D.A.N. Jones

  • The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth
    Cape, 89 pp, £5.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 224 02815 4
  • Loyalties by Raymond Williams
    Chatto, 378 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2843 7
  • Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West
    Macmillan, 295 pp, £9.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 333 39797 5
  • The Battle of Pollocks Crossing by J.L. Carr
    Viking, 176 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 670 80559 9
  • The Bone People by Keri Hulme
    Hodder, 450 pp, £9.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 340 37024 6

Security is the problem that exercises both Philip Roth and Raymond Williams. The sort of ‘security’ I mean is the sort that spreads a feeling of insecurity – a fear of surveillance, bugging, secret cameras, interrogation, the false smile of Mr Nice and the sincere snarl of Mr Nasty. Security men are sometimes clumsy and might cause us inconvenience through their category mistakes. For instance, in the Middle East last year, I decided not to post an urgent letter to a man in America whose Germanic name ends in ‘berg’: some conscientious Arab policeman might hold up my letter for careful, stupid scrutiny, assuming (like an Arab terrorist) that ‘berg’ equals ‘Jew’ equals ‘Zionist’. This is the kind of insecurity that Philip Roth explores in The Prague Orgy. His American hero, the famous Nathan Zuckerman, spends a few days in Czechoslovakia in 1976, is bugged the whole time and finally ushered out of the country by a passport officer with the courteous farewell: ‘Ah, Zuckerman, the Zionist agent. An honour to have entertained you here, sir.’ When Zuckerman is talking to a Czech who wishes to marry him, she gestures toward the bugged chandelier and passes him a note: ‘You cannot trust Czech police to understand ANYTHING, even in Czech. You must speak CLEAR and SLOW and LOUD.’

Even in Britain, so Raymond Williams suggests, the security men are sometimes at a loss. ‘There was the standard joke about Security,’ remarks a character in Loyalties. ‘The classics graduates and ex-colonial policemen.’ Such officers could hardly be expected to make sense of the technical information about the military use of computers which, in this novel, is being passed to the Soviet Union by clever British scientists. But Raymond Williams persuasively suggests that there really is such a thing as human intelligence, and that a truly intelligent security man can surmount the hurdle presented by esoteric specialisation. One of the scientists remarks: ‘Come on, give intelligence its due. It doesn’t often get it ... A classics graduate and an ex-Indian policeman may retire, baffled, from a shower of technical bullshit, but sooner or later ... ’

Raymond Williams also offers a quick, two-sided sketch of a new sort of British security officer in 1984. (His story begins in 1936.) Gwyn Lewis, under security scrutiny, is surprised by the appearance of his interrogator: ‘the very expensive City suit, the healthy confidence of skin and voice, the profound self assurance of manner and gesture, seemed to belong in a different, moneyed or orthodox-political world.’ Lewis also notices that, beneath ‘the broker’s manner’, the officer has ‘a better than adequate level of scientific knowledge’. An older man says of the same officer: ‘I know him. He’s a particularly unpleasant example of the new Far Right in Security. He was already so at Oxford.’

These are British complexities. Oxford and Cambridge and the Welsh working class; mathematics, philosophy, science and complicated political tendencies; the meaning of ‘traitor’ or (in Welsh) bradwr: these are the dominant themes in Loyalties. With The Prague Orgy we are in a more literary world – a real world, I mean, in which literature and security are in conflict. Roth’s story begins in New York, where Nathan Zuckerman is drinking with an exiled Czech writer called Sisovsky, whose interesting conversation persuades the American to visit Prague. Both Zuckerman and Sisovsky have suffered for their writings. Sisovsky wrote ‘a harmless little satire’ in 1967 and now (nine years later) he cannot be published in Czechoslovakia; so he lives in America where (in a quite different way) he still cannot write what he wishes, because he hasn’t the command of the language, the understanding of the readers. Sisovsky’s lady friend, once a great Chekhovian actress in Prague, illustrates his point with her own complaint: ‘To be an actress in America you must speak English that does not give people a headache.’

