- Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories by E.L. Doctorow
Joseph, 145 pp, £8.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2529 0
- The Pork Butcher by David Hughes
Constable, 123 pp, £5.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 09 465510 3
- Out of the Blue by John Milne
Hamish Hamilton, 309 pp, £8.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 241 11489 6
‘Here’s something out of the quaint past, a man reading a book,’ remarks E.L. Doctorow’s narrator as he rides the New York subway. The other passengers in the subway are not readers but listeners, hooked to their earphones and tape-players, ‘listening their way back from literacy’. And before literacy? ‘The world worked in a different system of perception, voices were disembodied, tales were told.’ If tale-telling is the sign of a primitive culture, we – this would seem to imply – have the novel; and the more self-consciously civilised among novelists have sometimes been anxious to disclaim the form’s own origins. As E.M. Forster wearily put it, ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ But storytelling will outlive the novel, and it is also elemental to the novel. It is not coincidental that each of the books under review ends with the lure of a further, untold story: a story which might or might not turn out to be the one we have just read.
In the closing paragraphs of Out of the Blue a CIA agent tells his ‘truly horrific story’ of the novel’s central character – a story, however, that the reader is not allowed to hear. The Pork Butcher finishes in exactly the same way. (‘The story had begun. William’s notebook was on his knee. For a moment he wished he could understand the man’s language, but did it matter? ... ’) And E.L. Doctorow’s collection terminates at the point where the author-narrator surrenders his typewriter keys to another person, an immigrant child who, like himself, may conceivably grow up to be the ‘writer in the family’. Other examples of this convention would be easy to find. Where earlier centuries preferred the modes of tragic or comic finality – ‘Go, bid the soldiers shoot’ or ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ – we prefer the note of recurrence and renewed narrative promise. What satisfies us most is to be assured, not of the characters’ eternal happiness, but of their continuing novel-worthiness: ‘And that is another story.’
Where E.M. Forster was right, however, was in implying that the ostensible story the novel tells need only be a cover story. There is always an analogy between reading and detective work, and this is particularly clear in a book like Lives of the Poets, a series of ‘six stories and a novella’ potentially unified by the suggestion (made only in the dustjacket blurb) that the narrator of the novella is also the imagined writer of the stories. Is this, or isn’t it, a meaningful hypothesis? The reader of these terse, stylish and varied pieces has a certain amount of sleuthing to do.
For an initial clue, we could take a passing reference to one of the principal figures of Doctorow’s 1975 best-seller, Ragtime: Harry Houdini, the escape artist. In a story called ‘The Leather Man’ the narrator, a policeman, is reminded of Houdini as he watches a girl doing weird gyrations in the midst of the crowd at a rock festival. Studying the film of her movements that he has shot, he sees ‘someone in a straitjacket’, ‘the classic terror ... of someone straitjacketed and trying to break free’. ‘Lives of the Poets’, the novella which takes up nearly half of Doctorow’s new book, is full of tales of men trying to escape from the institution of marriage. (Every middle-aged man his own Houdini?) Jonathan, the narrator of ‘Lives of the Poets’, has gone to earth in a pied-à-terre in Greenwich Village, leaving his wife stranded in upstate New York. Jonathan’s solitude is supposedly for writing in, though what he does, most of the time, is to mooch over his own and his fellow writers’ marriages. His own domestic battles, he tells us, have ‘reached the stage where we send in other marriages to do the fighting’.
These other marriages are the substance of the ‘lives of the poets’, a title that has little to do with Grub Street or Samuel Johnson. The favoured means of escape for Jonathan’s colleagues consists in finding an even more constricting straitjacket, a solitary cell that women cannot enter. We hear of a writer burying himself in a sub-basement padlocked from the inside, and of another who is becoming a Buddhist monk. The masculine hermitic ideal that is indulged (before being finally disclaimed) in this book suggests nothing so much as a male backlash against the demand for feminine Lebensraum which energises contemporary women’s fiction.
