- Sphinx by D.M. Thomas
Gollancz, 248 pp, £9.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 575 03611 7
I must declare an interest in this particular Thomas. Dylan, R.S., above all the heart-inscribed Edward – these I admire, respect, claim. D.M. I have had little luck with.
Our relationship began with the publication some years ago of The Flute Player, a novel which, I had heard, concerned the life of Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam was and is, for me, the purest of 20th-century poets, even in England his lines meet my sensibility with an unsurpassed directness. His wife Nadezhda wrote (the quotation is approximate) in one of her two fine books, ‘You always know when you are reading a true poem – there is a feeling which cannot be mistaken’; and her view has always been, for me, confirmed by its very close resemblance to the news from St Teresa of Avila concerning the means by which you distinguish the voice of God from that of the Devil or the lesser orders: ‘There is an authority, an immediate and unmistakable conviction, when the true voice speaks.’ This cannot be faked, both women say, this is how it will be when you read or hear or see it. I have thought and still think: yes, this is so. And feeling so about Mandelstam, more than about any other writer of recent time, I bought Thomas’s book, bought it without benefit of either review or browse. A rash move, and the beginning of the unlucky relationship referred to above: a relationship which has only grown more perplexing as Thomas’s reputation has, as it undoubtedly has, grown.
Remembering my feelings in those early days, they were initially a matter of disappointment, a degree of bewilderment, a little annoyance. What I found in The Flute Player was a mix of fragments of poetry, the gratuitous naming of admired names, a collage of superficially-evoked themes and blurred images, a sometimes embarrassingly banal dialogue which masked its clichés by offering them in French or Russian or some other non-English tongue, all of these moving past the reader’s eye pretty swiftly, so swiftly that it reminded me of nothing so much as of my old teacher Marshall McLuhan at his rapid-fire worst, evading ordinary men’s plain questions by ping-ponging back little tag-phrases from Valéry, Gide, St Augustine or whoever came to mind, keeping things moving, now-you-understand-me-now-you-don’t, terrific, interview over. ‘Of course that’s just the acte gratuit in the ethical sphere,’ I heard MM remind a Toronto sports-writer who had asked him to comment on some aspect of the night before’s Stanley Cup ice-hockey play-off game. The comparison with Thomas should not be carried too far, though. Quite a lot of the time McLuhan was brilliant, stimulating.
The only paragraphs that slowed Thomas down were the leisurely voyeuristic scannings of bodies engaged in close-focus sex – a special-interest area for him which he has shown no signs of switching off. But this was a novel which was offered as having some connection with the work and life of Osip Mandelstam, a man so clarity-ridden that his lines and images seem to have arrived on the page by the simplest of all conceivable routes, leaving nothing for the reader to do with them or about them for ever except gaze and be reminded of a possibility, a series of possibilities, more lucid than anything else she or he has imagined. And a man of a notable privacy and discretion, in life and work both ... It was puzzling, but not that puzzling, after all. Exploitation, like other things, comes in infinite varieties. End of relationship, why not.
Two reasons why not. The first was the success, runaway variety, of The White Hotel. The second this present book, Sphinx. After everyone else had read The White Hotel I eventually read it too, found it as bogus as I was sure it would be, and still find incomprehensible the praise the book was given. In Britain its author was described as ‘a profound myth-maker’, which is a description I’d have thought could be corrected if one took the admittedly radical step of getting clear her or his standards for using a word like ‘profound’, also if one reached some awareness of what myth-making as opposed to myth-exploiting is about.
The White Hotel purports to show Freud at work, it surprises F. in a number of pocket-torch-lit sequences (reading and writing letters, mostly), there are glimpses of the potent and, yes, mythic Freudian nightscape here and there. But the relationship of novel to myth is neither creative nor illuminating – it is parasitic. The fancy footwork is as adroit as ever, the mix of history and biography and fiction is still in place, the deflections away from every apparently-imminent clarity continue; and the reliance on sadomasochistic sex already visible in The Flute Player is by now extreme. By the way, I must assume that the apparent unwillingness of critics to take on this aspect of Thomas’s work has at least a little to do with his slippery technique. He tends to present these sexual pay-offs in doggerel verse – a comparatively facile literary form, after all, but one which I’ve noticed reviewers in this country show a surprising respect for; and when he gets dug into these scenes there is a really remarkably crude use of simile, of metaphor, or of sheer unsubtle juxtaposition.
that night he almost burst my cunt apart
being tighter from my flow of blood, the stars
were huge over the lake, there was no room
for a moon, but the stars fell in our room.
Thomas likes this kind of thing a lot, both the verse-form, which more often than not rhymes, and the content here – more and more with each book, it seems.
Finally to Sphinx. It’s the third in a sequence, ‘linked but independent’, and for the purposes of this review I’ve now conscientiously read the other two. This one has three central characters, the poet Rozanov, the Guardian journalist Lloyd George, and the sphinx herself, Nadia, who is certainly an actress and a beauty and may be a KGB agent as well. Much talk of improvisatore, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, small or big tits, Akhmatova, Isadora Duncan, suspenders etc. ‘I asked him if he didn’t think it was slightly immoral, mixing reality and fiction,’ one character confides, and inside Thomas’s text the subversive query is triumphantly squashed (‘the trouble with most novels ... one knew they weren’t true, and therefore they were boringly irrelevant’).
The techniques familiar from the earlier novels are, in fact, all present here, the only difference being that Thomas seems to have grown careless and everything’s more blatant. Foreign words and phrases have multiplied, though in their obtrusive knowingness they endear themselves no more than they did before. We learn that in orgasmic moments Finns cry ‘Hääyöaie!’, and in case we’ve missed anything the ingenuous journalist George comes through with ‘Is that really the Finnish word for orgasm?’ and is reassured that yes, it is. Why Finns should cry out a word with three umlauts while experiencing it, as a couple of them repeatedly do in the next-door railway compartment, is a further question I wished George would ask.
More than one-quarter of the text is in verse, some of it rhyming couplets (‘Thatcher’ is twice rhymed with ‘dacha’, ‘Dürer’ with nomenklatura), and some of the scenes involving the omniseductive Nadia with the ‘ageing confidant’ of a Polish Pope are, I must admit, very funny.
Here are a few examples of the slapdash invoking (and whether it is condescending or merely stiffwitted, who cares) of a shared intellectual niveau. A trivial conversation in a railway car produces ‘I thought of a phrase in Whitsun Weddings ... this frail travelling coincidence’ (‘by my favourite poet Larkin,’ George, perhaps heavily, interpolates); the same George meets a tottery couple who confess how out of place they feel, and pat on its cue comes ‘This is no country for old men ... ’ (‘as Yeats had put it’). The third-from-last page offers ‘Nothing, almost, is a surprise / The Sphinx is moving his slow thighs’; and the name Nadezhda prompts the moony but reliable George to ‘hope against hope’.