Vies de Bohème

D.A.N. Jones

  • A Sport of Nature by Nadine Gordimer
    Cape, 396 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 224 02447 7
  • Trust by Mary Flanagan
    Bloomsbury, 290 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0001 0

For almost forty years Nadine Gordimer has been publishing gallant and sensitive stories deploring the apartheid system in her native South Africa. Every book is received with respectful, almost ritual lamentations by London reviewers, reminded of the days of their youth – for the apartheid regime has a longer history than Nazi Germany or even Franco’s Spain. One cannot admit to being bored with the problem but may wonder what else there is to say. In A Sport of Nature Miss Gordimer breaks out of the enclave with a novel about a Jewish girl who makes love to black Africans, travels around the world and returns to her homeland, ‘the new African state that used to be South Africa’, as the wife of the Chairman of the OAU (the Organisation of African Unity). This is an optimistic conclusion, perhaps a pipe-dream. The story is told in a rather hazy way, often as if a biographer was seeking to establish facts about a well-known person with mysterious gaps in her history, sometimes breaking into italics with gnomic utterances: ‘Winter is burial ... What has been, what was, what will be: nobody else can decide ... ’ Sometimes we are unsure what country Hillela, the heroine, is in. She does not talk much and she feels like a fantasy figure. Only the scenes in white-ruled South Africa are presented naturalistically. The lusus naturae of the title seems to be Hillela, not apartheid.

For one-third of the book, Hillela is living in South Africa or at boarding-school in Rhodesia, under the care of her two aunts, for her mother has slipped off to Mozambique with a Portuguese. One of the aunts is a cultivated, lady-like matron with no political interests. The other is a keen advocate of African rights, married to an urgent lawyer: they send their son to school in an independent African state, to humanise him, but they know he will be conscripted into the South African Army. They tell Hillela that her mother went away, ‘to wash off the Calvinism and koshering of this place’. Hillela seems to be like her mother – not political but casually disobedient and bohemian. She goes out with a ‘coloured’ boy (scarcely recognisable as such, with his ‘strange blond hair and greyish-green eyes’) and shocks her headmistress. She works as a go-go dancer in a shop window. She hitches a lift from a black motorist. She is ‘easy to sneer at’, remarks the author, ‘the ex go-go dancer nested amid testimony of horror, happy in the midst of torture’. The historical facts are inserted to mark the years of Hillela’s life – the year of Sharpeville, the year of the Sabotage Act, ‘the year when torture began to be used by the police’ and Hillela was ‘living in the city with some man’. Her liberal aunt and uncle are as unnaturally obsessed with skin-colour as the Government: they fancy that colour has a smell. Entertaining an illegal African guest, they feel that ‘the faint odour of black beneficed the house, absolved whiteness.’ They are not like the young Hillela, who alienates them only when she seduces their son, with whom she has been brought up as brother and sister. This seems to them like incest, a breach of rules older than the South African laws. Hillela leaves their house.

We next meet Hillela as a beach-girl among South African exiles (presumably in Tanzania). She attaches herself to the household of a European diplomat and moves with his family to a French-speaking territory and then to Ghana. She has a baby there, fathered by a black South African, just at the time of Nkrumah’s fall. Hillela listens vaguely to the conversation of her man, Whaila, and his confederates. They discuss the failure of passive resistance in South Africa:

‘It was too much the idea of the Indians. The English knew they were getting out of India in the end. The Boere don’t accept any idea of giving over power, ever ...’ ‘D’you imagine Smuts would have been less tough with us? The English made an English gentleman out of a Boer general; but you know what the great Englishman Rhodes said: “I prefer land to niggers.” ’

One wants to join in with Whaila’s conversation, but there is not much of it. He is assassinated in Ghana by an employee of the South African Government.

The death of Whaila seems to induce militancy in Hillela, though we are not shown this at close quarters. She becomes more and more like a vague biographical subject of whom little is known. We come close up for two pages of colour-consciousness, with Hillela rhapsodising about Whaila’s skin and hair. We know that she is pleased that her daughter, Nomzano (named after Nomzamo Winnie Mandela), is good and black: we are told that Nomzano grows up to be a beautiful black model. We learn that Hillela fancies herself as the mother of ‘a rainbow-coloured family’ – but later, in one of those gnomic italic passages, we are told that ‘the real rainbow family stinks. The dried liquid of dysentery streaks the legs of babies and old men and the women smell of their montly blood ... ’ This seems odd, somehow relevant to that South African sense of ‘the faint odour of black’. The story of Hillela becomes more and more dream-like after the death of Whaila as his widow travels in Eastern Europe, the United States, Britain and the several nations of Africa, finally presiding with her last lover at the ceremony to mark the inauguration of a new, black-ruled South Africa, offering respect and reverence (in the last sentence of the book) to ‘the flag of Whaila’s country’. This is a strange novel, hopeful on the surface but with a note of desperation not quite concealed.

