Manly Scowls

Patrick Parrinder

  • An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Faber, 206 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13608 7
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
    Methuen, 337 pp, £4.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 413 59720 2
  • Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates
    Methuen, 347 pp, £9.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 413 59730 X
  • Ellen by Ita Daly
    Cape, 144 pp, £8.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 224 02833 2

Now that the three-volume novel and the circulating library are dead,’ I imagine someone as saying around the year 1900, ‘novels will have to be shorter, sharper, more up to date. The future lies with an Associated Press dispatch, not with the slow unfolding of generations. Nobody wants to read elaborate descriptions of things that might have happened, but didn’t, decades ago.’ The fact is that no prediction of the shape of the modern novel could have been more misleading than this one. Nor is it just a question of writers like Proust and Mann, who may be said to belong to the last flowering of the 19th century. In the 1980s the tradition of setting a certain kind of novel ‘one generation back’ in time remains as vital as ever. We are accustomed to the paradox that most people’s notions of the texture of life in, say, the 1830s are derived from George Eliot’s novels, written more than thirty years afterwards. Yet it is strange to consider that – after all the instant histories and TV documentaries – the versions of the 1940s and 1950s with which future generations will be most familiar may still be in process of construction.

The year 1945, like 1830 and 1914, now seems a natural watershed – above all in countries which experienced national defeat, social upheaval and military occupation. An Artist of the Floating World, a beautiful and haunting novel by the author of A Pale View of the Hills, consists of the rambling reminiscences of a retired painter set down at various dates in the Japan of the late Forties. Americanisation is in full swing, national pride has been humbled, and the horror of the bombed cities and the loss of life is beginning to be counted. The young soldiers who came back from the war are turning into loyal corporation men, eager to forget the Imperial past and to dedicate the remainder of their lives to resurgent capitalism. Ishiguro’s narrator, Masuji Ono, has lost his wife and son but lives on with two daughters, one of whom is married. Were it not for his anxieties over his second daughter’s marriage negotiations, Ono could be left to subside into the indolence of old age. As it is, ‘certain precautionary steps’ must be taken against the investigations to be pursued, as a matter of course, by his prospective son-in-law. The past has its guilty secrets which Ono must slowly and reluctantly bring back to consciousness.

Ono was trained as a decadent artist, an illustrator of the night-time ‘floating world’ of geishas and courtesans, but at the time of the ‘China crisis’ in the Thirties, he broke away from that style to create a more morally uplifting and patriotic form of art. In his painting Complacency, the image of three well-dressed men drinking in a bar was offset by three ragged youths brandishing sticks and wearing the ‘manly scowls’ of samurai warriors – the two images moulded together by the outline of the Japanese islands. In his declining years, however, Ono has relapsed into the decadence of the barfly and the maudlin old-timer: and now it is his turn to confront the anger of the young with a Polonius-like complacency.

Some of Ishiguro’s most delightful scenes portray the mutual incomprehensions of the old and the young. Ono is frustrated in his attempts to initiate his eight-year-old grandson into the male mysteries of sake-drinking and the samurai warriors, for example: the youngster is more exercised by cowboys, monster movies and Popeye the Sailorman. (At least it makes him eat up his spinach.) But there is more serious business afoot. At the height of his career Ono had won an ‘auction of prestige’, in which the most suitable buyer was chosen for an imposing town house. (This incident is presented at the beginning of the novel as if it were a baffling oriental custom: in England such grace-and-favour methods are reserved for the appointment of Regius Professors rather than for the selling of houses.) Now, as he tries to marry off his daughter, Ono’s prestige as a former Fascist painter is a rapidly dwindling asset. For who needs a father-in-law who was once official adviser to the Committee on Unpatriotic Activities, and who turned over his favourite pupil to the secret police?

There is in Japan an honourable way out of such dilemmas, as Ono is only too well aware. A famous composer of patriotic songs has committed suicide. The director of a company involved in ‘certain undertakings’ during the war is reported to have gassed himself after an ineffectual attempt – betrayed by minor scratches around his stomach – to perform harakiri. Every day brings more news of such deaths ‘in apology’ to the nation’s war widows and bereaved families. What will Ono do? Ishiguro gives a delicate and wholly convincing account of the evasions, the self-justifications and the pride of a man willing to bend with the breeze, but accustomed to a position of dignity. Through Ono’s mental detours, and the little hypocrisies of those around him – his daughters’ deferential and half-mocking manner towards him is exquisitely caught – Ishiguro gives us a vignette of a moment of cultural history which is as complete, in its own way, as Washington Square or Castle Rackrent.

