Edgar and Emma

John Sutherland

  • World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow
    Joseph, 275 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2685 8
  • The Adventures of Robina edited by Emma Tennant
    Faber, 165 pp, £9.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 571 13796 2

I take the following details from Current Biography, July 1976. Edgar L. Doctorow was born in New York City on 6 January 1931 to David R. and Rose Doctorow, whom he has described as ‘old-fashioned social democrats’. His grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants from Russia. Doctorow grew up on Eastburn Avenue, in the Bronx. His mother was a pianist and his father had a store in the old Hippodrome building that sold musical instruments, radios and records. According to Doctorow, there was never any money, and his father would have to be considered a ‘failed man’. Nevertheless, he retains pleasant memories of his childhood.

World’s Fair is a novel told in the first person (with some interpolations from other family members) by Edgar. Edgar’s birthday is 6 January 1931, and the narrative covers the first nine years of his life, largely spent in a house on Eastburn Avenue. His parents, called Dave and Rose, are the offspring of Russian Jewish immigrants. They are social democrats: in earliest infancy Edgar realises that ‘one had as resources oneself, one’s brother, one’s parents and possibly President Roosevelt.’ Rose is a pianist. David co-owns a music store in the Hippodrome, and his free-and-easy ways with money cause constant worries for his family. But, on the whole, Edgar has a sheltered and enjoyable childhood.

World’s Fair, not to labour the point, melts the generic boundary between fiction and autobiography to the point where neither label will conveniently fit. One can, of course, propose some aesthetic justification for Doctorow’s little game. At the level of its foundations all fiction is autobiography: we can invent nothing that we have not experienced, if only vicariously. But normally the novelist goes through certain decent forms. Names are changed, material is shuffled around, ritual invocations about ‘any resemblance’ are made. Doctorow brazenly flouts the traditional customs of his craft. He is known to love tricks which victimise his reader. (Often these take the form of buried literary allusion.) Legerdemain is, it would seem, the Doctorovian badge of authorship. The trait was evidently inherited. In World’s Fair, Edgar goes on at some length about his father’s love of language games and visual illusions:

he did sleight-of-hand things. He could appear to remove the top joint of his thumb, for example, and then put it back ... Like all good tricks it was horrifying ... He was full of surprises, he punned, he made jokes.

Retrospectively, the adult hero concludes that his father’s trickery derives from a peasant vision of life: ‘it had come from the old country.’ Doctorow’s literary trickery fulfils the same function that Yiddish does for Singer. It connects him, if only remotely, with his pre-immigrant origins. At the end of World’s Fair the only object that Edgar keeps from his childhood is a manual on ventriloquism: his other childish things are ritually put away in a hole in Claremont Park. He will carry into adult life a talent for amusing by cleverly confusing.

Doctorow’s confusion of forms works strikingly well. Straight autobiography is a stylistically thin and conservative form. Packaging World’s Fair as a novel permits a range of literary effect, experimental flourish and symbolic organisation denied confessional truth-telling. There are other advantages. Most post-romantic autobiographies subscribe to the theory that the child is father to the man. Nevertheless, they insist on hurrying over childhood to get to the crises and achievements of adult life. Using the conventions of the novel of childhood, Doctorow can linger on his first nine years as complete in themselves.

Not a lot happens in World’s Fair. Edgar is a late child, born into a family living through the Depression, at first comfortably. He has a brother, Donald, who is eight years older and altogether more competent. Donald reads Popular Mechanics and Radio Craft. He shrewdly perceives the sinister implications of Fascism long before American political commentators. Grown up, Donald becomes a successful saxophonist. The musical gift he inherits from his father, but the ability to make it pay off comes from his harder-headed mother. As a provider, Dave is wayward. He gambles and may womanise – Donald discovers a suspicious photograph. Around 1937, he loses his business and the family has to move to a mean apartment on the Concourse. Edgar gradually comes to see through his father in an affectionate kind of way. Meanwhile the mother copes heroically. Rose’s portrayal will not, like Mrs Portnoy’s, raise the League of Jewish Mothers to wrath. But there is a tinge of resentful filial satire in Edgar’s recollection.

Nothing momentous occurs to mark Edgar’s growing up. He does well at school; has a dog called Pinky who almost gets run over; has his first erotic experiences with an amiable girl called Meg, of whose unrespectable mother Rose strongly disapproves. He devours more Flash Gordon, Zorro, the Green Hornet and Lamont Cranston the Shadow than is good for him. There are a few high points. Edgar gets on the Babe Ruth radio programme. There is a day at the beach and a day in the country. Various fringe members of the family drift in and out of the home, though none of them seems to amount to much. One day, Edgar is held up by two knife-wielding young Nazis. But he passionately denies he is a Jew, and they don’t stab him.

The narrative ends with the World’s Fair of 1939. There in the General Motors Futurama, Edgar is vouchsafed a vision of the ‘World of Tomorrow’. Like an infant and apolitical John Reed, he emerges dazzled, holding a button declaring: ‘I have seen the future.’ In other ways, the World’s Fair crowns Edgar’s childhood. He wins an honourable mention in the essay contest on the theme of ‘The American Boy’. His entry is naively self-revealing:

the typical American boy is not fearful of dangers. He should be able to go out into the country and drink raw milk. Likewise he should traverse the hills and valleys of the city. If he is Jewish he should say so.