Another South African novelist, Christopher Hope, told me recently that ‘the bookshelves are wet with South African tears’ and reminded me of an old novel by Kingsley Amis, in which a young seducer at a party takes a girl to the kitchen and makes her cry over South Africa. Another, Ezekiel Mphahlele, told me once that the only novel about South Africa he had enjoyed was William Plomer’s Turbott Wolfe, a lightly-written tale encouraging ‘miscegenation’: that was published almost seventy years ago but seems to have had little influence on South African minds and laws. It is a relief to turn from this hell-hole to the more mildly sinful world of Mary Flanagan, tracing the history of a naturally, perhaps reluctantly, bohemian girl in Britain. The motherless Clover is the beneficiary of a trust, and the word ‘trust’ recurs, discreetly but frequently, to advertise the theme or structure of Trust.

The trust is set up by a woman called Eleanor, who is (like Mary Flanagan herself) an American in Britain, a Roman Catholic by upbringing and a graduate in the History of Art. Eleanor dominates the first quarter of the book: she has been living with an unlikeable English artist called Jason and she is arranging with Charles, her trustworthy English lawyer, to safeguard the future of Clover, the illegitimate daughter of Jason. Clover, Jason and Charles each dominate a further quarter of the novel. We are always aware, though, of a fifth person, Felix Koning, an art dealer, whom the women seem to like very much – while men like Charles and Jason refer to him as ‘Snake Koning’ or ‘Ponce Felix’. Eventually we learn that most men dislike Felix, ‘especially married men and homosexuals’.

Clover’s mother is unknown to the daughter for her first few years: in fact, she is the wife of a prosperous dentist and art-collector, very careful about her security. She had a fling with Jason and dumped the baby on him. Eleanor, living with Jason, begins to feel motherly toward Clover, but is thrown out, cursing savagely in American style. After arranging Clover’s trust, she goes to bed with Felix – who satisfies her but dismisses her swiftly, heading for a dinner party. ‘Prince of Liars,’ she thinks, ‘he could not now let slip the smallest morsel of deceit – what a bore, darling, so much rather stay with you, can’t let old so-and-so down – nope.’ Eleanor soon dies and at her funeral little Clover at last meets her real mother – her ‘biological mother’, as Jason puts it. ‘I am so very, very sorry for you,’ says the mother. Clover replies: ‘Thank you. I’ve been sorry for you all my life.’ Clover also catches sight of the desirable Felix.

Clover lives in deep Sussex with her gruff, seriously bohemian father whose paintings nobody wants, since they are unfashionable ‘abstracts’. However, Felix can sell them. He calls at the house and Clover (now 14) invites him: ‘Felix, will you take my virginity?’ He replies: ‘Yes, but not now ... Your father is not a fool and I am not a madman.’ She is almost sixteen before she gets him and, concomitantly, she visits New York, where Felix has arranged a successful show of her father’s worthless paintings. She comes out weeping from the private view, complaining that the art lovers don’t understand Jason’s paintings. ‘Of course they don’t,’ Felix consoles her. ‘They have no capacity for understanding and there is nothing to be understood.’

Meanwhile, Charles the trustee searches for Clover to benefit her with the proceeds of Eleanor’s trust. Unfortunately, Charles has become a lazy drunkard, living in a dismal corner of Fulham, having been deliberately ruined by his enemies (including Felix). Yet it is through Felix that he discovers the whereabouts of Clover and her father, in Hurricane, Utah. As will be recognised, we have here a complicated, improbable plot which could have been presented sombrely. In fact, it is a rather charming novel, made almost plausible by its thoughtful, appreciative observation of women’s lusts. What, though, is trust? The ruined Charles muses over a dictionary definition – ‘the expectation of safety without fear of consequences’. He concludes that we have to ‘trust or get out entirely’, even though there exists ‘in the blood and bone and brain of all of us a treacherous and brutal animal who may at any moment escape and demolish our constructions for safety’. This is not the only moment when the easy, pleasant prose of the novel is enhanced by a Roman Catholic vision of sin and faith.