the field of warriors. It was the golden flag with the black, two-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire which had been carried on by Imperial Austria. And anyone who had not died in the battle around the flag had betrayed his troth and was now living on without character.

Describing the achievement of Stendhal in passing from the purely anecdotal form of his Italian reminiscences to the ‘mythic’ achievement of La Chartreuse de Parme, Roland Barthes comments that to make a myth ‘there must be the action of two forces.’ Gregor von Rezzori (the author and the narrator) inherits ‘the myth of the Holy Roman Empire of the Caesars, which had split apart’: Austria and Russia continue, in the 20th century, the rites of mutual dismemberment which Rome and Byzantium began. Even the name ‘Gregor von Rezzori’ betrays the cultural heterogeneity which makes its proprietor a privileged actor on this historical scene: ‘Gregor’, ‘the Christian name of some half-Greek, half-Russian ancestor originating in Bessarabia’ which has been substituted for the chivalric and Teutonic name ‘Arnulf’; ‘von Rezzori’ yoking together the sign of acquired Austrian nobility with the surviving trace of a knightly Sicilian origin. And besides the magic of personal names, there is the magic of place-names to anchor the narrative in the turbulent historical flux. The Bukovina in the Carpathians is the territory which Gregor’s father chooses for his home, despite a nostalgic attachment to Styria. Look up the Bukovina in a historical atlas, and you will find the remotest eastward tip of the Austrian Empire, jutting out above the mass of Transylvania. Move on a few years, and you will find (as for the major part of these Memoirs) the Bukovina as the northernmost tip of an independent, monarchical Rumania. Come right up to date, and the Bukovina has been merged with the Ukraine.

It follows that the ‘anti-semitism’ which is egregiously asserted in the title is simply the extreme case of the narrator’s engagement and struggle with heterogeneity. For him, to sleep with a Jewish woman is to violate a taboo which is similar in character to the prohibition on incest: ‘Committing a sin, like sleeping with one’s mother’. There is certainly no space here to follow up the fascinating ramifications of the family romance which Gregor von Rezzori has constructed for us upon the debris of European history. But in essence it would appear to be the product of two complementary drives: that which relates to the incest taboo, and that which relates to the Name of the Father as an undivided authority which suppresses the heterogeneous. On the one hand, there is the Jewish woman; on the other, the Emperor Charlemagne, patron of the ‘idea of Holy Empire’ (‘A bronze replica of a mounted statue of him stood on my father’s desk ...’). Yet a surprise has been prepared for us in the last chapter, when Rezzori unexpectedly shuffles the pack and shows us that contraries are one. It is ‘those stupid wretched Jews’ who are ‘always seeking the truth, the absolute, the Eternal Holy Empire’. And it is an aged Russian countess who utters with her last breath the saving word of truth (and troth): pravda.

Designed in a similar format to Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and produced by the same publisher, Edward Limonov’s It’s me, Eddie provokes an immediate comparison. For Gregor von Rezzori, exile is primordial; culture slips inevitably away from a mythic original unity, and history deepens the irony of cultural division. For Edward Limonov, whose ‘fictional memoir’ poses less subtle issues of identity and authorship, exile is crude and actual. A Soviet dissident, whose life is ‘already legend’ in Russia, chooses to start afresh in New York. Carrying over from his previous situation a habit of systematic defiance, he exhibits himself to the anonymous inhabitants of the Great City:

I’m not inhibited. I am often to be found bareassed in my shallow little room, my member pale against the background of the rest of my body, and I do not give a damn whether they see me or don’t, the clerks, secretaries and managers. I’d rather they did see me. They’re probably used to me by now, and perhaps they miss me on days when I don’t crawl out on my balcony. I suppose they call me ‘that crazy across the way’.

And there you have it, in the first few pages. It’s me, Eddie has all the charm of exhibitionism, and all the surprise of the realisation that big cities are the same the world over, despite what the politicians say. Delve a little deeper, and you may get a bit more out of the book. Eddie does really care about the anonymous audience that may or may not watch him pirouetting on his balcony, and he has winning ways if you will only agree to bear with him. Then there is his translator, a less prominent figure who must have worked overtime to achieve a quite remarkable spontaneity of idiom for a work which was, after all, originally written in Russian. When you start to ponder the language, there even emerges the possibility that the whole game is to express a kind of subversive solidarity with the tradition of confessional literature which began with Henry Miller. Edward Limonov is now living in Paris. Perhaps his next work will be a Nouveau Roman.

It would be easy to think of this review simply as a prolegomenon to Philip Roth’s new novel, The Anatomy Lesson. This is about history, and Jewishness, and New York. But first and foremost, it is about putting on again (joyously?) the hateful harness. In fact, the hateful harness materialises for us in the surgical collar which Nathan Zuckerman has to wear to assuage his innumerable physical ills. A successful novelist, haunted (like his creator, no doubt) by the prodigious success of an early work, Nathan is also plagued by the guilt of having sacrificed his homely, innocent family to the Moloch of best-selling riches and reputation. This is the third and last volume of the trilogy in which he expiates the act of having published Carnovsky (for which read Portnoy’s Complaint). And if Philip Roth has been concerned to allegorise the near-impossibility of following one book with another and still remaining human, then he has certainly succeeded in this devastating catalogue of physical ailments for which no treatment can be found. Laid horizontal on his playbed, Nathan is becoming as much a monster as Kafka’s metamorphosed bug. The difference, of course, is that he is the person to think up the Kafka reference.

Yet one must tread with extreme care among the ironic levels of Roth’s creation. Certainly this is a book about history and Jewishness, aptly juxtaposed in Nathan’s bewildered but nostalgic sense of estrangement from the older generation: ‘They belong to another history, those old Jewish people,’ he concludes, ‘a history that is not ours, a way of being and loving that is not ours ...’ Certainly it is also a book about New York. The four women who minister with unstinting devotion to the recumbent celebrity form a richly comic troupe that could not possibly be transplanted anywhere else in the world. But it is finally also a book about where to put that word ‘joyously’ in the reassumption of the hateful harness. Roth slips it in when he brings out the pure exuberance of fictional creation, acting out under the name of the critic Milton Appel the absurd and delightful role of the publisher of the pornographic magazine Lickety Split. We have already made the acquaintance of the suffering creator, and his painful guilt has set up the alternative persona of Appel himself, the censorious critic and responsible Jewish intellectual who condemns Nathan as ‘no friend of the Jews’. Lickety Split’s publisher is a third possibility: character as a kind of irrepressible aria of the narrative voice.

[*] Le Harnais by Robert Pinget. Editions de Minuit, 58 pp., 24frs, January, 2 7073 0675 4.