Signora Zabaggy

Michael Rose

  • All Visitors Ashore by C.K. Stead
    Harvill, 150 pp, £8.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 00 271009 9
  • A Trick of the Light by Sebastian Faulks
    Bodley Head, 204 pp, £7.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 370 30589 2
  • Dividing Lines by Victor Sage
    Chatto, 166 pp, £8.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2811 9

Let’s begin with ‘Let’s begin with the tea towel.’ Thus Professor Curl Skidmore, narrator of C.K. Stead’s All Visitors Ashore, announcing his presence in a text which proves something of a minor breakthrough in fictional technique. Towels, starting their lives as insignificant domestic signifiers, later waved at ships, soaked in blood, not waved, bleached by the sea, acquire, like other material tokens in this novel, semantic value as motifs and symbols of loss, purity, fidelity and conflict. Student Skidmore, prime object of his later self’s ironising attentions, is living out a year of emotional turmoil in a New Zealand paralysed, not so much by the dock dispute of 1951, as by an Establishment of such stuffy self-righteousness and intellectual vacuity that a beachside poetry-reading occasions a police raid.

Virtually plotless but highly integrated, the main structural device of this mannered, almost dandyish book is the interweaving of narrative strands with political, social, sexual and artistic themes and their associated, interchangeable motifs. The stories themselves are of no great importance except for young Skidmore, whose world is steadily depopulated as the year goes by. The reader’s pleasures are other and various. One of them is the intertextual chase. Here, for instance, Stead simultaneously parodies Robbe-Grillet’s degree-zero text and, by putting back the person, turns it to his own discursive and expository ends: ‘And now the shadow cast by the cabbage tree at the centre of the white courtyard with the green border must be longer at noon but nobody measures it because it is the late summer that always settles into the hottest and driest weather.’ There is pleasure, too, in the erotic hunts and their culminations, handled with an explicit but unobsessed dexterity; and interest in the progress from aestheticism to puzzled commitment of the ‘old master Melior Farbro’, who at least, having once changed his name, sticks to it, unlike the protean majority of Stead’s characters, noteworthy among whom is the electrified nun or psychiatric patient Cecilia Skyways or Dawn Clegg, who drops her work on ‘Memoirs of a Railway Siding’ to take up the haiku at the unspoken instigation of her spider-guru Bhodidharma or Body. Chief among this novel’s satisfactions, however, is textuality itself.

Uncertainty about who is telling the tale is both the major formal strength and the vitiating weakness of Sebastian Faulks’s brave attempt at a taxing subject. The opening pages of A Trick of the Light give us Wyn Douglas, George Grillet, and London. Douglas, marginal urban man, a fixer, a reporter, an intriguer, scurries about the underside of the city with plans for the dispossessed. George Grillet, 25, Anglo-French, vacationing in England after a messy end to an affair, an apolitical innocent, none too bright, absorbed in pulp thrillers, is less surely handled.

But as his boat neared the end of its channel crossing on a windy January afternoon, he looked ahead and wondered how the soldiers must have felt when they returned after years in the slaughterhouse of France. What a refuge this damp, ugly outline must have promised them. This time, he too felt like a refugee: the victim of an emotional war who had been sent away to convalesce.

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