Getting on

Humphrey Carpenter

  • In the Dark by R.M. Lamming
    Cape, 230 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 224 02292 X
  • A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory by Isabel Colegate
    Hamish Hamilton, 153 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 241 11532 9
  • Midnight Mass by Peter Bowles
    Peter Owen, 190 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 7206 0647 0
  • The Silver Age by James Lasdun
    Cape, 186 pp, £8.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 224 02316 0
  • The House of Kanze by Nobuko Albery
    Century, 307 pp, £9.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 7126 0850 8

‘My idea of what a novelist should do is an old-fashioned one,’ says a character in the title story in Isabel Colegate’s collection A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory. ‘I think that each work should be a step forward from the last, that he should never repeat himself, that he should only produce a book when he is ready to add to his own knowledge – why write down what one knows already? – he should address himself to his generation, applying himself with pure heart and humble mind to their legitimate question What Then Must We Do? ... The novelist should write for his generation and his concern should be nothing less than How To Live, but I do not know my generation and I haven’t the faintest idea how to live.’ The character, you will surmise, is a failed novelist; Colegate herself can’t exactly be the speaker (she is, after all, the author of The Shooting Party), but there seems to be some real angst. Of course there are plenty of other purposes, other tactics, behind fiction. But one can’t exactly reject these criteria out of hand. And the words tend to haunt, as one turns the pages of Colegate’s new book, and of new fiction by other writers.

R.M. Lamming’s In The Dark certainly comes off poorly if the Colegate test is applied. It’s Lamming’s second book; I don’t know the first, The Notebook of Gismondo Cavaletti, but it won the David Higham Prize and is described in a Nina Bawden review quoted on the flap of the new one as ‘confident’. In the Dark has all the marks of a brave but not altogether confident search for something different to say. Few novels have been written about geriatrics (the only remarkable book about the elderly that immediately comes to mind is Angus Wilson’s marvellous and still not widely enough known Late Call): so one admires Ms Lamming’s decision to build her story round a half-senile widower, Arnold Lawson, who has just moved into a new district and is exciting the curiosity of the local newspaper (‘Grand Old Eccentric Comes to Woodburn’). Lawson is a miser, hoarding books rather than cash, and the novel’s excellent jacket-picture by Emma Chichester Clark has a promising glimpse of him peering at a tome, surrounded by towers of unsorted volumes which wait their places on the empty shelves in the gloom beyond. Unfortunately Lamming’s prose never quite measures up to that picture: the book-hoarding ought to be a metaphor for something, but the scene, when we reach it, remains pedestrian (‘He liked to keep some poetry near the hearth, handy for pulling a volume out and leaning against the mantelpiece while he read a soulful passage’), and Lamming is more interested in old Lawson’s relationship with two women, his housekeeper and the intruding Moira Gelling. Of the two, Gelling is supposed to be the more intriguing, a spoilt middle-aged pussycat who has read about Lawson in the paper and wants to poke her nose in to see if he is really so odd; soon she is dragging him off to the local lit. soc. and subjecting him to the dubious pleasure of a jolly Christmas dinner party. But the social setting, the sense of place, is never quite sharply enough in focus, and the housekeeper remains by far the more interesting of the two women. In the novel’s best scene, she waits on a wooden chair outside the bathroom door while Lawson takes his bath, a safety precaution that each of them hates but must observe:

He reached down for the bath-plug. And there she was, thumping on the door.

  ‘Are you all right?’

  He frowned at the doorknob.

  ‘Of course I’m all right. Sit down.’

  ‘You don’t want your cardigan?’

  ‘Why would I want my cardigan in the bath?’

  He’d had to straighten up for that, and now he began again, reaching for the bath plug. He imagined the wooden chair creaking as she parked her behind, plumping herself down, and folding her arms.

This portrayal of mutual hatred and dependence could have given the book a solid centre; but the mood is not sustained, and the final effect inconclusive.