The successful Zuckerman is naturally sorry for these exiles, but he has to suffer the patronising compassion of Sisovsky: ‘the ruined exile will not be deflected from commiseration with the American success.’ Sisovsky maintains that Zuckerman is a genius who has written a masterpiece, but he has been treated in America merely as a succès de scandale, a victim of prudish complaints by bien-pensant Jews, reviewed and criticised in stupid articles which would never have been published in Prague in the Sixties: ‘The level is too low ... There is not one which could be called intelligent.’ Gradually, Sisovsky works round to his purpose: he wants Zuckerman to go to Prague and fetch some stories of equal genius, true masterpieces, written in Yiddish by Sisovsky’s father and now in the possession of Sisovsky’s ex-wife, a once-beautiful and ‘most compliant woman’, ready to do ‘anything for love’.

When Zuckerman gets to Prague, he meets this woman, Olga, but she keeps effing-and-blinding in a supposedly American style, trying to persuade him to marry her and carry her off to the States. He meets her at an apology for an ‘orgy’ in a 17th-century palazzo frequented by Czech dissidents and thoroughly bugged by Czech Security. When Zuckerman gets hold of the good Yiddish stories, the security men confiscate them and whizz him to the airport. He is personally escorted by der Kulturminister, a writer-politician called Novak, who gives him a little talk about politics and literature and asks if he knows Miss Betty MacDonald. (Zuckerman fears she might be a CIA agent, but Novak means the author of The Egg and I, a work much admired by Czech bien-pensants.) Novak supposes that Zuckerman will have recognised by now that the Czech dissidents he has met are ‘sexual perverts, alienated neurotics, bitter egomaniacs’ in the Kafka tradition. But at least, says the worthy Novak, ‘their blessed Kafka knew he was a freak, recognised that he was a misfit who could never enter into a healthy, ordinary existence alongside his countrymen. But these people? Incorrigible deviants who propose to make their moral outlook the norm.’

So the bien-pensant voice rolls on, echoing the hick moralists of America (and Britain) but with real power as well as moral authority – because, as another Czech has told Zuckerman, in Czechoslovakia ‘the police are like literary critics – of what little they see, they get most wrong anyway. They are the literary critics. Our literary criticism is police criticism.’ Before he lets Zuckerman go, Novak offers a maudlin tribute to his own ‘little old father’. Novak Senior, it appears, is now 86 and has ‘expressed his love of country all his life’ by praising Masaryk, Hitler, Benes, Stalin, Gottwald and even (very briefly) Dubcek. The little old survivor offered Novak this paternal advice: ‘Son, if someone called Jan Hus nothing but a dirty Jew, I would agree.’ It is for such little old readers that writers should write, says Novak.

The points made in this terse, deft and witty story will remind some readers of Josef Skvorecky’s long, complicated novel, The Engineer of Human Souls. The time-serving Novak Senior is like Lojza in Skvorecky’s book and Olga, eager to get to the States through marriage, is like Skvorecky’s portrait of Dotty. Not all dissidents and exiles from Eastern Europe can be regarded as saints and martyrs: some may be two-timers like Sergeant Svejk, others may be ‘alienated neurotics’ and ‘freaks’, like Kafka. These are difficult points to make, without causing unnecessary offence. A character in The Prague Orgy complains: ‘I do not care to be an ironical Czech character in an ironical Czech story. Everything that happens in Czechoslovakia, they shrug their shoulders and say “Pure Svejk, pure Kafka.” I am sick of them both.’ The difficult points that Skvorecky made so painstakingly are presented with speed and apparent ease by Philip Roth. However clumsy we, his reviewers, may be, he is more fortunate than Skvorecky – just as his Zuckerman is more fortunate than his Sisovsky.

Raymond Williams is not, like Roth, a natural storyteller. Loyalties may bore some readers, not sure what he is driving at, not sure which of his many characters ought to be kept in mind. That is why I have already revealed that at least one of them is a Soviet agent – and the book may be read as a detective story, the sort for which a reader must draw a family tree in order to keep track. We start in 1936 with seven young Communists in Wales: over the half-century most of them marry, have children (not always ‘legitimate’) and grandchildren – and not all these characters are necessary to the story. Some belong to the Welsh working class, others to the world of Cambridge scholarship, and their family life is as complicated as Greek ancestral myths. The book begins:

‘Merritt, did you say? Any relation to Alec Merritt?’

‘He’s my father. I don’t see him. They split when I was a child ... ’

‘Yet I had a clear impression you were something to do with Phil Whitlow.’

‘He married my mother.’

