A New Verismo

John Bayley

  • The Master Eccentric: The Journals of Rayner Heppenstall 1969-1981 edited by Jonathan Goodman
    Allison and Busby, 278 pp, £14.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 85031 536 0
  • The Pier by Rayner Heppenstall
    Allison and Busby, 192 pp, £9.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 85031 450 X

It seems likely that critics in the future will see the literature of our age as being peculiarly obsessed with a perverse version of mimesis. They will have no trouble in classifying its tendencies, and attributing them to the waning influence of classic 19th-century doctrines – realism, naturalism, verismo. They will also note that our own fashionable critics bent over backwards to point out that the whole thing was a con: that literature, of no matter what kind, can never in the smallest degree be like life but only like other examples of literature. The paradox may briefly amuse them. They may conclude that whereas writers – novelists particularly – were instinctively conditioned to make reading seem like living, critics were programmed in the opposite direction – to point out that all was artifice.

When he was 18, Tolstoy wrote ‘A History of Yesterday’, which was just what it purported to be: an account of everything he had done or thought during the 24 hours. Never published in his lifetime, it is neither interesting nor uninteresting to read. What matters is impression, an impression of the humdrum and ordinary, the daily grind of consciousness, just as, in a run-of-the-mill modern play, the writer accepts the convention of conveying the daily grind of speech. The effect is bound to go against the other convention – of performance.

The voyeur is really the centre of this version of mimesis, which could be compared to the pleasure we derive from looking in through a lighted window and seeing what thus appear to be the curious stylised motions of everyday life – getting up, sitting down, opening one’s mouth. Anything dramatic, like a girl undressing or a man stabbing another, would be unsuited to this spectacle; would, as it were, form part of another convention of viewing. Ben Jonson in his plays was exercised about the possibilities of such a type of voyeur, both on and off the stage. Sir Politick Would-Be, in Volpone, is his own voyeur, observing all his movements with exact care: ‘On the way/I cheapened sprats, and at St Mark’s I urined.’

To be interested in oneself in this way is to be interested in others in the same way, and the process is its own reward. It is hard to imagine Shakespeare doing it, because he appears not to exist in and for himself but only as the vehicle for high designs and colourful goings-on. The outward and the inward gaze – the grand description or the introspective sonnet monologue – are the same for him: what would not have occurred to him was to note for us the shape of a stain on his breeches or how his mistress took her skirt off to go to bed. Coleridge liked to jot such things down, and Coleridge, like a modern writer, must privately have thought that everything about him must be fascinating to any reader.

The new mimesis is thus really a question of the writer saying: anything is interesting if I see it and imitate it in my language. My task is not so much to be interesting myself as to provide interest for others – to be both the movements inside the lit living-room and the consciousness looking in. It would be easy to reply: it all depends upon your personality, but that would be misleading. The reader of Rayner Heppenstall, for instance, is, I think, not in the least interested in his personality as such, but in how it translates itself into actions – very small daily actions. A writer like Heppenstall is not a ‘camera’, a convention of seeing and writing allied in terms of fashion to Mass-Observation, the movement in which Heppenstall himself worked for a time. He is a recorder of events and experiences, reached by a process of association which is concealed from the reader, but to the writer is obviously as familiar as the impulses that prompt a migrating bird.

This technique supplies a way of writing unlike any other contemporary style. It is wholly devoid even of latent vanity, for vanity goes with a process of self-creation, even if it is inadvertent; and though Heppenstall’s writing produces an unforgettable image of a way of life, it does not locate a personality in the midst of it. The effect is rather like that of a picture by Bonnard or Vuillard, which seems appropriate since Heppenstall was a Francophile with a liking for odd events and anniversaries, like those of causes célèbres in the criminal world. Insofar as he was, so to speak, a real person, with an extensive acquaintance among writers and broadcasters, his writing is not very compelling: it is difficult to imagine anyone reading it for the gossip and the references – in general, perspicuous and seldom very malicious – which frequent the pages of his diary. What gets one hooked is the still life in motion, the repetitions of a vie extérieure, a man visible only in his habits and the space that contains them. This, in a sense, is about as close to verismo as writing is likely to get.

The habits themselves become intimate with our consciousness.

I tried the Valium once, found it made me sleepy, and stopped it. I could not read. My attention wandered. On the other hand I could not sleep at night, so that it would have been sensible, had I thought of it, to take Valium as sleeping pills. I cannot now recall whether, when Dr Dyer called again on the twelfth, I told him that I had stopped taking Valium or not. What he must have noticed himself is that my speech remained blurred. I cannot remember whether he performed any tests which may have shown a marked incapacity in my right hand, but I could hardly use a pen at all. I could not swat flies. I cut myself shaving.

