Kay Demarest’s War

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • The Other Garden by Francis Wyndham
    Cape, 106 pp, £9.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 224 02475 2
  • The Engine of Owl-Light by Sebastian Barry
    Carcanet, 390 pp, £10.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 85635 704 9
  • A Singular Attraction by Ita Daly
    Cape, 144 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 224 02438 8
  • Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates
    Methuen, 182 pp, £10.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 413 14420 8
  • The Changeling by Catharine Arnold
    Hodder, 223 pp, £9.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 340 40542 2

In The Other Garden Francis Wyndham manages a classic form, the first-person novella, with great delicacy and originality. His first person, as in his collection of short stories Mrs Henderson, is a gentle, helpful, observant boy growing up during the Second World War, a boy who is eventually bewildered by what human beings do to each other. He seems reluctant to define himself and Wyndham never gives him a name. At the beginning of his story ‘Obsessions’ he quotes Valéry’s Monsieur Teste: C’est ce que j’ai d’inhabile, d’incertain, qui est bien moi-même. But this boy is also a historian. Around him, or just out of his reach, there are glittering and mysterious figures, his elders and their friends and relations, and beyond them a region of myth, the partygoers of the Twenties, the film stars of the Thirties. He has something in common with Leo in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, but without the strain and the treacherous anxiety to please the great ones which bring Leo to ruin. What he offers, as a historian, is not curiosity but sympathy, and what he is looking for turns out to be an innocence which, even in the most unlikely places, can be recognised as something like his own.

The story, then, of The Other Garden is not his, or appears not to be his. Having led us quietly into the inner life of the village he concentrates on the tragedy (it can surely be called that) of Kay Demarest. The Demarests are divorced, and only live together in their house, which looks like a stage-set for an English country hotel, because it saves them money; ‘the war, which was causing so much misery elsewhere by separating lovers and fragmenting family life, had thrust them into undesired proximity.’ Poor Kay, their daughter, at 35 is rootless, moneyless and jobless, even in wartime. She has only a tenuous connection with the world, and none with the worldly. She sleeps around with American sergeants and feels like ‘an unwanted parcel’. Certainly her parents don’t want her. Their hopes are fixed on her unnaturally good-looking brother, a Group Captain in the RAF. And Kay, too, loves this brother, with a capacity for loving which has no way to express itself. As she grows shabbier and thinner, the Americans in the village compare her to the witch in Snow White. But the thinness is sickness, and Kay, although her parents take their time to admit it, is tubercular. This plague also attacks the narrator, putting an end to his military service, and his camp university friend. It throws its shadow over the innocent, in parallel to ‘the real war raging in the outside world: the miniature is easier to contemplate than the immense.’

At the story’s end the narrator is left standing in ‘the other garden’ to consider what, as Kay’s faithful ally, he has lost and gained. This garden was once marked out by his father as a private place, but by the end of the war it is given over to vegetables and weeds. And, in this desolation, he is tempted towards a ‘crushing sense of defeat’. But finally he refuses to see Kay as destined to failure. She lost her unequal battle against those who, like Mrs Demarest, ‘always go to the top’. But, as a tribute to her memory, he vows that ‘until my own death I would avoid the wielders of influence and power’. ‘It is not a vow,’ he adds, ‘that I have always been able to keep.’ The last sentence opens up this witty and beautiful novel, which has been a souvenir du temps passé, into the uncertain future.

Calling a novel ‘poetic’ suggests there is something wrong with it, or, perhaps, something wrong with the reader. T.S. Eliot said that it meant ‘so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it’, which makes most readers feel that they’re too late to qualify. Sebastian Barry is a poet who has written a novel, so we must see what we can do.

Owl-light is peculiar to Celtic countries, and in this novel it is shining under a disused road bridge in ‘a small sewer of a place’ in Co. Sligo, where ‘the best nights indeed were the ones when the sky was open and the moon got in, and filled everywhere with its light, and the owl thrummed in its machinery.’ Here Moran, ‘a largely extra citizen of Ireland’, can sleep rough and go into town, with the Other bachelors, to do his shopping on Wednesdays. Like Beckett’s Moran, he is a compulsive storyteller, and like Joyce’s Finnegan or Yeats’s Father Rosicross, he is a sleeping giant. His stories are addressed to a woman called Moll, who may or may not exist, and at the same time to the narrator, though Moran at the end slips clean away from him. But Moran is also Master Owl, poet to a medieval chieftain, Oliver (the same Oliver, it seems, that the book is dedicated to, so I have to leave him to laugh this out with the author), and in this character he talks beguilingly and not unlike Anna Livia Plurabelle: ‘Moll, your hand is too cold for me shins. Your hand is too cold for all and aught.’ According to the book’s epigraph from Sir Thomas Browne, the considering man ‘may conceive himself in some manner to have lived from the beginning of the world’, so that the relationship between tale and teller appears in different styles and places. In this way we get, appropriately, some familiar kinds of story – a Dublin childhood with Mammy and the milkman, an American on-the-road story, a bewildered-soldier-in-Africa story – all made new by a young virtuoso in perpetual overdrive. And when ‘there were no words in it from Moran’s box of language,’ the narrator, bounding joyously along, can supply them all.

