Diary

Karl Miller

It is possible that C.J. Koch’s novel The Doubleman, which has just been published in London,[*] will be reviewed as a pathfinding contribution to literary psychology. A clever and diverting book it certainly is – by the Tasmanian author of The Year of Living Dangerously, who now lives in Sydney – and it applies to established themes a new ambience and a new geography. It takes the double into a delirious realm of folk music, radio, television and the charts. The inhabitants of a land of Faery cut their discs and their capers dressed in Medieval costume; the Mersey sound is emulated by Sydney’s very own elf sound. But this is not a novel novel. It is a Gothic novel, which abides by a tradition of which the writer is learnedly aware, and which can lead him to telegraph his punches. Some of it reads like Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story, of a long time before, which ends up, as it happens, in Australia, with a kind of atomic-diabolic explosion.

Having recently completed a book on the literature of the double, I read Mr Koch’s novel with a pang – compounded of interest and of its dualistic opposite – which may readily be understood. But then there had been other such pangs as my book drew to a close: every few months came a further contribution – not a few of them from the pen of Martin Amis – to a subject which is widely supposed to be exhausted. To suppose it exhausted is not to be unable to suppose that its new works may be pathfinders: the subject presents both faces. At all events, I swallowed my anxieties and tackled The Doubleman, and I seemed to discover there – this, too, may be readily understood – material that bore on conclusions reached in the book I had written. I don’t want to interfere with a discussion by John Bayley which the paper will be publishing shortly: but I would like to diarise a little about this piece of Antipodean duality. Like other strange stories of the genre, it both embodies and attracts coincidence. A strong pang was felt when my eye travelled to page 15 and lit on the magic words: ‘When he first saw how enchanted I was by this toy, Karl Miller was pleased.’

In the literature of romantic duality the most important of all pairs is the one constituted by the author and his principal character, or his narrator: here, if you like, is the primal duplication of the genre. In these fictions doubleness ensues on the singleness of someone’s afflicted solitude. The principal character suffers, serves as patient rather than agent, but is capable of wishing to escape from his sufferings. Then there are two of him, or more – a development which expresses his dilemma and attempted escape. The character lacks character, very often, and exercises a negative capability which turns these novels towards the condition of poetry. This is what Goethe, in Wilhelm Meister, thought all novels were like, and this is the kind of novel that C.J. Koch – of the suitably German name – has delivered.

The narrator, Richard Miller, is lame, loses his father in the Second World War, is literary, theatrical, passive, longing to be ‘at one remove’ from everyday life, from Tasmania, where he is looked after by his grandfather, this Karl, an architect and alderman of German stock. Karl’s origin causes problems which were not unknown, at the period in question, to the present diarist, who was fairly far, however, from ever being taken for an enemy spy, and who did not take himself to have been cleft, as Richard is, by the embarrassments of a semi-enemy name.

But I still resented the old man’s being German, behind the solid and inoffensive name of Miller. Why must he be Karl? Why couldn’t he at least change that tell-tale K to a C?

Because he was too stiff-necked, my mother said, and sighed.

And so I became divided in myself; and this too, perhaps, made me seek refuge in the Otherworld.

Early on, this otherworld exists for Richard as a Fairyland whose occasions are derived from the Border Ballads, with decor borrowed from artists like Arthur Rackham. But it gradually assumes a more sinister dimension. As a boy, Richard has met a portentous, learned stranger, Broderick, to whom occult powers are attributed, and then, in the role of producer eventually, he joins a high-flying folk-music venture, in the company of his cousin Brian from the Irish side of the family and of the weird Darcy Burr. Broderick is the Devil, or the magus that trafficks with him, and Darcy doubles for Broderick as a sorcerer’s apprentice during the storms and triumphs that come their way when their eldritch folksy pop music transfers to Australia in a welter of guitars, penny-whistles, Tam Lin, Thomas the Rhymer, drugs, inspiration and greed. All this casts a spell on the escapist Richard Miller. Darcy, spokesman for an alternative theology, had learnt that there were ‘two people inside me: one who was weak and sentimental; the other somebody who could be strong enough to make himself free’. But Richard shakes the spell, and seems set to persevere as a broadcasting executive on the climb, and as a kind of sentimental Catholic who has been sliding back to Mass by the end of the book.

