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’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in