The core of Ono’s shame is that he betrayed his pupil; but recollecting the incidents of his own apprenticeship, he constructs a view of the artistic profession in which, thanks to the ‘anxiety of influence’, mutual betrayal is almost a natural termination to the relationship between a master and his most gifted follower. Eventually, at the miai or formal meeting between his daughter and future son-in-law and their respective families, Ono rouses himself to speak the words of apology and self-humiliation that he feels are expected of a man of his former political sympathies. It is an act of moral exertion sufficient, at least, to preserve the honour of a conscientious mediocrity who whiles away what is left of his time by drinking in the city’s ‘pleasure-district’ or taking walks to the aptly-named Bridge of Hesitation. History may not be able to forgive the defeated, but at least Ono himself can finally bestow his blessing on the brave new Japan of democratic values, Hollywood movies and Nippon Electronics. Far from embodying the samurai tradition which he had extolled in his paintings, the hero of this gentle, moving tragicomedy reminds us of nothing so much as a Japanese Vicar of Bray.

Richard Yates has been hailed, by Kurt Vonnegut and others, as the chronicler of the generation of middle-class Americans who came of age on the battlefields of Europe in the closing stages of World War Two. In Revolutionary Road (first published in 1961) and his new novel Young Hearts Crying Yates chooses characters for whom the post-war saga of career-building, marriage and parenthood is from one point of view little more than a prolonged anti-climax. Nevertheless, it is the after-lives of these war veterans, rather than their brief moments of fear and glory, which interest him. It is notable that in the narrative of Young Hearts Crying, as in Ishiguro’s novel, the high points of experience and the times of greatest stress are, so to speak, edited out. The accent is on humdrum, ordinary existence. The difference is that Yates, writing in the form of an objective, linear chronicle, cannot turn these omissions to narrative advantage. Michael Davenport in Young Hearts Crying has been a successful amateur boxer and a waist-gunner in B-17s during the bombing of Germany. Later on he writes what is said to be one of the finest contemporary American poems, ‘Coming Clean’, and later still he undergoes a psychotic episode. Yates skirts around these events, telling us a great deal about Davenport’s everyday life, but not making it at all clear what it was he managed to come clean about.

‘People don’t do things like that!’ exclaims one of the bystanders in Yates’s earlier novel – echoing the incredulous Judge Brack at the end of Hedda Gabler – and the fiction of social history written in accordance with the conventions of naturalism is likely to tread carefully around events and actions which might have provoked the reader’s incredulity. Yates sticks for the most part to the things people indisputably do do, and also (and this is where he is at his best) to the lies they tell themselves about what they are doing and are capable of doing. His characters are amateur actors, both on-stage and off. Revolutionary Road starts with the Laurel Players, a short-lived group of enthusiasts determined to put on the best of Ibsen, Shaw and O’Neill for the entertainment of western Connecticut. After the Players have folded, the novel pursues a domestic drama which could well have provided a subject for the naturalistic theatre. The Revolutionary Road of the title is part of the housing estate to which Frank Wheeler, an ex-infantryman and former Greenwich Village drop-out, has moved with his family. Much of the action takes place in suburban living-rooms. ‘The whole idea of suburbia,’ says Frank – who is something of a transatlantic Jimmy Porter – ‘is to keep reality at bay’: but he and his wife are involved in a desperate and self-destructive attempt to keep alive the hopes of Bohemia in the heart of suburbia. The result is a powerful if rather dated story, with some effective satire and convincing observations of self-deception and marital unhappiness; and, as in the best naturalistic theatre, it all ends nastily.

Young Hearts Crying shows Yates still writing, as in a time-warp, in the linear narrative tradition of American naturalism. His title is taken from James Joyce (of all people), but the 40-year time-span and bifurcated narrative of his new novel are more reminiscent of Arnold Bennett. Yates’s story, which could have split neatly into three volumes, divides at the point where Michael and Lucy Davenport, after weathering several years as young bohemians and young suburbanites, decide to go their different ways. Michael, the poet and former war hero, returns to a chequered and dissolute life in Greenwich Village, from which he is saved by remarriage and a job on the faculty of a second-rate university. Lucy, an heiress whose husband has priggishly renounced the use of her fortune, seeks self-expression through acting, writing, painting and a series of affairs. Eventually she settles for the one thing she is unquestionably qualified to do well, which is giving her money away and working for charity. Yates traces these lives with a painstaking intensity; but it is not so easy to say what it all signifies. Both Revolutionary Road and Young Hearts Crying stay well within the limits of naturalism, notably in their reliance – at moments when we could have asked for more, much more – on a handful of commonplaces about the human condition.

