Saboteurs

Sylvia Clayton

  • Something Out There by Nadine Gordimer
    Cape, 203 pp, £8.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 224 02189 3
  • My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket
    Robin Clark, 247 pp, £8.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 86072 071 3
  • West of Sunset by Dirk Bogarde
    Allen Lane, 248 pp, £8.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1632 X

Nadine Gordimer continues to send sane, humane reports from the edge of darkness. In her finest stories she fixes authoritatively the experience of her South African characters, who exist in the shadow of a gun. They are menaced by repressive laws, unpredictable violence and a cruel historical process; their small domestic treacheries can carry a fatal undertow of danger. In this latest collection her tone remains cool, diagnostic, her brilliant camera eye unfazed. Even in a few pages she produces not a tentative sketch but a finished drawing. She places her figures exactly in the landscape, and the contrast between their precarious lives and her own controlled poise yields a high imaginative tension.

The education of a middle-aged, liberal-minded divorcee, Pat Haberman, becomes, in her beautifully constructed story, ‘A Correspondence Course’, a taut, ironic drama. Pat has rejected her husband’s ‘money-grubbing, country-club life’ for independence with her daughter Harriet, now a graduate student. ‘Harriet has been brought up to realise that her life of choices and decent comfort is not shared by the people in whose blackness it is embedded ... And since she has been adult she has had her place – even if silent – in the ritualistic discussion of what can be done about this by people who have no aptitude for politics but who won’t live like Haberman.’ An English journalist serving nine years in a maximum-security jail in Pretoria for political offences responds to an article by Harriet in an academic magazine. A regular, censored, monthly correspondence begins. Pat supports her daughter. She is proud of their shared compassionate attitude; she talks about the letters at parties; she is gleefully excited when he makes his escape with five years left to serve. But when she finds a bundle of clothes that Harriet has left out for the escaped prisoner, and when the man actually appears on the doorstep, she is overcome by terror.

The pressures of living in South Africa are revealed within this close mother-daughter relationship; the rhythm of the story unfolds them with increasing clarity. A mother’s protective regard for her child is central to another brief, intense story of conflicting loyalties, ‘A City of the Dead, a City of the Living’. Here everything happens inside the overcrowded little house of Moreke, a jobbing gardener. A stranger, a man with a gun, comes to lodge with Moreke, his wife and baby. Moreke feels in duty bound to give him shelter. For a week the wife watches him as she does her crochet. ‘The tiny flash of her steel hook and the hair-thin gold in his ear signalled in candlelight.’ Eventually, acting entirely on her own, the wife betrays him, one of her own people, to the police. The woman who keeps the shebeen spits in her face. The story leaves behind a faint doubt about the author’s timing, especially about the moment she chooses to stop. Since the scene has been set and the tensions have been built up with such skill, it comes as a let-down to find no explanation of the mother’s decision to turn informer and no hint as to her husband’s reaction.

The stories seldom convey the sense of biting pain that charges Athol Fugard’s plays about South Africa. Some vital information or necessary energy is missing. A novella, ‘Something Out There’, offers a panoramic view of Johannesburg, where an ape-like animal is at large in the suburbs. Young Stanley snaps it with his camera, a barmitzvah present. The picture is printed in a newspaper; an elderly estate agent’s wife welcomes the headlines as a distraction from worse horrors. Doctors at the golf club are convinced it is a baboon. It startles a couple who are having an illicit affair; it steals food from a policeman’s kitchen. Meanwhile, in a run-down rented house four people, a white couple and two blacks, are planning to blow up a power station. The interlocking lives of the saboteurs as they wait, disguised as an unremarkable suburban household – two young married whites and two black servants – are watched by the author so intently that the peripheral business of an ape at large seems unnecessary packaging. She describes magisterially their movements, their irritations with each other within a conspiratorial intimacy, yet she contrives to keep a distance from their inner struggles. The young woman has decided that she will stay with her partner, even though their six-year relationship is over, because the mission has long been planned and is important. How she arrives at this decision and what cause she is supporting are not explained. All four are in deadly danger; their purpose is destruction: urbanity seems the wrong mode in which to write of their crisis.

