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.

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