‘True love’ had given promise of the wholesomeness he achieves, and is painted in homely colours: ‘I was not ready for marriage; I didn’t yet know whether I wanted to marry Katrin Vilde, even though I was irrevocably in love.’ He does get married to Katrin, for all her foreign name, and the marriage survives the designs of his associates.

As a programmatic dualiser among novelists, C.J. Koch is second to none. There are two of everything in his novel. Deirdre, who proves false, is, as Darcy is, ‘two people’, and the language of her ‘shape-changing’ might almost be that of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, with its interest in inconsistency. This is a tale of two cities, there being ‘two Sydneys’ on show. According to Darcy, ‘Fairyland’s double’: ‘The Faery Otherworld had two aspects: dark and light; Hades and Elfland.’ Come to that, ‘the universe is double.’

This universe is indeed Manichean. It is alleged by the alternative theologians that we are trapped in matter, where we don’t belong. The material world is beyond God’s control, so that ‘fleshly sin’ – from which much of the novel can nevertheless be felt to shrink in fear and fascination – makes no sense. The spirit is locked in the body, but aspires to fly from it on the wings of folk-song. The doctrine proposes that the doubleness of things relates to the creation of the material world by a subordinate deity, a demiurge whose malignant shapes include that of the Old Testament Jehovah. It is a doctrine which can be traced to the mysteries of Occultism, and in which the shape of Jung can also be glimpsed. The true lover recognises in his beloved a ‘prototype’ – such prototypes may also be encountered in dreams, and can be regarded as ‘figures from another time’ – and is himself prototypical. Opposites attract, in such situations, by virtue of a primordial community of feeling. Duality and matrimony are aspects of one another – a person may double himself by getting married. This can be called an elective doctrine, in that it suggests that some people are more prototypical than others, and reminds us of how much is owed, in the romantic systems of the 19th and 20th centuries, to the religious salvations of previous times. Richard is saved, however, by more orthodox and more efficacious means.

That the novel is orthodox in terms of romantic tradition can’t be doubted. Here once more are flight, reincarnation, an authorised solitary enclosed in double talk and in the uncertainty this promotes. The novel is double, and its hero is double, and in quite a familiar way. Richard rejects the black magic and the ghost music that come to him: but the novel can seem to love it, and to suggest that there are two Richards, one of whom is brothering it out with Broderick and Darcy because of a sufferer’s wish to remove himself from the world, and that this Sydney sound is something very special. Not since Flann O’Brien has so much been made of Phouka the Fairy. We are meant to half-believe in Phouka, and, for that matter, in Hecate and Hades.

But only half-believe – so that there is something in the book both for the sceptical and for the superstitious reader. Most people are more superstitious than they let on. Whatever they may have to say on the subject, there are many who avoid cracks in the pavement, duck out from ladders, and take a shamefaced interest in their stars. The superstitious charge may often be faint, but most batteries can raise a twinge, and even a pang. I have to say that I was impressed – after failing to be alerted to the matter by the leer of a passing book-reviewer – to discover my namesake on Mr Koch’s page, just as I was impressed – immediately after completing my own last chapter, on the adversary double – to receive threatening visits and a measure of surveillance, together with some Old Testament writings on a wall – ‘Eye am that eye am’ – from a man whom, years before, I had barely known, but who had taken, I was told, to using my name at times, while seeing me, perhaps, as an enemy or oppressor. It’s a small world, and a double one. Or so it can seem.

I don’t report that I’ve entered a magic world, or warp, of hidden resemblances, universal duplication. Nor do I feel much sense of community or complicity with the writer on the wall, though I seem to see that there’s a sense in which he is what I might be, or am. As for Mr Koch’s hearty alderman, the coincidence of names directs my thoughts less to him than to his grandson, who is meant to command sympathy but doesn’t command mine. I can bring to mind mundane explanations which might fit these two different kinds of coincidence (with accident, presumably, playing rather more of a role in the case of the shared name). But I would like to think that an element of explanation might also be got from the literature of romantic duality, in which victims are oppressors and oppressors are victims, in which the excluded person who nevertheless wants to escape is likely to fall in with his double. This is a literature which is still being written, as I’ve said; we’re not having the kind of time which makes these fantasies redundant, though I don’t suppose the aptly-named Tasmania of Mr Koch’s romance will persuade many of its readers that the Devil has been causing trouble down under.

