Turns of the Screw

Hugh Barnes

  • Mating Birds by Lewis Nkosi
    Constable, 184 pp, £8.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 00 946724 6
  • Lost Time by Catharine Arnold
    Hodder, 220 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 340 38783 1
  • The Bridge by Iain Banks
    Macmillan, 259 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 333 41285 0
  • Incidents at the Shrine by Ben Okri
    Heinemann, 130 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 434 53230 4
  • Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe
    Heinemann, 150 pp, £3.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 435 90526 0
  • The Innocents by Carolyn Slaughter
    Viking, 219 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 670 81016 9

The first novels of Lewis Nkosi and Catharine Arnold raise issues that have been in the news of late: racist oppression in South Africa and the ugly behaviour of the smart set at England’s oldest universities. Neither phenomenon is new, but that is not all they have in common: both can be regarded as symptoms of madness, which is always making news – this, at any rate, is the diagnosis favoured by Nkosi and Arnold. They discount the talk of journalists and are at pains to show how states of emergency or of madness come about, and how adversity in the world modifies concern for the self. Much emphasis is laid on the unconscious activity of the mind, which for Sibiya in Mating Birds as well as for Francesca in Lost Time means horrid imaginings, displacement and a fear of poltergeists. Capitulation is charted: Sibiya awaits execution in a Durban jail, although the Government is about to fall and from his cell he can hear street-singers announcing ‘the near-dawn of freedom’. Francesca, a famous concert cellist, suffers private madness – as opposed to the collective variety accountable for apartheid – in the form of a nervous breakdown. At the same time taboos are flouted by the characters and invoked by the authors as if they were the unconscious of society. Sibiya’s crime was to sleep with a white woman, while a revelation of incest, for which a neglectful father is held to be responsible, contributes to Lost Time. In each case the novelist has recourse to psychoanalytic theory, and a meaningful relationship would seem to be implied between free societies and the free association of ideas.

Lost Time describes a group of young people who enjoy certain advantages of the Arnoldian (no relation) training of mind: they have been brought up to read novels and casually to drop names in conversation. Allusions to literature proliferate, and the reader is expected to take as much pleasure in highbrow flourishes as the characters themselves do. Lost Time conforms stylishly to the requirements of the Varsity novel: a genre patronised by Dorothy Sayers and Frederic Raphael, and to be distinguished from the campus novels (more academic, not so upper-class) of, say, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge. Miles Tattershall lectures, with moderate success, in 17th-century literature at Cambridge. He, too, is conventional, in so far as conventions exist for fictional men of letters. Like Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s sequence of novels – whose title has a similar Proustian evocativeness – Miles is preparing a fastidious study of the Anatomy of Melancholy. Like Jenkins, Miles has a propensity to quote from Burton’s ‘torrential passages’. But neither his temperate despair, identified by Burton as the scholar’s malady, nor his anxiety to avoid pain at all costs (according to a principle set down by that other doctor of melancholy, Sigmund Freud), precludes Miles’s infatuation with one of his students. Benjy wears a Barbour and an expression of aloof boyishness that makes Miles feel ‘like some East Anglian Aschenbach’.

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