This is a book in which Nadine Gordimer steps outside the South African territory she has made her own; her most adventurous excursion is into the past. ‘Letter from his Father’ (which was published in LRB, Vol. 5, No 19) is supposed to be written in self-defence by Hermann Kafka to his son, Franz. It is easy to feel that the relatives of a genius sometimes get a raw deal. There were friends of D.H. Lawrence’s family who objected strongly to the portrait of his father in Sons and Lovers: they denied that he was a coarse, unfeeling husband, unworthy of his wife’s long-suffering refinement. Friends of Kafka père agreed that he had much to put up with from his difficult son. It is one thing to question a character study from direct personal knowledge, quite another to impersonate the subject and pretend to be answering false accusations. Kafka wrote a letter to his father, which he never sent, perhaps never intended to, and which was published only in 1954 in a volume consisting mainly of posthumous fragments. Ms Gordimer’s letter purports to be written from heaven, where Hermann, though not Franz, Kafka is to be found. Its style is stage-Jewish and the effect of its bluff reproaches is embarrassing. She is a wonderfully clear-sighted writer, innately courteous, like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala or E.M. Forster, to the creatures of her imagination. It is foolhardy of her, though, to take on Kafka, whose work remains a set text for any examination on the 20th century.

Both Robert Plunket and Dirk Bogarde tell tall tales from Los Angeles, where, as Mr Bogarde says in his foreword, anything can happen and anything and everything does. My Search for Warren Harding, Mr Plunket’s first novel, is described on the jacket as ‘The Aspern Papers somehow performed by the Brothers Marx’. The bones of the plot do come from the same Henry James novella currently on view as a play at the Haymarket Theatre, but the comedy is not anarchic in the style of Groucho and Harpo – it is precise and well-ordered. A highly moral story is told rather in the manner of Hawkeye Pearce, before television sentimentalised him out of recognition. From the moment Elliot Weiner, the narrator, admits he would do anything to lay his hands on the papers he wants for his research, he is doomed. ‘ “Lie? Listen, I’d rape and pillage to get my hands on those papers.” “Jesus,” she said, and for a moment I thought she had taken me seriously.’

Elliot is one of only two existing experts on the career of Warren Gamaliel Harding, the American President who died in office in 1923 and thus escaped the consequences of the Teapot Dome scandal. His much younger mistress, Nan Britton, published a muck-raking book about their affair four years later. In this novel, Nan Britton is transformed into Mrs Rebekah Kinney, a crabby octogenarian in a wheelchair, living with her granddaughter in Los Angeles. Elliot, like James’s Henry Jarvis, covets above all else the confidential papers and diaries that old Mrs Kinney keeps locked in a huge cabin trunk in a bedroom of her ramshackle Hollywood Spanish villa. He soon realises that, like Miss Bordereau, she is not going to disgorge willingly so much as a laundry-bill. His only chance is to work on the granddaughter, Jonica, who in this version fills the role of the spinster niece, Miss Tina. Henry James, writing in 1888, and always aware of the different chances in life offered to unattractive and to pretty women, made Miss Tina plain. Jonica is a compulsive eater and enormously fat. This, in a country where Jane Fonda has the status of a goddess, makes her instantly undesirable.

Robert Plunket, a spare, witty writer, judges expertly where to pitch the tone of his narrator. Elliot is an unscrupulous go-getter, prejudiced, ungrateful: but he is candid, and his malice is often funny. Arriving at Mrs Kinney’s villa, Elliot reports: ‘The maid let me through a carved wooden door that was so massive I had to help her push it open. We were in a murky entrance hall. A stone staircase curved up to the second floor, past an enormous amber window on which several stained-glass Mexicans were performing some kind of folk dance involving a chicken.’

