- After a Funeral by Diana Athill
Cape, 158 pp, £9.50, February 1986, ISBN 0 224 02834 0
Waguih Ghali’s excellent novel Beer in the Snooker Club was published by André Deutsch in 1964. It attracted attention and enthusiastic reviews. The same happened when it was reissued in the Penguin New Writers series in 1968. On the night of Boxing Day that year, Ghali wrote in his diary:
I am going to kill myself tonight ... The time has come. I am, of course, drunk. But then sober it would have been very very very difficult. (I acknowledge the drunken writing myself.) But what else could I do, sweethearts? loved ones? Nothing, really. Nothing.
He swallowed 26 sleeping pills ‘sneaked’ from a friend’s medicine-chest:
And the most dramatic moment of my life – the only authentic one – is a terrible let-down. I have already swallowed my death. I could vomit it out if I wanted to. Honestly and sincerely, I really don’t want to. It is a pleasure. I am doing this not in a sad, unhappy way; but on the contrary, happily and even (a state of being and a word I have always loved) SERENELY ... serenely.
Waguih Ghali had good reason to love this state of being, which had eluded him throughout the forty years of his life. Born a Copt in predominantly Muslim Egypt and into a wealthy class at a time of socialist revolution, and educated at an English school at a time of national revival, he was also the one penniless member of a very rich family.
‘Ram’, the protagonist of Beer in the Snooker Club, has a very similar background and biography to those of his creator. He is a character full of contradictions, poor, but living rich on his family: ‘The fact that my aunts were very rich but not my mother, never occurred to me. I drifted on that rich tide. I was as well-dressed as the other [children] and went to the same school.’ Steeped in English culture, he engages in anti-British activities: demonstrations against the Occupation – ‘shouting “Evacuation” like everyone else, without precisely knowing why evacuation was so important’ – develop into excursions to Suez to harass the troops stationed there. He is financially dependent on his family, but abhors the means by which their wealth is made. To an old family friend who asks if he is ‘in business now’, he replies that he has ‘discovered a brand new way of exploiting the fellah. All I needed was capital.’ ‘You mustn’t joke about such things, dearie,’ she says. He cannot joke too much because he has the addiction to the good life which has been planted in him by family and upbringing: a taste for well-cut suits, for drink and for gambling. And yet when the Revolution comes in 1952 he takes to it ‘wholeheartedly and naturally, without any fanaticism or object in view ... socialism, freedom or democracy ... yes, that’s what the Egyptian revolution was; everything good was going to be carried out by the revolution.’ At the same time, his education at one of the Cairo English schools, and his prodigious reading (which is where he differs essentially from his class), have made him restless.
The world of ice and snow in winter and red, slanting rooftops was beginning to call us. The world of intellectuals and underground metros and cobbled streets and a green countryside which we had never seen, beckoned to us. The world where students had rooms and typists for girlfriends, and sang songs and drank beer in large mugs, shouted to us. A whole imaginary world. A mixture of all the cities in Europe; where pubs were confused with zinc bars and where Piccadilly led to the Champs-Elysées; where miners were communists and policemen fascists; where there was something called the ‘bourgeoisie’ and someone called the ‘landlady’; where there were Grand Hotels and Fiat factories and bull-fighting; where Americans were conspicuous and anarchists wore beards and there was something called the ‘Left’; where Christopher Isherwood’s German family lived, where the Swedes had the highest standard of living and where poets lived in garrets and there were indoor swimming-pools.
This world Ram describes here is the one visualised, longed-for and sought out by large numbers of Western-educated Egyptian ‘intellectuals’ from the beginning of this century until 1956.
Suez does not by itself disillusion Ram: it completes a process begun in the waiting-rooms of the Home Office:
We said this isn’t ‘cricket’, and didn’t smoke with our school blazers on because we had ‘promised’ not to do so. We had been implanted with an expectation of ‘fair play’ from the English. This stupid thing of expecting ‘fair play’ from the English, alongside their far from ‘fair play’ behaviour, was a strange phenomenon in us. Perhaps in our subsequent outcries against the English, there was the belief that if they knew that what they were doing wasn’t fair play, they would stop it. In spite of all the books we had read demonstrating the slyness and cruelty of England’s foreign policy, it took the Suez war to make us believe it. Of course the Africans and the Asians had had their Suezes a long time before us ... over and over again.
