Liza Jarrett’s Hard Life

Paul Driver

  • The Death of the Body by C.K. Stead
    Collins, 192 pp, £9.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 00 223067 4
  • Kramer’s Goats by Rudolf Nassauer
    Peter Owen, 188 pp, £10.50, August 1986, ISBN 0 7206 0659 4
  • Mefisto by John Banville
    Secker, 234 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 436 03266 X
  • The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker
    Virago, 284 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 86068 606 X
  • Love Unknown by A.N. Wilson
    Hamish Hamilton, 202 pp, £9.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 241 11922 7

Of the five new novels grouped here, only one, I think, breathes something of that ‘air of reality (solidity of specification)’ which seemed to Henry James ‘the supreme virtue of a novel – the merit on which all its other merits ... helplessly and submissively depend’. Unfortunately, that one – Pat Barker’s The Century’s Daughter – is also a consciously ‘working-class’ fiction whose claim to reality-status might be found off-puttingly vehement. Still, her book, risking as it does a limiting categorisation and, inescapably, a caricaturing treatment of its subject, is the only one of the five which, making a serious attempt on reality, takes the reader completely seriously: the latter, in this instance, is never someone who is merely ‘in on something’, and his intelligence is never insulted. I don’t want to call the book a masterpiece: it isn’t that – but at least it is more a work of art than a disappearing act.

The novels by C.K. Stead and Rudolf Nassauer, on the other hand, are distinctly shifty and slippery. The Death of the Body is an elegant contraption whose mainspring is double-time. Although we have been plentifully supplied for several decades now with novels the story of whose authoring is included along with their ‘story’ – anti-novels of variously diluted strengths seem to have cropped up everywhere, though few with the formal mastery of Beckett’s Trilogy – Stead does not shrink from setting up a dualistic scheme whereby the narrator and his personified Story (‘the blue folder lying on the bed under the Matisse poster’), not to mention his Muse (Uta, a tall, blond, good-looking Scandinavian lady whom he meets in Milan), are writing the story in half the chapters, while a group of New Zealand-based characters are enacting it in the other half. One’s first response to such Modernist chic is to find it passé. Still, the strategy makes for a buoyant entertainment (the two strands are joined by a mildly surprising gesture at the end) and the enacted story is interesting and suspenseful enough, its narrative laced with philosophical teases like the mind/body problem. In fact, the climax provides a sort of answer to that conundrum. Harry Butler, adulterous philosophy professor, is about to fall victim to a frame-up by militant lesbians at his university, and is saved professionally by the vigorous intervention of his hitherto merely mystical wife. But the price of his assured future proves to be heavy:

He will become a more disciplined academic, a more compliant husband, a more dutiful father, a more dependable person. He will even patch up his differences with the Dean ... Yes, it’s acceptance, and yes, it’s wry. Is it also the death of the body? Who can say?

There is a strong though intermittent flavour of the campus novel about The Death of the Body, and it also faintly recalls Christopher Hampton’s play, The Philanthropist, in which a beleaguered don likewise conspires in a playful resolution of the form, in this case by coming up with a definitive acrostic. Stead’s ‘Post-Modernist’ wit is probably not sufficient for his purposes, however: at any rate, one primarily feels one is reading a conventional story that has been tarted up. His constant use of the present tense lacks the creative motivation of, say, Muriel Spark’s in The Driver’s Seat, and is rather twee. There are other flaws: the only character who dies on stage, as it were, is too weakly delineated; the storm scene at the novel’s exact centre is marred by evocative efforts such as ‘water becomes more water becomes morewater.’ But the device of Uta – out of whose inspirational, goading yet erotic presence the narrator comes to find he cannot write – is effective: the point is nicely made that writing needs to be for someone, that the inventive faculty is always glad of a reality-principle, no matter how earthy or matter-of-fact. (John Ashbery’s poem, ‘My Erotic Double’, is an interesting variant of this theme.)

The Death of the Body ends with a telegram informing Uta of the fate of two of the characters – and it is striking how little we suddenly find we care about any of them. The novel has done its small work, come to a close, and leaves us with just a certain admiration for the author’s concise manner and manipulative skills. Rudolf Nassauer’s Kramer’s Goats promises a more substantial reward for the reader, as, given its themes of the Nazi aftermath and poetic madness, how could it not? Yet the unwonted intrusiveness of the two narrators (‘Since most of what I write is invented, why have I invented this?’), the pervasive sense of novelistic play, of always (through the convenience of a diary kept by someone unwilling to distinguish fact and fantasy) having it both ways, thin down for the reader what density of truth the book’s subject-matter might have afforded. We are told in the blurb that Nassauer is ‘as serious as Joyce’, but – well – he is much more slippery; the reader falls through crevices which may or not have been deliberately left in the structure.