The first story in Isabel Colegate’s set of three novellas is rich in the sense of place that In the Dark really lacks. To write about Bath without invoking echoes of Jane Austen would be quite an achievement; to write about it in a deliberately Austenian manner takes even more nerve. But for most of ‘The girl who had lived among artists’ Colegate brings it off. The story is set in the 1930s, in a distinctly seedy, teetering period of Bath’s history; the city is a refuge for ‘services’ relicts, but also for the pseudo-military, like Mrs ‘Major’ Wilson Clark, whose dead husband was actually something minor in the jute trade, but who awarded herself the rank on her widowed retirement to the spa. Colegate’s style is more than equal to the nuances of all this, and the novella, in its first and better half, is an exercise in that charming flat understatement of tone which distinguished The Shooting Party, a perfect evocation of a life that revolves around morning coffee at the Pump Rooms, complete with trio: ‘The pianist had launched into “The Lonely Ash Grove”. The violinist followed tremulously, the bass player leaned over his instrument and ministered to it, in the manner of a respectful retainer plucking his sleeping master’s sleeve to draw his attention to the time; he was an elderly man of deferential mien who had been painted by Sicken in 1909.’

A description of the disparate lives in Mrs Wilson Clark’s house, done in this manner, would have been enough. It is a splendidly odd but entirely plausible household: a Jewish refugee professor on the top floor, with his idolising but passionless ex-secretary wife; a lorry-driver and his bohemian mistress in the basement, each locked into an odd relationship with Vere, the son of a vet who now mends bicycles for a living, and whose own ambiguities of class manage to bottle and distil all the uncertainties of the household and of the city. There is also Mrs Wilson Clark’s imprisoned, sexually frustrated daughter. In the end, the card-house comes tumbling down through the bursting-out of pent-up sexuality. A bedroom scene à trois and a suicide don’t seem proper conclusions to such a dry, amused little tale.

The other two stories in the Colegate book don’t approach the tension and individuality of the first. ‘Distant Cousins’ is a mild exercise in SF: a writer of hack fiction, lost on a hillside walk near his Tuscan cottage, stumbles across a ménage whose chief feature is a humanoid from another civilisation, the last survivor of a race that once dwelt in outer Siberia in Arcadian bliss. Too much cliché, and the alien is thoroughly smug and tedious: how much more fun, more plausible even, it might have been had such a race been discovered occupying a half-forgotten Georgian terrace in Bath. The final tale is the title piece, and I’m not altogether sure who is supposed to have seen that Glimpse of Sion’s Glory. The phrase is the title of a book (apparently on higher mathematics) being written by one of the two principal characters, a Fellow of All Souls who feels that the world has nothing left to offer him (what a large race they must be). As Fellows of All Souls go, he is a fairly plausible specimen, multi-talented to the extent of being as much at home in a hippy commune of the 1960s (this is one of those stories about The World As We Have Known It In Recent Decades) as in his Oxford garret.

‘Been in any more scrapes lately?’ says the Warden ... creaking like an ancient crane at his own facetiousness. ‘No, No, Warden – blameless life – terribly boring – hiccup.’ Hate, spleen, flatulence, fear. You and your like, you foul old man, have sat sniggering over the naughtier passages of Catullus while those to whom you handed over the world of ideas have dethroned our species ...

Yes, one recognises the portrait, just as one knows how Raymond (the Fellow in question) would, as he does in Colegate’s story, try studying medicine, mathematics, writing novels, the hippy life of the Sixties, anything in his search for the right calling. But Colegate doesn’t animate him, perhaps because the story is set in the form of Raymond’s rather plodding confessional letter to his real love. She is Alison, an ambassador’s wife, a county girl from Somerset whose own horizon was more modest than Raymond’s, but who, as she seeks to disentangle herself from marriage to her stuffy diplomat, proves the more ambitious dreamer. The whole thing doesn’t quite take off, and ends up feeling like some lesser piece of Frederic Raphael university-and-after, not Colegate territory at all.

Paul Bowles’s short stories concentrate almost entirely on sense of place, or at least of place dominating character and directing it. Bowles has lived for many years in Tangier, and most of the stories are set there. The opening piece, ‘Midnight Mass’, is a deliberately misleading snapshot in which an expatriate suffers the loss of his family house to upper-crust ‘native’ squatters; the story ends abruptly, and one feels one is expected to share his sense of outrage – which one doesn’t. But this is the point: Bowles is really using the story as a way of excluding the expatriate viewpoint from the picture he is about to paint, of saying Yanks Get Out; and the rest of the book dwells on the private melodramas of native Moroccans with a sympathy and understanding that is a real feat of imagination. It is hard to believe that an American ‘outsider’ like Bowles could have written, say, ‘The Little House’, in which an old woman from the hills moves into her son and daughter-in-law’s town house, and the subsequent tension finally erupts into a poisoning – but no one is able to unravel the motives, or even to discern whether the act was deliberate or merely the consequence of misunderstandings and of the old woman’s suspicion of ‘Nazarene’ medicine.