His answer was not to pack up and go home as so many others did, but to stay in London and join the Communist Party: ‘If ... someone has read an enormous amount of literature ... and he is just, and he is kind, and he cares about other people of all races, and he has enough time to think, and he is honest and sincere, there are two things can happen to him: he can join the Communist Party and then leave it, wallowing in its shortcomings, or he can become mad.’ Ram left the Party, did not wallow in its shortcomings, and returned to Egypt, thinking he ‘could do something useful. Teach or something like that; even help in villages and things.’ But he finds that
life here is exactly as it used to be ... I mean how can I go and work in a boiling village when he is travelling about in Farouk’s yacht which costs a million just for upkeep? And all this nationalisation business makes me laugh ... The money goes to that useless army. Even the Aswan Dam; by the time it’s completed we’ll have increased by ten million.
Ram joins an underground cell. His job is to procure photographs of torture victims from the concentration camps and pass them on to the national newspapers. The papers, censored, never publish them and Ram has a terrible insight that ‘some of the pictures wouldn’t be so gory if we didn’t pay for them.’
Ram surrenders in 1958. He marries the rich and beautiful Didi Nackla, who has always been in love with him. With her, he finds ‘a peace which someone of my type hardly ever comes across or even knows of’. He wants her, he says, to endow their house with ‘serenity’.
In 1958 Ram’s author left Egypt for the second time. His family, being wealthy and well-connected, were probably tipped off that he was about to be picked up for subversive activities. He came to England, which, despite his political reservations, remained the only country he could imagine living in besides Egypt – the only other country where he felt he could belong. But when his passport ran out he was in trouble. The Egyptian authorities – as they do in such cases – would refuse to renew it and would only furnish him with a ‘carnet’ with which to return to Egypt. In Egypt he would probably be sent to a concentration camp.
Ghali chose not to return, and the British authorities – as they do in such cases – refused to let him stay in Britain. The Germans, in the middle of their post-war reconstruction programme, were not so fussy. He found work on the Hamburg docks and started writing his novel. But the Germans were uncongenial. His Egyptian-style wit and resourcefulness and his personal code of honour had no place there: ‘The winter he finished his novel he lived in an unheated cellar – unheated until he discovered a way of leading a wire from the next-door house’s electricity supply into his room ... the heater he improvised, of which he was proud’, was ‘a spidery coil of wire between two structures of brick. After he had sold his book he rang at the neighbour’s door, told them what he had done, and offered to pay – and they called the police.’ In 1961 he enters into correspondence with the publishing house of André Deutsch. Diana Athill was to become his editor there. Her book After a Funeral takes up the story when, in 1963 on a brief visit to London, Ghali comes to a party at her house.
Miss Athill sets the tone from the first page. She patronises the author even before she has met him: ‘A German acquaintance had described him as a “modest, tender and gazelle-like being” ... I was a sucker for oppressed foreigners, and an oppressed foreigner who was a gazelle-like being and who could shrug off hardship in order to look at things with the humour and perceptiveness shown in his book was one whom I would certainly like ... he would be a friend.’ Soon Miss Athill is debating whether or not to fall in love with this new ‘friend’. ‘It would be impossible for me to love little goat-face better than I loved Luke’ – her resident lover – ‘but “falling in love” has little to do with love.’ The question is resolved by ‘little goat-face’, who ‘answered warmly to my friendship but ... made it clear that he wanted nothing more.’
Over the next two years Ghali’s emotional stability and mental health became more and more precarious. He is convinced that this is because of his life in Germany and that if he ‘could be in London for three months or so I’m sure I could get round this work permit thing and find a job and then I’d be alright. This place is killing me.’ Miss Athill gets him an entry visa and scrupulously records that she had landed herself with ‘more than I had bargained for, but I had to admit that I had landed myself with it. Didi’ – her alias for Ghali –‘once he felt he could trust me, had grasped eagerly at what I was offering, but he hadn’t forced it out of me, he had only accepted what I wanted to give.’ The visa, however, does not carry a work permit and Ghali has to content himself with ‘odd jobs – translating, baby-sitting, decorating’, these were jobs for which he could be paid ‘without the Home Office being any the wiser’.