The structure is in any case unsound: like Stead’s (and Banville’s and Barker’s to boot), its feature is doubleness or gemination – here duplicity is another formal option. The narrators are twins, born in Vienna just before the war, whose mother lives in Johannesburg and who themselves have adopted London. The very slightly older twin, a retiring museum curator, presents the life of the other, Fabrice, a poet incapable of finishing a piece of work, and suffering from Lowell-like bouts of insanity, who, prior to yet another hospitalisation, leaves his diaries in his brother’s keeping with the invitation to read them. These rambling and racy volumes are the bulk of the novel: they speak of obsession with a reckless, exotic mother whose supposed lover is her doctor, a Jo Mengele; of the persecution of the Jews in Vienna (revenge is taken on the ex-Nazi of the title by massacring the goats he prizes above men); and of searing sexual jealousy. We never know what to believe, though the poet is clearly mad at the end. The structural weakness is that the first twin is largely lost sight of: his reappearance on the last three pages is token and flip, and no alteration seems to have taken place in him. Our expectations are left unfulfilled.

What is impressive about the book is its re-creation of raw feeling: Nassauer has his finger on the pulse of daily irritation, bitter memory. The writing is uneven but frequently enough vigorous, when it can embrace such intense articulations as:

I thought ... of going down to Frau Eppstein to tell her what had happened. Being older than I was she was better versed in dealing with the dead. And that’s just what I did. I told Frau Eppstein and she came up at once and took a look, just as she would have done had I reported a broken sash-cord or a leak in the sink.

The Paris scenes, in which Fabrice and his French girlfriend live like Rodolfo and Mimi, are nicely done, as is the Earls Court episode of the devious old property-owning house-repairer Archer, popularly known as Death.

Mefisto is the most ambitious of these five works, yet in some ways the least successful. It is massively overwritten with a distinctly Irish lyrical imperative and studious lexicality. Rare words are preferred: ‘auscultating’, ‘exsanguinated’, ‘incarnadined’, ‘labiate’, ‘vermiform’, ‘psittacine’, ‘rufous’, ‘lentor’, ‘strabismic’, ‘gibbous’, ‘snathed’. There are too many descriptions like ‘a flash of opalescent silk’ or ‘the air a sheen of damp pearl’, and there is too much seasonal reference of the ‘It was a hot, hazy day, one of the first of summer’ kind. Its ambition is roughly to be a sort of Beckettian comedy of drabness, to maintain a firm hold of childhood perceptions, but not to scruple to render death, disfigurement, indigence and despair. The book’s scope is too wide, in fact, and one is never properly sure what kind of novel one is in.

Apart from the narrator when he is young – and a mathematical prodigy – and his immediate kin, the characters (Mephistophelean, spivish Felix, the deaf-mute Sophie, the mine-owner and mathematician Mr Kasperl, et al.) are only elusively real – shadows on an indeterminate geography. The humour is equally nebulous; and the narrative points of view are occasionally mixed up, deliberately but awkwardly. As in Kramer’s Goats, there are irritating authorial intrusions: ‘How do I know these things? I just do. I am omniscient, sometimes.’ It is very difficult to tell whether Mefisto is primarily a record of actual memories (the early part, recalling A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, has aglow of poignant recollection) or a novel whose chief concern is to build an imaginative structure: if the novel is somewhat laboured, it is nonetheless vague and wavering.

Twinship is again the theme: the opening section was entitled ‘Gemini’ when first published in one of the Firebird anthologies; and the opening sentence, ‘Chance was in the beginning’ (‘chance’ is also, Joyceanly, the book’s last word), refers to the narrator’s luck in being born when a twin foetus had died. The lost kinship haunts him en passant, but the deep significance which presumably attaches to it as the opening motif is diffused and then lost. The twinship of the two main parts, ‘Marionettes’ and ‘Angels’ – almost exactly equal in length – is a more palpable notion.

The misty actions of Part One are mimed in matching circumstances in Part Two, which finds equivalents for those characters not retained from before and suggests a pattern of endless drudging repetition. The narrator is occupied throughout with numbers and calculations: he is seeking a sort of mathematical epiphany, and perhaps he finds one: it is hard to tell. There is so much verbal flesh on the book that its moral backbone is difficult to discern. At any rate, the publisher’s reference to Yeatsian man forced to choose between life and work seems an undue clarification. If there has to be a high-falutin reference of this kind it might be better made to some such document of enveloping contingency as Hofmannsthal’s ‘Letter of Lord Chandos’.