The book is, in its way, a small-scale modern Arabian Nights, full of figures who could have come out of Burton’s pages. For example, the man who decides to make a living by dressing up as a mejdoub or wandering holy-man, spending the summers thus and then living comfortably in the winter on the proceeds: he is eventually caught in his own trap, imprisoned in this role for ever. The border into fairy tale is crossed in ‘Allal’, where a boy changes skins with a snake, and, like the mejdoub, has to accept the full consequences of such games. The book doesn’t, though, rise above a certain quiet tone, which after a while becomes a little predictable and unexciting: never self-conscious and always splendidly in tune with itself, it finally seems too modest, and one wishes that Bowles could have had the nerve to weld his understanding of these people and his fluency with their folktale motifs into a Midnight’s Children of Tangier.

James Lasdun’s first collection of short stories, The Silver Age, doesn’t make much attempt to go in search of the ‘other’, but takes on what is perhaps a more severe challenge, present-day English middle-class life. Lasdun doesn’t ask What Then Must We Do? His stories are the work of someone who would probably find that question absurd. But though his purpose is mostly This Is What We Mustn’t Do, he isn’t a satirist, and seems to be aiming at the kind of lid-off-society’s-nastiness that used to be the property of Simon Raven. That, however, only defines itself as his territory as the book progresses. The best of the earlier stories, ‘The Bugle’, has an adult narrator returning to his elderly parents’ house and finding himself drawn back into the cobwebs of childhood, even being bullied again by the tight-lipped housekeeper who dominates his mother and father. This is the best-shaped piece in the book, the only story satisfactorily crafted; some almost have limp endings, like ‘Property’, in which objects stolen from the narrator’s grandmother years earlier by her maid are mysteriously returned to her just before her death, and ‘Escapes’, where a young man on the razzle in Paris is trapped in the Métro as it closes for the night; Lasdun supplies neither story with the necessary sting. ‘England’s Finest’ is a nicely nasty piece about an adopted son who finds it advantageous to abandon his bloody-minded resistance to his ghastly foster-parents, becoming the reformed character they always wanted, but entirely at the expense of truth. More haunting is an odd little piece called ‘Heart’s Desire’, where a village lad, a vocational voyeur for social as well as sexual reasons, spies on an attempted rape in Young Fogeyland.

But what comes out most clearly from the book is not, I suspect, what Lasdun intended. He seems to be in love with the glitzy (yes, it’s the only term) world he wants to mock his characters for liking: so that the book, like Ian McEwan’s screenplay for The Ploughman’s Lunch, is actually revelling in what it ought to be satirising. In the final story, a glitz-monger gets his come-uppance – he’s a wide-boy working for an international aid organisation who loves the perks, the feel of millions of aid-dollars between his fingers. Lasdun’s writing is at its worst here: ‘His ascent through the hierarchies of his chosen career had been rapid and smooth. His still-boyish face was glazed with the angelic patina acquired by people who work in the medium of success. He now found himself representing quite a substantial node in the planet’s economic grid, and he could feel the hum of power in his veins.’ This is Lasdun Man: there are two other specimens in the book (the fellow on the Parisian jaunt in ‘Escapes’ is one), and, awful as they and Lasdun’s way of writing about them are, one finds them dreadfully fascinating. Their hubris always leads them to a sort of downfall, but really there is no reason why it should: Lasdun ought to be able to write a very entertaining novel about a specimen of the breed who does survive against all the moral odds (such people usually do), if only he (Lasdun) would get rid of this old-fashioned idea that such people need to take a tumble. My favourite story in the book – which constantly irritated and could hardly be put down – is about a young man who gets a job writing about restaurants, clubs and discos for a Harpers sort of magazine, and also acquires, temporarily, the favours of Philippa, the editor in charge of this section of the paper. Meanwhile he is supposed to be writing up a manifesto for a dying Marxist theatrical director who till last week was his idol: his betrayal of the Marxist in return for Philippa’s bed is predictable from the outset. But Lasdun does convey his own delight at the feather-bedded world of endless freebies – and why shouldn’t he? It is, after all, a kind of answer to Colegate’s question, in the form of What Then We Can Do, even if the answer (We Can Have A Good Time) is not very palatable morally.