Women come off badly in most of Doctorow’s new stories. In ‘The Writer in the Family’, the boy Jonathan is forced to aid a family conspiracy to hush up the death of his father. In another boyhood story, a Central European landowner’s son catches his mother in flagrante delicto with the family tutor. Both stories end with the protagonist crudely and cruelly destroying the web of female deceit in which he feels he has been caught. In other stories, a schoolmistress new to her job is shown disastrously mishandling small-town life, and a schoolgirl is blown to pieces in an embassy bombing. The scrupulous impartiality of Doctorow’s style refuses to interpret these events. What his impeccably self-contained stories have in common are notions of territorial rights, of a cherishing of (male) rituals, and the ever-present threat of female trespass. Neither sex can take much comfort from these sharp and dispassionate sketches.
If fear of women unites Doctorow’s men, their solitude, once achieved, is shadowed by the contrary fear of abandonment and dereliction. As Jonathan puts it, ‘dereliction is the state of mind given to middle-aged men alone, not to women. Middle-aged women alone turn feisty and keep busy and become admirable characters and achieve things.’ The escape artist is most likely a sad and deprived individual; this may be true of all artists; and ‘between the artist and simple dereliction there is a very thin line.’
In the end Jonathan seems to abandon his writing, and with it the state of the solitary artist. A sudden impulse turns him, instead, into an ‘admirable character’ who uses his apartment to shelter illegal immigrants. Here as in Ragtime his sympathy for the newly-landed immigrant plays a notable part in Doctorow’s work. In Lives of the Poets, however, the socially-conscientious gesture does little to redeem our overall impression of Jonathan as a garrulous and unlovable first-person narrator. While two or three of the stories in this volume are timeless creations, the novella is not much more than a gossipy, up-to-the-minute chronicle of New York life. There are reports of dinner-party conversations (Jonathan’s attempt to live like a hermit does not extend to dining at home), scenes in the subway, political meetings and, for good measure, much reading of the junk mail that comes through Jonathan’s door. The result is distinctly ephemeral and, at the end, it was with relief that I found that Jonathan, as narrator and imagined writer, had served his turn. Not only have immigrants moved into his apartment but alien fingers (male fingers, needless to say) are entering his writing space and fumbling for his typewriter keyboard. ‘Little kid here wants to type ... hey who’s writing this? ... come on, kid, you can do three more lousy lines.’ The rest is silence, or rather, the rest should be another (and conceivably much more memorable) story.
David Hughes’s The Pork Butcher is a worthy winner of the W.H. Smith award, the latest of the series of literary prizes awarded to novels published in 1984. In this, his ninth novel, Hughes has written a moral fable, brief, sensational, and hauntingly tense. The word ‘haunting’ is used advisedly. Ghost stories, with their Gothic associations of night-shirted wraiths and clanking chains, are held in contempt by most literary people and would doubtless have received the most dampening of acknowledgments from E.M. Forster. It may seem perverse to suggest that The Pork Butcher, a novel addressing the most profoundly serious concerns of contemporary history, belongs to this genre. Yet since Ibsen we have known that the persistence, the unseen influence, of events and people belonging to the past is one of the perennial themes of modern writing. That we so readily think of societies as being ‘haunted’ by their recent history is an indication of the links between collective memory and conscience, and the art of the storyteller.
In both Hughes’s and John Milne’s novels the haunting events have to do with Nazi Germany. Ernst Kestner, Hughes’s pork butcher, is a German ex-soldier who feels impelled to revisit the scene of a World War Two massacre in occupied France. Kestner is in his sixties and is dying of lung cancer – cancer which may either be caused by cigarette smoking or (so we are told) by ‘pointless anxiety’, a ‘daily fear of nothing’. Though his daughter has settled in Paris, it is the first time he has re-entered the country where he was formerly stationed. Crossing the border, he perceives that ‘whoever he was, he was welcome here; time had passed, old scores were settled, history had been shredded by the cutting edge of the present.’ But things are not so simple. Kestner is not unwelcome in contemporary France, even when his identity is known. If he were merely trying to visit his daughter, to tour the country or to buy a little property, his initial perception would have been a true one. His determination to plead guilty to a half-forgotten war crime is treated at first as an inconvenience, a display of bad taste. The massacre and pillage of Lascaud-sur-Marn, in which he participated, has been commemorated by turning the ruined village into a shrine, a museum-piece frozen in time. Kestner’s return stirs up the ghosts which are lurking unappeased behind the names on plaques and the anonymous relics in glass cases.