After a time the reader can hardly wait for more of this kind of thing, rather as the successive dinners recorded each day in Parson Woodforde’s diary build up our expectation until we find it difficult to tell if it is we or he who are eating them. There is a marked synaesthesic effect, as Virginia Woolf implies in her essay on Woodforde in the Common Reader, and I suspect that her famous account of the dinner dishes (the boeuf en daube) in To the Lighthouse acquires its memorableness from her sense of the parson’s placidly recurring roast rabbit smothered in onions. Though never prominent, food is as important in Heppenstall as in Denton Welch’s diaries, where each mention of Macvita becomes a talisman.

Heppenstall’s French connections also give his Journals a flavour of Gide, Sarraute, Butor, although his style and sensibility are absolutely un-Gallic. None the less, a strange and effective impression builds up, from day to day – of a sort of well-connected ghost écrivain behind the abrupt and transparent Englishman. (Another ghost in the Journals, an entirely amiable one, is the writer’s wife, with whom he has a close and affectionate relation.) The French ghost seems a friend of prodigies like Raymond Radiguet, author of Le Diable au Corps and Le Bal du Comte D’Orgel, who lived with Cocteau (he was bisexual) and died at 20 of typhoid after eating too many Mediterranean oysters. English Heppenstall disapproves of all this and finds the two novels fairly unreadable, though he concedes that this may have been due to his own ‘temporary state of mind’. English Heppenstall also finds Simone de Beauvoir ‘an utter bore’ (‘No feminist can ever have so abjectly betrayed what men consider the feminine condition by tagging along behind Sartre’), and he says he once christened her – ‘wittily I thought’ – ‘La grande Sartreuse’. The French ghost, raising its eyebrows, would not have considered this witty at all.

Heppenstall does, on the other hand, have his purely intelligent moments, which stand out all the more for being immersed in the olla podrida of daily habit. In January 1969 he meets at the French Institute in London Roland Barthes: ‘a good-looking man, alert and conversible. The trouble with these structuralists is that, having discovered a new way of looking at language, they believe that language now IS what they say about it and nothing else, whereas it is that in addition to everything that it has been thought to be in the past.’ And commenting on the number of French lesbian novelists, he remarks that there is ‘a kind of lesbian effect brought about by a woman writing about women. Male critics writing about male writers do not write about them as men.’ Sometimes his habitual awareness of things focuses in a sudden sharpness of observation. When a friend’s grandson is christened he finds himself attending for the first time the communion service afterwards, and notes that the communicants had to walk quite a long way to the altar. ‘Their manner on return was odd. They all looked as though they had been doing something they shouldn’t.’

As a novelist, Heppenstall is undoubtedly an original, though it is hard to see and say just why. A friend described him as the first practitioner of the nouveau roman, and this has a bit of truth in it, in the sense that the nouveau roman wanders in and out of life – the novelist’s life – imitates what he may feel from moment to moment and invents what he is experiencing. Jonathan Goodman, who has done a most meticulous and attractive job of editing on the Heppenstall Journals, observes in his brief introduction that Heppenstall ‘did not merely let his mind wander: he caused it to.’ That is certainly a recipe for a kind of verismo, but it has often been done before. ‘In so doing,’ continues Goodman, ‘he was self-revealing to an extent that few men dare to be.’ Again not quite satisfactory, but it is true that writers who reveal themselves usually try hard in the process to be interesting to the reader, and Heppenstall gives no hint of any such intention. He himself comes closer to how he functions, as novelist and person, when he remarks that ‘we are largely fictitious, even to ourselves.’ To invent oneself on the basis of daily activity – l’emploi du temps, as Butor called it – is to destroy in some measure the historical aspect of novel-writing – the convention that everything has been finished before the writing actually begins – and to substitute a provisional process. Hamlet is of course in this sense a provisional person, self-created at every moment and postponing the finality of historic event until the rest is silence. Together with Michael Innes, Heppenstall wrote a book called Three Tales of Hamlet. In 1972, when he was still doing things for the BBC, he wrote a script called The Seventh Juror, which in production at the studio suggested to him another idea.

Writer: Has anyone ever written a whodunit set in a television studio?

Producer (giving him her attention): I don’t know. I haven’t heard of one.

(Her attention reverts to what she was looking at before.)

Writer: All kinds of possibilities, aren’t there?

Producer: Yes.

(She looks worried. He follows the direction of her eyes. Against the back of a piece of scenery a man lies prone, a knife in his back.)