In pursuit of Jonica, and ultimately the papers, Elliot progresses through the Hollywood fringe. He attends the opening night of a play, All my sisters slept in dirt – A Choral Poem, at a feminist theatre, and it lives up to his worst fears. ‘Everyone had a friend or relative to congratulate. The critic struggled against the tide; his eyes met mine for a second – we were practically the only men there – and from the face he made I could already hear the review.’ His yachting trip with an aging Texan millionaire is a disaster; the party he gives for Jonica ends in chaos. Finally and inevitably, the documents he has wrested with such trouble from the ancient grandmother go up in smoke. His whole journey west has been futile. Mr Plunket turns these accidents into slapstick, social satire and sometimes callous farce. He can cut every character down to size, including the narrator. Since his writing is so confidently sharp-edged, it is a pity he allows himself the odd touch of coyness – a jokey message to his agent, a personal cookbook recipe. He seems, too, to be misinformed about Morris dancing, which is one of his hero’s more improbable enthusiasms. He describes it as ‘a type of old English folk dancing, always performed by men. It can get pretty wild, since it involves a lot of swinging of clubs.’ Speaking from a village where Morris dancers put in a regular appearance, I can tell Mr Plunket that clubs are out. Staves, yes, but used in a very formal way, no wild swinging or bloody noses at all. Perhaps, however, they order these things differently in New York.

‘Life doesn’t come in comfortable segments like a piece of fruit cake,’ observes Alice Arlington in Dirk Bogarde’s new novel, ‘with the cherries scattered all the way through. Sometimes there aren’t any cherries in the bit you get at all. Make do, then, with currants.’ His characters are given to this kind of reflection, as they struggle to survive in an unfashionable quarter of Los Angeles. They are a highly theatrical crew. Alice, who runs a fashion boutique, is the blonde, still lovely widow of Hugo Arlington, ‘a superb lover, number one; a rotten husband, number two; an amusing father, when he remembered; a quite brilliant poet, when he took the trouble’. A mystery surrounds Hugo’s death. As his wife knows, his name wasn’t really Hugo Arlington at all: he was Arthur Sean Sproule, ‘the son of an Irish God-knows-what, born in a semidetached in Heme Hill’. Starting out with these handicaps, he ends up – and the author relates this with no surprise at all – a sadist, a murderer, and high on cocaine.

The true centre of the book, however, is a romantic dream, with a writer as the unstoppable hero. Like Mr Bogarde, Jonathan Pool, a middle-aged Englishman and old flame of Alice’s, has a house in Provence where he writes best-sellers. Jonathan’s latest novel, The Familiars, a story of a simple Irish girl who sees visions, has been bought for filming by Cristal Productions, but he quickly learns from their hateful boss, Andy Shapiro, that eight great writers are going to hammer his screenplay into something entirely different, a horror movie called ‘Voodoo Death’. Jonathan, not a man to take this lightly, is rude about the basket of fruit and wine that was sent to him as a welcoming present. He is fired. Next day he hears that Andy Shapiro has dropped dead. He chokes on his champagne but recovers, ‘brushing his Dom Perignon-soaked knees’. He still has plenty of cause for celebration, since, although he has fallen out of love with Alice, he has fallen in love with a beautiful, sensitive child-psychologist named Lea, who looks like an egret in her white cotton Givenchy dress, and, what is more, his love is returned.

As Jonathan and Lea say farewell to Hollywood and Alice returns to her boutique, the book leaves one lingering doubt, expressed by a slimy American publisher.

English writers today, in the main, have had no classical education whatsoever; thus their vocabulary is appallingly limited, and their characters speak an ugly tribal language. They have spotty backs, varicose veins and coarse hands. It is drear, sear, real and wretched. Envy, anger, class haired, resentment, malice and fornication. Magic is not in demand, elegance is suspect.

Mr Bogarde presents a cream-filled Calilfornian meringue to undernourished readers.