The 1940s in fact hold a hideous world of global war and holocaust. Edgar’s childhood is poised between a depressing past and an uplifting future which will not materialise. The past is represented by the senile maternal grandmother who lives with the family. In her dementia, she curses all around her in Yiddish incomprehensible to Edgar. ‘She suggested that it would be a good thing if cholera were to kill us all. My mother numbly translated for me when I asked her what was being said. Another eventuality Grandma hoped for was that a company of Cossacks on their horses would ride us down.’ Grandma is the persecution and misery of the past incarnate. The future is the glistening geometric structures of the World’s Fair and the visionary ‘American boy’. Grandma, it will emerge, is more prescient than General Motors.

Doctorow takes his epigraph from Wordsworth’s Prelude, and clearly one of the main intentions of World’s Fair is to trace the growth of a novelist’s mind. Why does Edgar grow up into the family writer rather than playing the saxophone or becoming, to his mother’s joy, a doctor? Interestingly, Doctorow locates the genesis of Edgar the writer in his chronic physical ailments: ‘I was an asthmatic child, allergic to everything. I was attacked continually in the lungs, coughing, wheezing, needing to be steamed over inhalators. I was the mournful prodigy of medicine.’ Allergic to everything, Edgar grows up suspicious and wary, always more prone to inspect the world than to participate. It’s an honest, if inglorious analysis. The pen is mightier than the thermometer, but only just.

Doctorow is always finicky about his prose, and more than most novelists varies it from work to work. Here he has chosen a clipped, understated utterance which borders on but never quite relaxes into comic monologue. Edgar’s first intimation of mortality is a good example of the novel’s presiding tone of carefully restrained jest:

I had the distinct impression death was Jewish. It had happened to my grandma, who spoke Jewish, and everyone had immediately repaired to the synagogue. A memorial candle in a glass now stood flickering on a kitchen table for Grandma, whom I had seen light similar candle glasses for her own dead. Hebrew letters were on the glass label as on the window of the chicken market where dead chickens hung on hooks by their feet, some plucked, some half plucked, some with all their feathers. Chickens, I knew were Jewish.

It all comes off very well. Different and unclassifiable as it is, World’s Fair is the best thing of Doctorow’s I’ve read.

Boiled down, Emma Tennant’s Adventures of Robina goes like this. The red-haired and beautiful heroine belongs to a rich family, but is herself possessed only of a measly £25,000 which has been locked up in a trust fund. Robina’s parents have mysteriously decamped, and she (and her trust fund) are in the charge of a dour Scottish aunt and a lecherous uncle. Around 1954, at the age of 16, Robina is sent off to a finishing-school in Oxford, to study French and history of art. On the train journey from Carlisle, she falls in with a well-born young undergraduate, who makes a groping dive for her knickers, and on being repulsed proposes marriage. He is accepted by the ingenuous heroine. At Mlle Weiss’s establishment for young girls at Oxford, Robina eludes various sexual assaults by dirty old men, lesbian schoolmates and inebriated Oxonians. She is expelled, after being tricked into a dirty weekend in London – from which she emerges unsoiled. On the night sleeper back, Robina falls in with another young undergraduate, who gets her drunk and carries her off to his Scottish castle. Here she suffers the inevitable leering, fumbling and attempted rapes. Barely intact, she makes it to the safety of Carlisle, from where she is dispatched to yet another dubious establishment for young ladies in Paris and the attentions of a fetishistic duke. Robina is finally presented at Court before her sovereign. Her good looks attract favourable attention from the Prince – who is not like Charles, although his mother is unmistakably Elizabeth II. Robina is now in the custody of her rich London uncle. He sponsors her debut into society, but has the ulterior motive of poncing for the lecherous (but physically under-endowed) Prince. Robina puts up another spirited defence of her maidenhood. The same evening she takes up with a worthless youth, a commoner, who introduces her to the Faro gambling club; Lucky Lucan is among the patrons. Robina loses £20,000 on the tables, her rubies and – finally – her virginity. She also loses the worthless youth, when he discovers she is not the heiress he thought. The novel ends with the deflowered and impoverished heroine being transported back to the Borders, and punitive marriage to a rod-and-tackle merchant from Jedburgh.

One can think of a number of ways in which Robina’s progress could be handled by a playful novelist. But it’s unlikely that Tennant’s method would immediately suggest itself. What she does is to tell Robina’s unfortunate story in a robust 18th-century style derived principally from Defoe’s Roxana and Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Everything in the novel depends on the clash of 1950s setting and 1750s idiom holding up as a comic effect. It does. And at times Tennant achieves the rare hilarity that makes the reader laugh out loud, as in Robina’s encounter with her princely would-be ravisher: ‘In the Dark, and with his Flies now undone and a small Pr-ck sticking out, the Prince now came at Full Speed (fearing perhaps that his Staff would Outstrip him) and then Fell, Cursing and Groaning and then I’m sorry to say screaming in Fear which wasn’t Manly (for a male Member of the Royal Household must set an Example to his Subjects and in the Case of War must be ready to lead them into Battle without Timorousness), none of which the Prince showed on his Coming Across the Glass Jellies I had placed in his Path.’ This kind of thing has been done before, notably in Fanny, Erica Jong’s gender-reversed rewrite of Tom Jones. But Tennant’s touch seems to me to be lighter and her comic sense more intelligent than Jong’s.