The Shirt of Nessan

Patricia Craig

  • The Free Frenchman by Piers Paul Read
    Secker, 570 pp, £10.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 436 40966 6
  • Dizzy’s Woman by George MacBeth
    Cape, 171 pp, £9.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 224 02801 4
  • On Foreign Ground by Eduardo Quiroga
    Deutsch, 92 pp, £7.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 233 97894 1
  • A New Shirt by Desmond Hogan
    Hamish Hamilton, 215 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 241 11928 6

Piers Paul Read’s Free Frenchman is Bertrand de Roujay, whose most significant act is to repudiate Pétain and his expedient administration at Vichy, and take himself to London, clandestinely, where he throws in his lot with the more honourable and recalcitrant de Gaulle. The year in which these events take place is 1940, and we’re nearly half-way through the novel when this climactic moment arrives. What we have, at one level, is a family saga, and this necessitates a chronological approach to Bertrand’s experiences: indeed, the story begins in 1890, some years before his birth, when his mother and the mother of his future wife Madeleine Bonnet are a couple of convent school girls.

If The Free Frenchman is family romance at one level, at another it amounts to an exhaustive documentation of the varieties of allegiance available to the politically-minded in France during the first half of the 20th century, and also the extent to which Catholicism may be accommodated by any of these. Liberal, well-meaning Bertrand, of ‘an old but undistinguished’ Provencal family, with a manor house called St Théodore, has the Catholic faith in his blood and never dreams of renouncing any of its tenets, even when his actions aren’t tailored accordingly. His wife Madeleine, on the other hand – child of a boorish intellectual and a doormat of a mother – has escaped the typical religious upbringing of the era, and acquired instead of the more conventional faith a faith in Marxism: nevertheless, when it comes to marrying Bertrand, she submits to a course of religious instruction from a Dominican friar. ‘I’m sure she’ll agree to anything,’ says po-faced Bertrand when his uncle, a bishop, mentions certain conditions needing to be met by Madeleine before the marriage may proceed with the blessing of the Church: and so she does. Bertrand insists on the purity of his feeling for Madeleine, and the irrelevance of her atheism to the continued well-being of his soul, a matter about which his uncle is greatly exercised: ‘the Church ... in her holy wisdom forbids a Catholic to marry someone outside the Church.’

Wisdom, holy or otherwise, isn’t strongly developed in Bertrand as far as personal relationships are concerned. Catholicism has endowed him with, among other things, a compulsion to propose marriage to every woman he goes to bed with (‘Bohemian ladies’ and Spanish refugees apart); and he’s then for ever catching his wives in the throes of misbehaviour. Some years after the annulment (on unspecified grounds) of his marriage to Madeleine, he sets in motion once again the cycle of false expectation and chagrin which seems to attend his marriages. It’s during his sojourn in England, while he’s acting as liaison officer between the political and military wings of the Free French movement, that Bertrand rather improbably becomes entangled with the daughter of an upper-class Yorkshire family whose manner towards their weekend guests isn’t designed to foster affection towards themselves. Bertrand’s weekend in Yorkshire is not a success: the weather is wet, the bedrooms cold, the food unspeakable, the conversation unpolished, and a critical attitude towards foreigners apparent. He fails to acquit himself well in the matter of slaughtering pheasants, which annoys his hosts. However, his hand is held by fetching Jenny Trent on a walk to a ruined abbey, and some months later he finds himself marrying her – another non-Catholic, and a girl half his age – at Brompton Oratory. Jenny’s father, who refers to Bertrand as ‘the frog’ and ‘the fellow’, exits from the novel uttering this comment on his daughter’s subsequent adultery with an old schoolfriend of her brother’s: ‘They were at it like rabbits that summer.’

The narrative manner of Piers Paul Read is not at all satirical, or quirky, or abounding in lightness of touch. This author’s present concern is to convey to the fullest extent the ins and outs of French political life, especially under the conditions prevailing in wartime (he does this, in part, by inventing a representative of every faction, and by being careful to differentiate between the various forms and degrees of socialism, fascism and so on). He is also at pains to show the interaction between political goings-on and the social and domestic lives of selected characters – and this gets him into a few novelettish byways. There is, in fact, considerable disjunction between the sober and effective presentation of the public events and the banal or preposterous turns the story is apt to take. We have, for instance, a sub-plot concerning a Mafia-type gangster, and the educated woman whom he marries and keeps at home among his relatives and dependants, before strangling her and burying the body in the back-garden. She hasn’t remained faithful to him: that’s what has brought on his homicidal outbreak. Her lover, Bertrand, is meanwhile obtaining absolution in a confessional, having judged himself insufficiently spotless, in the moral sense, to represent the interests of General de Gaulle and combat Communism in Basse-Provence. We have now reached 1944 and the Provisional Government in Algiers, from which location Bertrand – his English experiences well behind him – has made his way back to France.