Sebastian Barry has said that ‘to employ irony in Ireland would be an irony in itself. There’s always someone falling down.’ This, if it was taken seriously, would put him very far apart from Dublin’s Ita Daly, a classic ironist, rueful, calm and clear. In The Engine of Owl-Light, at one point, the storyteller is haunted by his hostile father. In A Singular Attraction Pauline Kennedy, a sensible, middle-aged teacher, finds her dead Mammy always at her elbow with unwanted advice. What’s to be done with these Dublin parents unless they are kept (as in Endgame) in dustbins, and the lids taken off only rarely? After Mammy’s funeral Pauline plans a rebirth, giving away all her clothes to the Oxfam shop, buying new ones in Grafton Street and moving into a modern block of flats, built where a convent once stood. But she still feels a woman out of her time, with a great obstacle to overcome. ‘It wasn’t being unwed at 38 that was a cause for pity, not any more, not even in Ireland’: her problem is her virginity – singles bars are more than she can face. By way of contrast, one of the sulky teenagers in her class aborts herself with a knitting-needle, while her best friend, married with two children, is pregnant again: ‘Do me a favour, don’t start talking about life and how wonderful it is.’ These three predicaments overlap each other and affect each other. Meantime Jens Hansen, a tidy-minded executive from Denmark, arrives in Pauline’s block. The story works itself out in the ‘unexciting air’ of Dublin’s suburbs, and even when Pauline offers to show Jens a little more of Ireland she takes him to the flat green country inland. ‘You get a surfeit of drama if you live in Ireland for long’ – but not in this witty, gracefully-written book. In the upshot Pauline hardly behaves sensibly, but she has reached a measure of self-approval, which is hard come by in Rathmines.

In the fiction of Richard Yates we are down among the half-lives (Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Young Hearts Crying): New Yorkers who are hopeful as kids, humiliated as adolescents, uncommunicative as adults, although drink helps a little there. If each drink leaves you feeling it hasn’t quite done the job there will always be more where it came from. There is ‘an aching, crying need for will and purpose in your life – anybody’s life’: but to have a need is no guarantee that it will be met. Women, in Yates’s earlier books, are more practical than men and get off more lightly, but not in this one, where they are dreamers, and are therefore likely to end up discarded, or not quite right in the head.

Cold Spring Harbor takes place during the Second World War, on Long Island and along Route 7. Chance and misunderstanding are stronger than human good-will, or even human ill-will. Charles Shepard is heart and soul in his mediocre army career, but his eyesight begins to fail. His son Evan, whose only gift is messing about with engines, marries his first wife at 18 because she gets pregnant after only a few evenings in the back of the car. Charles and Evan meet Gloria Drake because their car happens to break down near her apartment. Evan has been driving his father to an appointment at the eye clinic, but they never get there. Evan makes a second marriage with Gloria’s daughter Rachel, but by chance her kid brother, Phil, destroys it. There is nothing that any of them can do to help themselves. ‘Maybe all you could ever do, beyond suffering, was wait and see what might be going to happen next.’ Or you can watch life, with a kind of double self-consciousness, as though it was a movie. Phil, in particular, does this. He sees Evan as a man who holds a slice of bread ‘the way working-class heroes ate in the movies’. He refuses (at first) to accept a bike paid for by a rich friend’s family ‘because it wouldn’t be right – and Phil could dimly hear, in his own voice, a tone of righteous, stubborn pride that he guessed he must have learned from movies about the Depression.’ Thus second thoughts leave Phil without moral values. Yates has a kind of weary tenderness for his characters. Indeed, to know as much and forgive as much as Yates, or Salinger (whom he particularly admires), or Updike, or John Cheever, must be a tiring business. In Yates’s Builders there is a writer, Bob Prentice, who knows that too much sensitivity is a mistake, and upsets the readers. Prentice, however, is an unsuccessful writer. Yates, an expert in painful details and sad, inconclusive dialogue, is not.

The publishers say that Catharine Arnold’s The Changeling is about ‘the private and public faces of emotion, the weaknesses and resilience of people under pressure’, but it is a lot more fun than that, being a wish-fulfilment novel on a generous scale. Red-haired Hero, half-Irish, half-Jewish, looks frail and otherworldly, a ‘changeling’, but turns out to be a scholar (art history), an athlete (she runs for her college), a Forties freak, a good shot and a poet. Her husband, who has given her an emerald ring too heavy for her finger, has a secret Ministry of Defence job, and when the book opens he has been assassinated by a car bomb. Changed overnight into a media celebrity, Hero has to bear her grief in public, and this takes her to the brink of suicide and back. Her next lover is a best-selling novelist who is also a Scottish aristocrat, and after him comes a world-famous rock star who is also a recluse, dedicated to work for humanity. Independent, finally, of the lot of them, and having made a mint of money, she emerges open to life and free. She has concentrated from start to finish on her own well-being, and has learned that ‘the trouble with life was that it needed a good editor.’ Catharine Arnold sometimes seems reckless – the villainness is ‘long-haired and steely’ and is called Carina Villiers – but she has tremendous spirit and, when she pauses for long enough, a very good eye for detail. A cob in a field looks like ‘an old-fashioned upright bicycle’; a hospital bed is ‘like lying between sheets of A4’; the local tourist shop offers ‘hand-hewn’ biscuits.