Needless to say, he finds this kind of job demoralising and hard to do, and the money is never enough to support him, let alone his by now compulsive drinking and gambling. Soon he has cadged his way into debt and disgrace. Living off family and friends had been comparatively easy in Egypt: a tab was left in Groppi’s or at the Club and was discreetly picked up later. Here money had to be explicitly asked for and there was no real hope of returning it. What was left of Ghali’s self-esteem sank lower and lower. That he felt his financial position to be degrading, that till the end he wished to be the ‘vrai gentleman’ he had been taught he should be, can be seen from the meticulous accounts he kept and his expressed last wish that any money which accrued from his writings after his death should go to settle his debts. That these amounted to less than £1000 makes his situation all the more pitiful.
After the war in 1967 Ghali decides to visit Israel. His diary states only that he had made the decision and had, astonishingly, been granted a visa. There is a hailstorm of exclamation-marks after the statement, and the explanation that ‘it will be an “Egyptian interviewing the Israelis” gimmick.’ He sold the idea to the Times, which put up money for his journey against articles to be written. The pieces he wrote were reasonable and balanced – too reasonable to win him favour from either side. And he had now closed the door for ever on any possibility of going home. Visiting Israel – indeed entering an Israeli embassy anywhere in the world – was treasonous according to Egyptian wartime law, and punishable by death. It was also an act that would have gone completely against popular feeling in a country suffering the aftermath of a terrible defeat. It is the one thing which has stayed in the minds of the very few people who remember him today in Cairo.
Ghali had found the two articles extremely difficult to write. He must have known he would never finish his second novel, would never get a work permit, would never be able to earn a living. He would sink further and further into debt. He was humiliated and defeated. He could never go home. Aged 40 now, he saw no way out.
When I first read After a Funeral I was puzzled as to why Miss Athill wrote it. On this showing, ‘Didi’ is simply not worth having a book – albeit a bad book – written about him. She shows us an obsessive drunk, an egocentric who battens on people, hurts and reviles them, and who bores them, and us, beyond all permissible limits. The saddest thing about this sad book is that, for all Miss Athill’s protestations about her subject’s charm, intelligence, courtesy, wit and attentiveness, these qualities never come through. In order to place any value on this short life, one has to turn away from Miss Athill’s ‘Didi’ to the self-portrait in Ghali’s now out-of-print Beer in the Snooker Club.
Why does she choose to conceal her friend’s identity? Why does she choose the diminutive ‘Didi’ – the name of the rich girl Ram marries in the novel – for his alias? It is all part of a belittling attitude, of the ‘not taking him too seriously’ which constantly appears in phrases like ‘poor little Didi’, ‘this poor little demented creature’, ‘I could have spanked him,’ and which must have been apparent to him during his years with her. Doubtless this has to do with the frustrated maternal instinct which Miss Athill analyses at length, and which he can only have found undermining. She ‘takes him on’, he lives in the lodger’s room in her house. It is an uneasy situation: they would both like him to pay rent but he can’t – and this is added to his debts. Nor is he ever quite sure that her threat to fall in love with him has lifted. Miss Athill, though, has settled for a maternal role.
One cannot blame her for being immovably English and middle-class, but one can see how her responses would affect the volatile, disturbed, lonely Easterner in her care. When, after almost two years, she asks ‘Didi’ to leave (she will rent another room for him), ‘the truth of the situation’ emerges and she receives the long-awaited confirmation of her role: ‘He stood up and turned his head sideways, his chin up, his eyes hooded – a forced moment of intense and haughty composure – and then, without warning, he stumbled across the room, threw his arms round me, and was sobbing with his head on my shoulder ... The “child of eight” was crying hopelessly in my arms. The truth of the situation had emerged.’ She deals with this by going to make a pot of tea, while he sits ‘waiting for it in trusting docility, all defences down’.