An English novelist probing the ancestral relationship of France and Germany puts himself in an awkward position, somewhere between agent-provocateur and bomb-disposal expert. Hughes handles the responsibilities of his undertaking boldly and delicately. His plan requires that, at the climax of the novel, Kestner should confront a figure who can be represented as his Gallic opposite number. This is the reason for Kestner’s meeting with the brother of Jeanne, the French girl with whom, in the days before the massacre, he had been intoxicatingly in love. Jeanne’s brother, a Resistance fighter, had been absent from the village on the fatal day: now he is a successful politician whose career has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of home and family. He and Kestner visit the ruins of Lascaud by moonlight, and the politician swears that in the morning he will have this ‘stupid memorial to stupidity’ bulldozed to the ground. It is too late, of course. The elaborate civility which characterises the two men’s encounter cannot survive their exposure to bloodstained ground and unhoused spirits. The outcome is swift and melodramatic, but everywhere Hughes shows a mastery of controlled melodrama, without a hint of psychological falsity.
Blood-guilt alone, it is clear, would not have driven the ‘old pork butcher feeding off the fat of his memories’ back to this place. Kestner is a sensual man (his appetites are stressed throughout the novel) and his frenzied love-affair with Jeanne had gone so far that he had agreed to desert from the German Army. He had actually begun to desert, and was bicycling furtively towards the village, when the reprisal raid began. Keeping his secret, he enthusiastically joined in the killing, his main emotion being one of overpowering relief. Forty years later he can no longer resist his longing to confess his peculiarly torrid and intimate role in the tragedy. His romanticisation of Jeanne’s memory has been undimmed by the years, but to her brother it appears that ‘you merely played, as nations do when their spirits rise, the stupidly easy game of destroying each other.’ Kestner’s urge to revisit France leads to a second bout with the ‘icy risks’ of self-destruction, as the spirits that rose once rise again.
Most frightening of all, perhaps, is what Hughes’s novel has to say about the nature of freedom. In 1945, amid the saturation bombing of German cities, Joseph Goebbels exulted that ‘the bombs, instead of killing all Europeans, have only smashed the prison walls that held them captive.’ Both Kestner and his French opposite number have known the unholy experience of ‘liberation’ in the midst of holocaust. A few days or weeks after the massacre, and following some momentary inherited impulse, Kestner entered a church and lay grovelling on the ground, in a ‘hopeless tantrum of hope’ that he might be forgiven for what he had done. Hughes marvellously exposes the evasions and fantasies, the temporary sentimental appeasements that 20th-century people and nations offer their evil spirits. But he offers no hope of exorcism, unless indeed storytelling can somehow help to lay our ghosts.
It is worth noting that we no longer turn instinctively to the novel (if we ever did) when confronted with a subject such as David Hughes has chosen. TV documentaries, trial reports and investigative journalism provide more familiar means of examining war crimes and atrocity stories. Like any fine novel, The Pork Butcher is a reminder of the strengths of the novel form itself – the strengths, that is, which it derives from its dependence on fictions and fictional characters. Fictive melodrama directs us away from externals and towards the core of feeling and understanding that can be drawn from events. One of Hughes’s earlier novels, The man who invented tomorrow, explored the making of a TV documentary about a famous writer, H.G. Wells. In The Pork Butcher it would not have been appropriate to explore the contrast between fiction and documentary explicitly or self-consciously. In fact, it would be absurd to suppose that every novel ought to be a metafiction or self-conscious novel. More defensibly, one could recommend that every writer ought to produce at least one such novel. John Milne has constructed a teasing example of the form in his third novel, Out of the Blue.