We must not get Alec Merritt confused with Alex Merritt, any more than we confuse legitimate Gwen Lewis with illegitimate Gwyn Lewis – who is told by Security: ‘Dr Lewis, I understand that you are the natural son of Sir Norman Braose.’ We meet Sir Norman kissing little Alex, who is Nan’s girl, and Sarah says: ‘Say hello to Aunt Emma, Alex.’ Emma tells little Alex she is going to stay at Nayles, ‘a marvellous house with an old family name’, where Emma used to stay when she was a little girl ‘because mummy and daddy were abroad’. It is a good intelligence test, but we don’t really need all this family news.

After these hard words, I should try to insist that Loyalties is a serious novel, of particular interest to those (including security men) who want to understand left-wing thinking in Britain over this half-century. We follow the seven Communists to the Spanish Civil War, through fighting in Normandy, to the London demonstrations of 1956 and 1968: the whole story is topped and tailed with a prelude and epilogue about a television programme in 1984, a piece of investigative journalism about political dissidents. The most interesting character of the seven is a brilliant Cambridge mathematician called Monkey Pitter, drawn with an unusual, almost Roth-like, lightness of touch. In 1968 he is singing at the piano, to annoy other left-wingers, a song which begins: ‘When Trotsky trotted his droshky down the Kingsky Prospekt wide ... ’ It continues:

Then up stood Comrade Chamberlayne and showed them the way to go.

They must all go out in the streets and cheer and pretend it was Uncle Joe.

The whole song needs critical interpretation. Whose side is Monkey Pitter really on? Loyalties does, in its mysterious way, say more about the subject promised by its title than Rebecca West managed with The Meaning of Treason.

She was not very good at moralising, because of her strong tendency to be self-righteous and unfair. But she was good at creating female characters and presenting grand scenes through their eyes. Cousin Rosamund, a posthumous fragment of an ambitious project, is an admirable example of her talent. There is a helpful afterword by Victoria Glendinning, explaining that Cousin Rosamund was part of the novel sequence begun in 1956 with The fountain overflows. When Rebecca West died, aged 90, in 1983, some of the typescript she left behind was published as This Real Night. Now some more of the typescript is published as Cousin Rosamund and we have some idea of the mighty project that Dame Rebecca envisaged. She intended to make ‘Cousin Rosamund’ die in Belsen Camp and to let her cousins, Mary and Rose, discover this fact at the Nuremberg trials. But Dame Rebecca did not get so far before she died. Cousin Rosamund is about the year 1929.

The narrator is Rose, one of two sisters who are successful concert pianists. They are distressed, early on, by the marriage of their cousin, Rosamund, to a man ‘who was a head shorter than she was, who was ridiculous in form’. Later in the book, Rose describes him as ‘a heathen who was not a gentleman like our Papa’ and, further on, as ‘this dreadful man Nestor Ganymedios, who is horrible to look at and is not honest and is cruel and squalid and spends his money in a way that is like vomiting and is a sort of racial wastepaper basket’. Rose often describes men in this ferocious style. Another man she despises is a man called Oswald who is marrying her friend Nancy. ‘It is not only that he looks awful, which he does. His ears stick out and he wears spectacles in a hostile sort of way ... and Nancy says that she is going to try to get him to wear bicycle clips only when he is going to ride a bicycle.’ It is a relief when Rose herself gets married and warmly expresses her feeling for her husband. ‘Marriage, inviolate marriage was the only way by which the traffic between men and women could be rendered tolerable. If two people went to church in festive dress and took part in a pretty rite in the presence of their friends, and then shared the same house and always went about together, then one could think of these public things as all that was happening.’ No doubt Dame Rebecca would have wanted to tidy up these fragments before they were published, but it is interesting to see them in their raw state.

Now we must turn disconsolately to two novels shortlisted for the Booker-McConnell Prize for Fiction. J.L. Carr’s The Battle of Pollocks Crossing is a fairly short book offering traditional English complaints against the United States. The hero, George Gidner, goes to Dakota in 1929, leaving his teaching job in Bradford to attempt something similar in the Wild West. Sneeringly the narrative describes the girls he left behind him. ‘Mr Gidner seems sort of exalted since he landed that plush Yankee job,’ says a dejected Miss Dora Tippett. ‘I sort of know he’ll never come back to Balaclava Road Elementary any more. I sort of know he’ll not date me any more.’ With a curious pomposity the sneer continues: ‘Although Dora Tippett withdraws from this story, it is no more than justice to say that his neglect was not because of her lack of charm, sort of. Far from it. As a matter of fact, at the tennis club that same summer, she met a rising young executive in a thread factory and married him.’ The reader feels that he is expected to laugh politely at this feeble attempt at a snobbish witticism.

