Complaining about reviews

John Bayley

  • Mrs Henderson, and Other Stories by Francis Wyndham
    Cape, 160 pp, £8.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 224 02306 3

Few things are easier to recognise or harder to define than the way humour works in art. It is only incidentally to do with making us laugh. Being funny is a methodical process and a localising one, whereas humour, like genius, is non-specific and seems inadvertent. It produces not laughter but delight – ‘aesthetic bliss’, as Nabokov called it. It is a species of revelation, which includes self-revelation, by the most civilised means. That sounds portentous, but it may indicate something about the nature of inexplicably good moments in literary art, like Powell’s Widmerpool observing with approval: ‘Why, mother, you are wearing your bridge coat.’

Black humour is a misnomer and indeed a contradiction, because like all technical kinds of joking it is operationally-determined and programmed for a predictable effect in a given context. It assumes a unitary world, a kind of dark equivalent of P.G. Wodehouse’s sunny one, in which everything goes according to nightmare plan. Waugh was a great admirer of Wodehouse, and it has often struck me that his novels, particularly A Handful of Dust, use the same formula the other way round. At Blandings nothing can go wrong; at Hetton nothing can go right: but both are invented milieux, too consistent to represent reality, for this type of fiction has deliberately to forgo reality’s multiform nature. Jokes require a unified context but humour a complex and dualistic one. It knows two things about life, both true. Life, in Barbara Pym’s words, ‘is not as bad as all that’: but it is also just as bad, if not a great deal worse. Humour is thus not ‘about life’ in the unified sense in which ‘serious’ fiction is supposed to be, any more than is, say, Jane Austen’s art, which exposes a reassuringly sunny and entertaining surface with everything else going on underneath it. As serious novelists often learn to their cost, this dualism only works one way. It is neither artistically feasible nor convincing to portray a nightmare surface with a warm, caring, life-enhancing level below it. Nor is humour compatible with straight revelation of the ‘Reader, this is my life’ type. Humour needs a certain detachment, not to say tranquillity.

This is what it receives in Francis Wyndham’s stories. In the last one in the book, ‘The Ground Hostess’, in some ways the most entertaining of a highly original and distinguished collection, a female novelist rings up the narrator to complain about her latest reviews. Her monologue is not only a tour de force in the manner of Mrs Gamp and Mr Collins but a piece of criticism as penetrating as it is accidental. The accents of contemporary megalomania are perfectly caught.

Some of my very best work went into that book and they’re treating it like a Mills and Boon potboiler, it just doesn’t make sense. I don’t expect them to give me the Nobel Prize, for Christ’s sake – I do know my own limitations, only too well, alas! – but isn’t it rather peculiar that not one of them so far has spotted the perfectly obvious point that the whole thing is meant to be an allegory of Good and Evil? ... As if they’d been primed: the word has gone out – get Harriet! And don’t you think it just conceivably might not be a coincidence that every single one of them is a MAN? Listen to this snide bastard in the Listener, and I quote: ‘if the word “compassionate” did not already exist I’m afraid it would have to be invented to describe Bleeding. The authoress, who is clearly in love with her heroine, is so busy saying “yes” to life that she neglects to provide more than the barest minimum of characterisation, narrative structure or plot,’ unquote. Did you notice that ‘authoress’? Well, there’s a giveaway, for a start. I mean, this is 1979 we’re living in, right? No wonder this bigoted ignoramus can’t understand that my emphasis on the theme of menstruation is merely a reworking of the Little Red Riding Hood myth in a postmodernist mode! What never ceases to amaze me is the way they all make the same stupid mistake and complain that I haven’t written a totally different novel to the one that I set out to write ... oh who cares anyway? To hell with the lot of them. Hasten, Jason, bring the basin – they make me sick!

In hitting off so many different things, this sails right away from the ordinary accuracy of satire. It is also just an incidental part of the richness of the story. Harriet and Jeremy, the narrator’s two ebullient telephone pals, are marvellous metropolitan literary portraits.

Jeremy might be described as a professional fan. All his energies had been channelled into enthusiasms outside himself which he expressed in a manner bordering on the manic. In his moral make-up, the extrovert element had been overdeveloped like some hyperactive gland; his lack of ego was so spectacular that it paradoxically drew attention to itself. Self-deprecation ran riot in Jeremy, turned itself inside out and emerged as aggression; violent in his humility ... he had read every recent book (often before it came out), seen every current opera, ballet, play or fringe review ... having cast himself as an ideal audience he had the serene integrity of a collective noun ...’

Harriet has ‘the unsettling charm of a ferocious nature, tempered by a cosy disposition’.

As with Jane Austen, the accuracy itself is play, and just as in Northanger Abbey the send-up of Gothic fiction is only a prelude to the real dimension of the story, so the observation of London literary types in ‘The Ground Hostess’ reveals what lies more subtly and more touchingly behind. It is a fantasy of loneliness tormented by good will. The only way the narrator can hold off the ministry of Jeremy and Harriet, and start to write the memoir of his dead mother, is to pretend to each of them that he is engaged in an affair of the heart. Since he has made a pass at neither, one of them assumes he is gay, the other that he is straight, and he invents an entanglement with a Quantas steward called Tone. Anticlimax might be expected, but instead the dénouement, which I will not reveal, completes a masterpiece of urban detail. At one point, the narrator tries to find his copy of Kafka’s ‘Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope, and the True Way’ and finally finds the quotation he wants. ‘The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice.’ Isolation has no choice either, but art like Francis Wyndham’s can turn it into a fantasy as innocently moving as it is full of gaiety and hilariously precise observation.

The same qualities are present in the longer linked stories, ‘The Half Brother’ and ‘Ursula’, which also possess the leisure and the documentary space of good fiction. ‘Ursula’ is a remarkable achievement, a portrait of the narrator’s half-sister which has none of the detachment of a portrait. The tone changes expertly and imperceptibly, the humour in it varying from the delightfully and comically objective to the warm and moving sympathy felt between narrator and character when she has grown old. Not the least of the impressive things about this story is the way it suggests alternative modes of handling its own narrative pattern: the urbane self-possession of Somerset Maugham, the seeming simplicity and eagerness of Christopher Isherwood, Denton Welch’s brio, and so on. The ghosts of such treatments are visible, enhancing the individuality of the one which Francis Wyndham uses to relate Ursula’s destiny and the unusual events in her life. The idea of such a narration has become highly traditional, indeed formalised, which is why the complete originality of the story as here presented strikes so tellingly.

It has, too, a kind of moral, invisible like all the best ones; and implicitly humorous. Ursula’s father is not in the least put out by the eccentricity of his daughter’s actions, which, because they had ‘no precedent, could hardly even be gossiped about’: ‘He had inherited from his own mother and father their stern gospel of love: “I do not mind what my children do, so long as they are happy.” (This gospel is not in effect quite so unrestrainedly libertarian as it seems, for it not only enjoins happiness on one as a duty but also carries with it the inhibiting implication that whatever one might do must automatically be right merely because one is a child of the speaker – and any act of defiance, experiment or destruction is thus rendered meaningless before it has been committed.)’

The use and placing there of the adjective ‘stern’ shows the reader that he is in a master’s hands. Small as this collection is, it possesses, as well as effortless originality, an equally unassuming variety of subject and treatment. It moves from stories as touching in depth and insight as ‘Ursula’ to the fantasy of ‘The Ground Hostess’, and the bizarre child’s-eye view of what was reputed to be unusual about Mrs Henderson.