The young woman throttled by her hotheaded husband is the sister of a Jewish Resistance leader called Pierre Moreau; Moreau is a one-time fellow student of Madeleine’s, and part of a group whose lives remain connected, willy nilly. His primary function in the novel is to point up anti-semitism in France, at the same time allowing credit to be reflected on those (like Bertrand) not susceptible to this force. Another member of the student group, and Madeleine’s partner in the wake of Bertrand, is a Communist named Michel le Fresne whose character deteriorates until he’s fit to act as the villain of the piece (by this stage he is making love to Madeleine ‘like a diligent rooster reaffirming his rights over an old hen’). In the eventful final section of the book, with disorder getting a hold on Basse-Provence, and people not entitled to it claiming Resistance status, Bertrand – Commissioner of the Republic or not – gets into one scrape after another, and is finally spared a hasty execution only by the good offices of a right-wing relative. In accordance with his aim of encapsulating disunity, the novelist has the de Roujay family, and its connections, opting for widely divergent political standpoints. Some potentially loose ends are gathered up in the last page or two.

George MacBeth’s declared intention is to supply a want. In the series of letters exchanged between Benjamin Disraeli and Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, Lady Londonderry (known as ‘Vane’) there’s an unexplained hiatus. A silence, beginning in 1839, the year of Disraeli’s marriage, and persisting until 1845, overtook the correspondence. Now the gap, on Disraeli’s side at least, is factitiously filled. MacBeth endows his central character, a young man very full of himself, with a rather disagreeable, orotund and bumptious epistolary style, and a yen for salacious speculation. He imagines, as a starting-point, a refusal on the part of Vane to subsidise a trip north for Disraeli; the politician’s prompt, retaliatory marriage to someone bearing the homely name of Mary Anne; and his continuing erotic attachment to his ex-mistress, about whose ‘sumptuous hams’ and ‘mature haunches’ we hear rather a lot.

The projected trip north was to Ayrshire to attend a Medieval tournament arranged by Lord Eglinton; having failed to get there, Disraeli develops an obsessive interest in the event (which was ruined by rain) and spends the rest of his life conducting an investigation into it, consulting chambermaids, tourists, a pioneer photographer, and anyone else he can find who happened to be on the spot. In his last novel, published in 1880 (George MacBeth tells us), he’s still harping on the blessed tournament. Dizzy’s Woman offers an explanation: it’s the scene of his betrayal (one of his betrayals) by Vane, and can also stand as a metaphor for the affair between the two of them: ‘the Tournament is over ... We have ridden at speed along the barrier, and broken lances on each other’s breast.’ It amounts, as well, in the mind of the author, to a final fling for Regency England (‘Adulterous days. Adulterous knights’) before the onset of Victorian prudery. However, it’s on the whole a Victorian ponderousness of tone that the book reproduces.

Another epistolary novel (a very short one) is Eduardo Quiroga’s On Foreign Ground. An Argentinian soldier sits in a freezing tent in the Falklands seizing every opportunity to write clear-toned, factual, nostalgic letters to his English girlfriend. He is 22, a journalist on the Buenos Aires equivalent of the Times, and has been conscripted after the sinking of the Belgrano. For Enrique Molina, there are many ironies in the situation, not the least of which is his Anglophile upbringing and the fact that it’s lines from poets like Wilfred Owen and Matthew Arnold that keep coming into his head as he crouches in a trench listening to the noise of guns, or prepares to march to meet the English approaching Port Stanley. The letters contain many allusions to the political climate in Argentina, in which atrocities proliferate; accounts of those inflicted on the Molina family; and, against all this, recollections of idyllic days in Paris, where he met the girl, Sarah, who later visits him in Buenos Aires. This is a plaintive and unpretentious novel.