I’m not in a position to guess how hellish things are now in Hobart or Sydney: but Britain is a country which might as well be labouring under a curse, and which has moved to dismantle its welfare state, as if it had all been a mistake. The demiurge that rules its public life has, since the collapse of the miners’ strike, been very busy. You must know the woman I mean. Mrs Thatcher has given out that her opponents in the universities and among the clergy are cuckoo, has boasted, in the course of her South-East Asian progress, about the ‘seeing-off’ of the striking miners, and has spoken of the urgent need to reward the ‘creators of wealth’, as if wealth were created solely by a certain type of businessman and as if there were only the one type of wealth. Meanwhile her Parliamentary opponents seem incapable of preventing, or of deserving to prevent, her return to power. ‘Seeing-off’ had the note of a would-be Blimp: it was a crass expression for her to use – one which, in proving invidious, and far more offensive than she can have intended it to be, argued an absence of control. But her words are not always worse than those of many of her opponents. Her Malaysian sneer was held to be ‘verbose’ and ‘mind-boggling’ – two of the not very many things that it wasn’t.

Both opposition parties responded to the Government’s handling of the Falklands crisis in a manner that was rarely distinguishable from consent, and the same was true of most of the press. I was interested to come across a recent report in which the Parliamentary sketch writer of the Telegraph, Edward Pearce, was quoted as putting a view of the war which would at the time have been called cuckoo: ‘What precisely did we get out of the Falklands war except a warm glow, the experience of feeling good, and a roll of honour?... It was a collective act of retarded adolescence... the most discreditable, immoral and improper episode in British post-war history, a gamble not worth the taking, a war fought for reasons of amour-propre mingled with election considerations ... a pantomime war in which men had their faces burned off...’ This war was something which ‘happened here’, as the saying goes – the saying which refers to actions that the British are constitutionally incapable of. It was a success, a misfortune, and very nearly a disaster. It was willed by an elected government and went without effective challenge in the House of Commons. Years later, a civil servant who had acted in furtherance of a legitimate Parliamentary inquiry into what had happened was put on trial – by a state which then defined itself as the government of the day. It is certainly time for some second thoughts.

Graeme Souness has written, abetted by Bob Harris, an unusually frank football book.[†] Formerly of the Liverpool midfield and now of Sampdoria, Souness has long been a target for the sympathies and antipathies of many thousands of people, and it shows. What he has to say will come as a surprise to connoisseurs of ghosted football autobiographies, which tend to grovel before the fans and to deal politicly with absolutely everyone in the game – ‘the beautiful game’, as Pelé calls it, and as Souness calls it, and as I call it. He says that he thinks himself unpopular both on the terraces and among his fellow players. But he doesn’t care. He cares about success. And he’s also preoccupied, again to an unusual degree, with violence. Football here is ‘a great affray, likely to result in homicides and serious accidents’. But these are not Souness’s words: quoted lately in a letter to the Times, they refer to the Elizabethan game, and to a time when football could be deemed ‘unlawful’. Unlawfulness has always been inherent in the game, and adjacent to it, and yet it has its own laws, which are different from the rules, and which can produce, on its best days, a truly beautiful music – a music in which reason and accident meet. The abilities that turned the Edinburgh tearaway into a prime minister of the park are only very palely reflected in the words Souness has used, or authorised, on the subject of violence on and off the field – which is a deep question, wholly immune to Thatcherite remedies of the seeing-off variety. His words on the subject come oddly from a player of outstanding rational authority. But if he has seldom been conspicuously hard, he has certainly been conspicuous – stylish, a dandy, fond of display and of his own way. We read here of a sack of contraceptives found in his car by the police when they were searching it for a bomb; and of Kenny Dalglish, lingering in a hotel corridor in fear of the possibility that his roommate – Souness, tucked up in bed – might be gay. Had Dalglish not heard of that sack?

In an earlier Diary I mentioned that the Arts Council’s support for this journal might lapse with the new round of retrenchments that was in prospect. We have since been pleased to learn that the support will be renewed for the forthcoming financial year.

[*] Chatto, 326 pp., £8.95, 18 April, 0 7011 2945 x.

[†] No Half Measures by Graeme Souness. Willow/Collins, 208 pp., £8.95, 28 March, 0 00 218134 7.