It is of course possible that it is ‘Didi’s’ ‘commitment to emotion’ which pushes his mentor further and further into such stolid sensibleness. ‘Didi’s’ is ‘a family which expresses the feelings violently ... a strong feeling is justified by its strength.’ She ‘learnt gradually that his control is a balancing trick. He admires self-control but in fact often abandons himself to the force of gravity with defiant relief.’ But was that not part of his initial attraction? Although he was fond of her (in his last letter to her he says she is ‘the person he loves most’), how heavy he must have found her personality, and since, as she stresses, she was physically unattractive to him, how distasteful must have been the murkiness of her maternal feelings: ‘Having never had a son I cannot be sure to what extent sex would have coloured motherhood, but judging by the extent to which motherliness now colours sex in my relations with young men whom I find attractive, I suspect that it would have done so strongly – that I might have been quite a Jocasta, given the chance.’
The chance finally arrives: a drunk ‘Didi’ finds his way into the bed of an equally drunk Diana Athill. She tolerates him with amused selflessness, generous and in control, motherly to the end: ‘My drunkenness had been restricting the range of my consciousness, but hadn’t been distorting it. Now, as activity gradually widened the range of what I could perceive, it was my ordinary self perceiving it and I knew that it would be a pity to spoil what was happening by letting it go on too long. Tenderness would soon be counteracted by the weariness of my unaroused body, so I had better end this love-making by faking a climax and bringing Didi to his.’ The episode was never repeated. But why did it happen? Why did ‘Didi’ – after politely skirting it for four years – land in his benefactress’s bed? What was the significance of that act in his process of self-destruction? Miss Athill does not address these questions, even though she has read the passages in his diary where he describes his physical loathing of her – passages which she all too readily holds up for our inspection:
I have started to detest her. I find her unbearable ... my reactions to Diana are sparked by my physical antipathy to Diana. I find it impossible to live in the same flat as someone whose physical body seems to provoke mine to cringe. This has led me to detest everything she does, says or writes. I am trying hard to understand the monstrosity of my attitude and I can really only explain it by accepting the fact that I am diseased, abnormal, sick.
I’d be sitting in my room watching a stupid thing on telly and annoyed with myself for not switching it off and working ... In her sitting-room her typewriter would go tick tick tick tick tick. ‘Christ,’ I’d tell myself, ‘there she is, hammering away at that bloody mediocre muck – dishing out one tedious stupid sentence after another, and thinking – no, pretending it is writing.’ And this mood would seize me.
Then I would remember all she has done and is still doing for me, so I knock on her door. ‘Cup-a-tea, luv?’ I say. She’s so engrossed (pretending) she hardly hears me. Finishes a sentence, looks at me – very much ‘unaware of her environment’, so taken up she is by her ‘art’. ‘I’d love a cup, luv.’ Afterwards I go back to my room. ‘What a bastard I am,’ I keep whispering, ‘what a bastard I am.’
He may have been a bastard, but he could write. And, what’s more, he was correct in his assessment of his editor’s prose style. There might have been some point to all this if focusing on ‘Didi’s’ many delinquencies had resulted in a better book. But despite the (superficially) lacerating self-examination, the relentless stockpiling of detail, After a Funeral can almost be quoted as an exercise in how not to write narrative. ‘Soon after we had sat down to the meal someone said something more interesting, which related directly to the speaker’s experience, and instantly the sardonic goat-face changed. The eyes actually appeared to light up, melancholy gave way to animation. He began to describe something which chimed with what had been said, and he was funny.’ The book reads like a cliché-ridden paraphrase, a simplified abridgement. Events, feelings, are all made simple. ‘Didi’s’ position abroad is briskly described as ‘exiled by Nasser’: this is to draw a blind over a world of equivocation and deception. All ‘Didi’s’ problems are reduced to a frustrated need for mother-love: this is to ignore all but a fraction of his character and history, while providing an excuse for Miss Athill’s supply of the commodity. She claims that ‘this record was written for him and for people who are going to have children.’ He would probably have liked it better if she had edited his diaries.