One of Yates’s favourite commonplaces (and one that is now everywhere identified with the Fifties) has to do with gender identity. A man ought to be manly, Yates’s characters tend to think, and a woman ought to be womanly. From time to time the novelist pokes fun at his protagonists’ anxieties about manhood, potency, emasculation: but, apart from some equally commonplace views about middleaged mellowing, he offers no other means of measuring their essential vitality. The characters of Young Hearts Crying are poets and painters, but, as we have seen, their poems are written, and their paintings painted, offstage. As soldiers and war veterans, Frank Wheeler and Michael Davenport had proved their manhood while still in their teens – the best part was over before what they come to think of as ‘real life’ had begun. Back home in suburbia, both are racked with unacknowledged tensions, and both are occasionally violent men. Davenport, especially, likes to trap other people at parties (oddly enough, these are usually working-class men in poor condition) into a test of strength which gives him an excuse for knocking them out. The misdirected pugilism implies not so much that there are no good causes left as that, once he has produced and reared (or failed to rear) his offspring, the biological male of the American naturalistic literary tradition no longer has any real function. Once he has fought and married and mated, in the closing words of Young Hearts Crying, ‘it might not even matter how the story turned out in the end.’

Ellen, a first novel by the Irish author Ita Daly, is another work in the naturalistic mode: almost, in fact, a Tale of Mean Streets. But here the first-person narrative with its fastidious detachment reveals a highly-disciplined writer whose concern with the ‘scrupulous meanness’ of an impoverished existence belongs in the school of the early Joyce. Ellen is memorable in part for its sparse evocations of the ‘raw misery’ of a working-class Dublin childhood and youth, which is also (as it happens) set in the Fifties. Looking back on her early years, the narrator remembers terraces where the walls were set shaking every time somebody pulled the lavatory chain, and where soot fell into the fireplace whenever someone coughed. Later she becomes a connoisseur of dreadful meals – including the most gruesome dish of Dublin kidneys since the one that was left to burn on the hob by Leopold Bloom – washed down, with sherry and slugs of gin, by people with spreading haunches, bulging ankles and buniony feet. Ellen is not only a working-class child but an ugly duckling, and, worse still, she is that oddity, an only child of Irish Catholic parents. Some of her miseries would have been made more bearable by overcrowding.

The story gets going when Ellen, having failed her school-leaving certificate, takes a secretarial job and begins to scent the possibilities of escape. A chance meeting with pretty, vivacious and selfish Myra rescues her from life in her parents’ house and sweeps her off to a Victorian studio flat in middle-class Donnybrook. Among the visitors who come to the flat are Myra’s boyfriend, a cricket-playing Protestant stockbroker called Adrien who strikes Ellen as a ‘grown-up Christopher Robin’, and his cousin Bobbie. Life seems idyllic until Ellen catches her flat-mate together with the balding and maladroit Bobbie. Insane with jealousy, Ellen attacks Myra with the bread-knife and kills her, making it look, however, as if the murder had been committed by an unknown intruder. The Garda question her, but soon lose interest. Her life, to outward appearance, goes on much as before.

People don’t do things like that? Oscar Wilde, for one, thought that they did:

Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

Ellen, the tale of someone who did it ‘with a sword’ and got away with it, is a ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in reverse. The narrator’s apparently successful attempts to ‘act normally’ after she has done the deed suggest that, terrible as the penalty may be that society exacts, it is equally terrible not to have to pay the price. Ita Daly in this brief study has brought off a remarkable mixture of the humdrum and the sinister.

In Ellen’s life there is a prospect of mental torment with no glimmer of confession (apart from the existence of the story itself) and none of absolution. How much the novel is indebted to the mental world of Irish Catholicism is anyone’s guess. Ellen’s only sense of ‘justification for the continuation of my life’ is ‘the sure approach, no matter how slow, of my death’ – which verges on existential absurdity. She sees the death of Myra as an inexplicable act: all Ellen can say of herself is that a hand plunging the bread-knife has condemned her to a hopeless existence of passive martyrdom. Is Ellen a psychopath? If so, the psychological classification, or legal fiction, tells us no more than the traditional aesthetic judgment that she is a character possessing a ‘tragic flaw’. The point about Ellen is that we only have her story, and the legal status and medical state of a fictional character can never be put to the test.

Although the heroine’s principal action cannot be explained, Ellen is an authentic work of naturalistic fiction in its vivid and sordid detail, its sense of the cruelty of life and its capacity to shock. Relationships here are curiously asexual – the men, who are mostly mother’s boys, have not an ounce of masculinity in Richard Yates’s sense – but it is the characters’ desperate need and capacity for love, and the blindness and perversity of that love, which produce the tragedy. Myra loves Adrien, both Ellen and Bobbie are obsessed with Myra, and Adrien’s affections remain mysterious until, eventually, he turns towards Ellen. Like many naturalistic writers, Ita Daly sums up her sense of life’s purposelessness in a series of graphic and desolate images. Life is like a child’s game of tig, an endless and trivial business of pursuing and being pursued; life is like a cut orange, placed near an ants’ nest on the grass: ‘The flesh of the orange changed to black as the bodies covered it completely. Their frantic energy mesmerised me and, although I looked and looked, I could find no purpose to their labour.’ In this searing portrait Ita Daly has very definitely laboured to some purpose.