‘Bombarded with felicities’, C.S. Lewis’s comment on the effect produced by reading Kipling, may be turned on its head when it comes to Desmond Hogan: with this author, you feel yourself to be bombarded with infelicities. A New Shirt is Hogan’s fourth novel, and he has also published two collections of stories: all of these efforts have been respectfully, not to say enthusiastically received. It’s true that his earlier works occasionally displayed a force (generally running in the channel of bittersweet, romantic-Irish, latent-homosexual feeling) which might have counterbalanced, to some extent, his stylistic peculiarities: however, encouragement to be incessantly ‘poetic’, or some such, has caused Hogan’s unproductive waywardness to be given its head.

‘Her eyes were snails in mustard lassitudes of lines’: so we read, with some bewilderment, of a character in A New Shirt. Bewilderment and exasperation are the feelings most frequently aroused by Hogan’s prose. (Not universally: people have been bowled over by his ‘luminous and singing talent’, never mind his ‘elegance and maturity’.) Someone’s hair in the new novel is ‘scintillating in stripes’ (he doesn’t mean it’s parti-coloured). We also find mattress hair, charcoal hair, pendant charcoal eyes, hair shooting up like a proclamation, eyes shooting out all over the place, eyeballs like mice, a crust of bread like a ghastly hatchet, the languid little leaning of a snowdrop in someone’s face, eyebrows described as ‘thick and surprised railroad tracks’. A proper comparison startles you with its accuracy and vividness: Hogan’s (to put it mildly) cloud the issue. He thinks it’s sensible to say of a red pocket handkerchief that it’s like a balloon. He refers at one point to ‘a white shirt that looked like a cracker you could pull so frail was the impression it gave’.

Silly similes aren’t the half of it. Hardly a sentence in this novel is written in passable English. Hogan loses no opportunity to distort or overdraw on the meaning of a word. ‘Huge paths were distilled by the density of people’; ‘Now his proclivity to luxuries had been consummated for him’; ‘lachrymose stoles ... draped on ladies’ shoulders’; ‘There was a strange, quixotic ... smell here’; ‘He sorted out all the vestibules of his life.’ Is Hogan setting himself up as a rival to Amanda McKittrick Ros, the eccentric Irishwoman whose name has become synonymous with bad writing? (‘The Notorious Boil on the tip of the Critics’ tongues’, she solemnly called herself.) It’s really altogether more likely that he sees himself as an Irish Genet, and that the McKittrick Ros effects are inadvertent. Nevertheless, there they are. ‘As he entered the hotel an empty ventricle reminded him that his entrails seemed badly neglected,’ writes Mrs Ros. Hogan’s answer to that: ‘a flag of blond lettuce sticking up from a prostrate and lapsed limbed shrimp’. When Mrs Ros writes (a pure Hogan sentence), ‘a silvery mist blurred his vision enveloping him in a cloak of cobwebbed frailty,’ we might ask if it’s the same as the ‘fog that consumed hope and put icicles on aspiration; the menopause of the mornings’ (Hogan). He: ‘His body ... shot up like a trunk from his middle.’ She: ‘In Helen Huddleson he had seen a trunk of truism branching forth into womanhood.’ When Hogan’s narrator remarks (a propos poppies and their effect on his lover), ‘they punctured him with my personality,’ is it at all salutary to bear in mind that Mrs Ros called one of her books Poems of Puncture?

There are differences between the two writers, of course, the main one being that Mrs Ros (who died in 1939) is full-blooded and causes uncontrollable hilarity in the majority of her readers (taking herself with the utmost seriousness, she was outraged by critics who pointed out how funny she was), while Hogan is effete and makes you sigh. She liked a strong story, whereas he prefers to create a mood: romantic, backward-looking and poetically decadent. A New Shirt (a bit of a ragbag) hasn’t much in the way of plot. An ageing homosexual in a posh part of Dublin remembers his trips to America in the late Forties when he carried out research into the life of a bi-(but largely homo-) sexual poet called Nessan Muir, of Irish and Jewish ancestry. We get large chunks of the life, presented in a welter of inapposite images, with recurring allusions to oddly coloured shirts. ‘Writing,’ we read at one point, ‘was like a new shirt ...’ It’s also like salivating: Nessan’s ‘poems dribbled down the skin of his face’. There’s an irresistible retort to that: ‘Dry up.’