When Gidner gets to Dakota, he is bored and frightened. He sees that the town of Palisades is merely a grid of six streets crossed by six avenues, ‘each sidewalk verge thickly planted with cottonwoods and Chinese elms. It is not a Real Town like Bradford, he thought. It is a small forest with houses in it.’ All around the town is ‘an immense carpet of farmland ... a crushing sameness ... a desert’. A Greek called Mr Stavros tells him: ‘Do not be alarmed. Us Europeans need never go out there. Nothing beyond our city limits need ever concern us.’ Gidner lodges with an unpopular Anglophile called Mr Farewell and sometimes bicyles out to Pollocks Crossing, to chat with a blind man called Mr Ardvaark. Gidner is often frightened by the incipient violence of American life, but nothing happens (apart from school problems) until almost the end of his brief teaching stint. Mr Farewell is a banker and, when his bank collapses, he holes up with Mr Ardvaark at Pollocks Crossing. The mob comes round to get him, and Gidner is a witness to his end. That is all there is to it.

The actual winner of the Booker-McConnell Prize for Fiction is a longer book, a longer yawn. The preliminary press release gave us the background: ‘Twelve years in the making, Keri Hulme’s extraordinary novel was first published in 1984 by Spiral, a New Zealand-based feminist collective consisting of Marian Evans, Miriama Evans and Irihapeti Ramsden ... The Bone People has won the New Zealand Book Award and the Mobil Pegasus Award for Maori Literature and was shortlisted for the prestigious Wattie Awards ... Now, with the further endorsement of the Booker-McConnell Prize judges, Keri Hulme will be recognised as one of today’s most gifted and unusual writers.’

Keri Hulme is of part-Maori ancestry and her heroine, Kerewin Holmes, says: ‘If I was in America, I’d be an octoroon. It’s very strange, but whereas by blood, flesh and inheritance, I am but an eighth Maori, by heart, spirit and inclination, I feel all Maori.’ When Kerewin goes to a Maori-frequented bar, ‘the brown faces stare at her with bright unfriendly eyes’ and she wants to ‘whip out a certified copy of her whakapapa’, so that she can say: ‘Look! I am really one of you.’ A man ‘comes across and hongis’. (A whakapapa is a genealogy, and to hongi is to rub noses, the glossary explains.) The first Maori we meet in the story is a drunk called Joe who keeps saying ‘fuck’ to himself in a bar. Kerewin dislikes him at first, but gets to know him as the adopted father of a little Irish boy whom he found on a New Zealand beach after a shipwreck. The little boy is somewhere between five and ten: he cannot speak (perhaps he is ‘autistic’) and is sometimes vicious and spiteful. Joe beats him up, often, very brutally, and Kerewin has to come to terms with this habit.

Kerewin is an unusual woman. She tells Joe that, as long as she can remember, she has disliked ‘close contact, emotional contact, as well as any overtly sexual contact’. She thinks she may be ‘a neuter’ and has tried to understand her condition by studying the Kama Sutra and Krafft-Ebing and ‘a pile of know-your-own-body books’. The Maori looks at her painting and says: ‘Maybe you have so much energy tied up in this, you have none left for sex. Sublimated is the jargon, eh? I’m not being funny, but that’s a Maori thing in a way.’ Besides painting she practises I Ching prophecy and has become expert at Aikido, ‘because she had heard that it was some kind of super-karate, the ultimate kung fu.’ She is thus enabled to beat up Joe when he beats up the little boy. With Joe, she drives away a bunch of Australians who are singing ‘Tipperary’, since she disapproves of ‘war songs’. The Australians slink away for they are looking at Kerewin’s ‘long tensed hands’ and can see ‘curious callouses all down the edges of the palms’. Joe beats up the little boy so badly that the child loses his hearing and Joe has to go to prison for a while, but Kerewin forgives him. There is a good deal of beating and mutilation in this book, which I have found a painful duty to read. However, it was shortlisted for the prestigious Wattie Awards and now it has won another prize and Norman St John Stevas says it ‘breaks new ground’ and represents ‘an advance in literature’.