Paul Brown, Milne’s hero, is a famous artist now in his sixties and subject to a dangerous heart condition. He has a flat in London, a studio in Munich, and a cottage in the Bavarian Alps from which his family came. It is in his Alpine retreat that he falls foul of the Blue Lion, a neo-Nazi terrorist group. Milne’s narrator begins by defending his decision to write a novel, not a biographical or scholarly account of Brown’s life. Brown, after all, was an inveterate liar: any biographical account would have meant, not just retelling his stories, but endless labours of checking and authentication. The difference between a novel and an ‘academic tome’ is that the novel leaves the reader to do some of the work. Fiction is ‘the lie that lets us see the truth’, but it shows the truth opaquely, saying to the reader: ‘See for yourself.’ And this narrative is a tangle of different stories and storytellers, none of whom (it goes without saying) is wholly reliable.
The book begins, thriller-style, with a brutal murder. It ends, as Brown’s heart finally gives way, with providential justice exacted on the autobahn. (One of the standard conventions of contemporary melodrama is that car crashes do not happen by accident.) In between, Milne offers a memorable portrait of a boorish celebrity, a spoilt child nibbling at whatever life has to offer in the way of whisky, admirers, publicity and women. Brown’s appetites outrun his capacity, so that the drinks are no sooner swallowed than regretted, the admirers become targets for his famous rudeness, and the women are unceremoniously dumped. While Brown amuses himself with a London waitress (who is, as it happens, virtually the novel’s only likeable character) the Blue Lion is wreaking havoc amongst his friends and property in Bavaria. It can hardly be coincidental that, on the way back, his car disappears from the parking-lot of a motorway café. Why has Brown become the centre of a ‘one-man Crime wave’, and why is such a motley group of people – ranging from CIA agents and assorted thugs to a would-be biographer and the hapless narrator – so single-mindedly pursuing him?
Despite his various attempts at concealment, it seems that Brown is a former CIA man who toured German prison camps after the war recruiting suitably selected ex-Nazi prisoners. Forty years later the Blue Lion terrorists have discovered that certain Nato bases in Germany contain stocks of nerve gas intended for use, in an emergency, on the civilian population. At the same time, Paul’s Agency past, thanks to some idle boasting in his native village (a neo-Nazi stronghold), has caught up with him. The thriller material in Out of the Blue is perhaps awkwardly linked to the possibility, raised by the narrator, that Brown is not the great artist he is cracked up to be. As we are reading a novel, no final judgment is offered about this: ‘If you want the truth about his art, go to Cork Street or the Tate Gallery and see for yourself,’ the narrator says. And the more we see of Milne’s narrator – a self-important buffoon, and a failed artist – the less we would trust his judgment, in any case. His occasional brushes with Brown in the flesh are described in a series of interpolated sections headed ‘I was there’ – the point being that he usually wasn’t. Milne’s moments of painterly description, his fresh and direct impressions of London life, consort oddly with a terse and sometimes hard-boiled narrative manner: ‘Cold air blasted from the defroster. Fritz gunned the engine.’
If the characters surrounding Milne’s protagonist can all be seen as pursuers, they are also, necessarily, either professional or amateur detectives. Of Paul Brown’s life it might be said, as Chesterton wrote of Dickens’s novels, that ‘the secrecy is sensational; the secret is tame.’ Or so it would be except that, at the close, a deliberately tangled bundle of loose ends still remains. Once again it is the reader who has to carry on the work of detection. Storytelling is therapeutic, but it is also devious, like the explanations of lovers who have admitted infidelities: ‘The saying-out can excise the meaning, even the pain of the infidelity ... but the act itself is immutable, and cannot be taken away.’ But what is the act? That is our problem. Paul Brown suggests that ‘I’m a bit of a rascal really. I just like a good story.’ Milne’s narrator is another rascal, who also likes a good story, not necessarily the one that Brown would have told. Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.