The historical novel is a well-known solution to the dilemma of the writer anxious to avoid repetition and in search of message: the pitfalls are notorious. Nobuko Albery, a Japanese married to an Englishman, has already written a novel set in contemporary Japan[*]: now she has produced what the jacket describes as a ‘Saga’ of that country in the 14th century. The publishers are misleading us: it is not a saga at all, and the puffs on the back of the jacket confuse the trail just as much. Someone at Century thought it worth getting Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch to write them, and both have come up with deadweight little bits. Greene: ‘The reader will be well rewarded by a strange experience.’ Murdoch: ‘It is essentially about love of art as a spiritual passion.’ I’m afraid this put me off – as did the ornate dedication: ‘To Dame Ninette de Valois and Dame Margot Fonteyn, with profound admiration and affection’.

Nobuko Albery (she married into the celebrated London theatrical clan) has done the equivalent of writing a historical novel about Shakespeare. The giant of Japanese Noh plays is Zeami, actor, playwright, and author of standard treatises on Noh theatre, who flourished in the days of the corrupt Ashikaga shoguns, one of whom was his patron. Mrs Albery explains at the end of her book that not much more is known about him than about Shakespeare. Working closely from the little that scholarship has revealed, and only departing from the established facts on one or two crucial questions of motive, she has used her imagination to fill in the gaps. Goodness knows what Japanese historians will think of it: for the rest of us, she has produced a thoroughly plausible and enticing story.

Her Zeami begins his days as Fujiwaka, an entrancing boy actor working under the direction of his masterly father Kanami – so entrancing that he is snapped up for ‘night service’ by the lascivious local abbot. Albery manages to make all this neither prurient nor embarrassing: that nasty old abbots should desire boy actors is merely a fact of life in the Japan she paints, accepted by all concerned, including the boy himself, quite calmly:

– Father told me, heart meek, body at ease, body at – Fujiwaka repeated to himself as Daijo, breathing hard, shut the beautifully painted sliding doors behind them and threw him onto a fragrantly new straw mat, spread in the middle of the clean bare room. – I won’t watch, I won’t smell or hear so that I’ll have nothing to recall or tell anyone.

From being raped by an abbot, Fujiwaka progresses to being the plaything of no less than Yoshimitsu, the Shogun himself, the ‘Great Tree’ whose word is law in an era when the Emperor was a cloistered recluse; and for a time the fortunes of the House of Kanze, Fujiwaka’s father’s Noh troupe, are secure. Albery is especially good at portraying the developing relationship between actor and despot – Yoshimitsu’s increasing tenderness and respect towards his favourite, and his own growth in assurance as a ruler, are subtly shown – but the real challenge she has set herself is to portray a great artist. She cannot quite convey the character of Zeami’s plays, but she sketches them fairly effectively. She does not manage to suggest from what literary or religious traditions this master of Noh obtained his motifs and images; in middle age, Zeami retires into a Zen monastery to commune with his art, emerging with the greater part of his canon already written, and this episode is a slightly disappointing lacuna in the story. On the other hand, Nobuko Albery is able, at times quite extraordinarily, to describe Zeami as a performer – hence, perhaps, that dedication to de Valois and Fonteyn, for the images she presents are balletic. Most memorable is his last moment on stage, before he departs for the exile on which he has been sent, as a result of jealousy and political suspicion, by Yoshimitsu’s successor:

As Meiroku’s flute spiralled higher and higher with two hand drums whipping the air faster, the white bird flew up in the air. People saw the trailing ends of his costume in mid air. Just as they expected them to descend towards the stage floor, Zeami opened and shut his mouth just so slightly and the heavenly bird was seen floating higher on a farther extended are, like the suspended passage of a snowflake, landing half-way across the stage on one silent toe. Then, he was gone.

  No one could later explain how it could have been possible for a man to fly ... ‘but, I tell you, he did ...’

There are too many characters for altogether easy digestion (though Nobuko Albery skilfully gets over the problem caused by males’ frequent changes of name as they rise in the world); too many footnotes explaining terminology in the early part of the novel; perhaps rather too much historical background and information. But it is a charmingly unpretentious book, vividly conveying the intense excitement of the performer, never descending into tushery (the language is always unremittingly modern, even in dialogue), and evoking with great ease a turbulent but far from unattractive feudal society. It also, incidentally, provides a nice answer to Colegate’s self-questioning about What Then Must We Do? ‘Cheer up,’ says an old actor to Zeami, at a low moment, ‘in our art you can go on improving till you drop dead.’

[*] Balloon Top was reissued by Century on 27 June (255 pp., £2.95, 0 7126 0845 1).