Well before Robbe-Grillet’s roman policier, Les Gommes, Heppenstall appears to have been dealing in the same techniques, but a pay-off of any sort is not really compatible with the kind of mimesis that naturally appealed to him. His own journal dwindles at the end to a few sentences per day, then one sentence, then a single word for 16 May 1981: ‘Thunderstorm’. Next day he was taken to hospital unconscious and paralysed and that was it. He would have approved of silence arriving in that way. At first glance, C.P. Snow’s description of Heppenstall as ‘the master eccentric of English letters’ seems less than felicitous, until one remembers that true eccentricity is diametrically opposed to self-advertisement.

Half-way through the Seventies Heppenstall left London to live in Deal, and it was there that he began to write The Pier, a novel coincident, in every sense, with his later journals. It is about the bad behaviour of the people next door, a subject on which Heppenstall had become something of a connoisseur, since his London flat had been next door to a launderama, which filled it with noxious fumes. The Pier is a gripping novel, and much more like the diaries, so to speak, than the diaries themselves. It is perhaps not quite up to the standard of his earlier novels, of which The Blaze of Noon, published a week or two after the start of the Second World War, remains the most memorable. It had a foreword by Elizabeth Bowen, rather surprisingly, and was certainly very similar in its atmosphere and method to the French novels which were to become the fashion after the war, although it was also unmistakably Anglo-Saxon, the French ghost impalpable and, at that early date, even unrecognisable. Its most obvious feature was that it was sexually very outspoken, as if the author had no idea that sex was ever discussed in any way other than the ordinary humdrum manner of converse about daily trivia. That is very unusual, both in its day and in our own, though for different reasons. The novel was not deliberately ‘casual’ and carried no shock effect, but set the Heppenstall house-style of talking about everything in the same way and with the same sort of literalness.

My own favourite is The Lesser Infortune, which came out a few years after the war and developed the mixed mode of diary, reminiscence and novel stirred together into a continuum. Quite famous at the time, it faded quickly from sight, as Heppenstall’s books tended to do. Doing so would seem indeed to be part of their specification, their wholly provisional aspect. All seem to have been taken on by different publishers – The Lesser Infortune was, I think, originally done by Cape – and now that Allison and Busby have taken over and brought out the Journals and The Pier, as well as The Blaze of Noon and Two Moons, it would be an admirable service to resurrect the others, particularly The Woodshed (1968) and The Greater Infortune (1960).

A Journal entry at the end of August 1973 marks the inception of Two Moons, and shows how Heppenstall’s novels ‘came’ to him. He was at Long Crendon, near the hospital where his son, paralysed by an accident, had been taken; and in order to study the real-life case of a gifted bell-ringer killed by a lorry on the road between Aylesbury and Oxford. From four newspaper accounts ‘I proposed to compile a documentary background of international, national and local events … Against that I mean to set what I understand of the two accidents [his son’s and the bell-ringer’s] and out of it all to make a novel.’

The Pier began to make a novel when a three-generation family moved into the house next door at Deal. It ‘should begin with a man walking along a pier into a town in the morning and end with him, in the evening, returning to the same pier.’ In the interval he will have done away with the family next door – an event, or non-event, which perfectly illustrates the point that ‘we are largely fictitious, even to ourselves.’ ‘Writing a novel of which that should be the plot would not get rid of them, but it would afford me a fantasy satisfaction. It might be that they would read it or that some literate schoolteacher would describe it to them and that they should take fright and go away.’ Learned in murders, particularly Continental ones, he clearly felt that though they had just happened to happen, their reality was a fictitious one, inside the head of the murderer who made himself into one, and the observer who cherished the process. The effect is to make killing the people next door a perfectly ordinary event, a piece of verismo comparable to one’s teeth or tea habits, or actions connected with these things spied on through the window. Murder becomes a continuous process and not an historical accident.

We can appreciate the nouveauisme of this if we compare it to the old-fashioned and naive moral emphases which are so incongruous in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. (Fowles and his house at Lyme Regis are absorbed as character and setting into a run of entries in the Journals.) Moreover, just as he managed to make sex of all sorts so unemphatic and unsurprising in The Blaze of Noon, Heppenstall in his last novel does the same thing for class. Not a matter to be either rejoiced in or deplored, it exists in the same sense as the writer’s false teeth or the checkered football which the girls next door incessantly play with and which periodically comes over the wall. Other people are hateful because they are strange to us, and there is no way in which that strangeness called class can be got round or wished out of existence. Murder is the only solution.