The narrative is prone to sudden plunges: disaster strikes repeatedly at the end of Part One, sweeping off half the characters, but at least Banville is good at describing death. The sickness and passing of the narrator’s grandfather, Jack Kay, are beautifully written:

He lay against us stiffly, a big chalk statue, mute and furious. He was unexpectedly light. The years had been working away at him in secret, hollowing him out ... He gazed up at us fearfully, like a child, his mouth working, his fingers clamped on the folds of the blankets at his chest as if it were the rim of a parapet behind which he was slowly, helplessly falling ... There was no way out of the huge confusion into which he had blundered ... He turned his eyes to the window, and one fat, lugubrious tear ran down his temple, over the livid vein pulsing there.

An impressive death scene is also at the heart of Pat Barker’s The Century’s Daughter (Thomas Mann once bluntly asserted that ‘literature is death,’ and went on: ‘I shall never understand how one can be enslaved by it without hating it bitterly’). It is typical of A.N. Wilson’s insouciance that the death scene in his Love Unknown is the breeziest possible – the abrupt demise of a character merely inserted so that she can be killed off (though not before she can be mocked). These two novels are more conventionally devised than the others, much more of a straightforward read. Actually, The Century’s Daughter provides a fourth twinning example: but here the device is a simple double-plot – two narratives meeting at regular points along their way and coalescing at the end.

The century’s daughter herself is Liza Jarrett, born on the last stroke of midnight as the present century begins. The tribulations of her stoical life form half the chapters, while the anxieties of a young, gay community-worker, Stephen, whose job has brought him back to home territory in the industrial North-East (one of his duties is to persuade Liza to vacate her condemned home), are the matter of the other half. The relationship between Liza and Stephen grows deep – their dependence on each other becomes symbolic of tolerance, rationality and hope. The book – an attempt, according to the unegregious blurb, to do justice to people ‘who have had short shrift both in literature and in life’ – is fully charged with moral passion, which is kept suitably in check by disciplined, unsparing observation and the author’s manifest good humour: she might, though, have allowed herself more leavening elements, even a dash of something operatic, to reduce the risk of dourness.

One of the interesting contrasts between Barker’s book and Wilson’s is the danger of involuntary caricature incurred by the genre (working-class novel) of the one, and the option on parody available to the other with its all too mockable upper middle-class ambience. This dichotomy can have very unfair consequences: seriousness may undo itself while flippancy has an aesthetic triumph. Such is not the present case, however, for one rapidly finds in Ms Barker’s down-to-earth, lucid writing a steadiness and sharpness – even an unexpectedness – of vision, whereas Mr Wilson’s quick and versatile accomplishment as soon seems unsympathetic and glib. He does an estimable job, I suppose, in tragicomically portraying his sodden, imperious, senile ex-publishing grandee Madge Cruden, and her messy but worthy companion, the ex-vicar Bartle; his brittle and witty perceptions adequately flesh out the other characters too, or set them up, where preferred, in crisp cardboard. He undoubtedly possesses a thorough craft but has used it to not much higher than soap-operatic purposes; when he isn’t standardising middle-class adultery he is going on about Zanussi dish-washers and Hotpoint Automatics (his domestic and gastronomic details are unfailingly precise). Love Unknown is a novel without delicacy or charm, and hence, in this instance, truth. The author seems happy to be done with it at the end, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to reread it.

But The Century’s Daughter leaves behind a rich savour of real lives, and the memory of strong emotions powerfully conveyed, none more so than Stephen’s on the dying moments of his loved father: he cleared the clots of blood from his father’s throat, ‘found one stringy enough to twine his fingers round, and pulled ... But then a slight moan came from the stretched lips. Shock, Stephen thought, and went to get blankets off the bed in the other room and piled them on top of his father, thinking as he did so that he could smother him now and nobody would know.’ Striking, too, is the reference to Stephen’s masturbation in the parental bedroom on the night of the laying-out: ‘He was surprised by what he’d done, but not disgusted or ashamed. Now when he closed his eyes he saw a swirl of warmth and colour, not the endless corridor leading from darkness into deeper night.’

Homosexuality in this book is treated, understated, with the same effortless tact to be found in Stephen Frears’s film, My Beautiful Laundrette. The death – or rather murder – of old Liza is painfully moving. The novel completes its purpose satisfyingly: it is an achievement of great solidity.