- The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
Cape, 220 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 224 02499 X
- The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch
Chatto, 601 pp, £11.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3251 5
A Labour victory in the 1987 British General Election would have been a good thing for The Book and the Brotherhood and a disaster for The Child in Time. As it is, with Mrs Thatcher set to complete at least 13 years in office, Iris Murdoch may now be thought to look a little out of touch with the times, addressing herself to a danger – the destructive beauty of the fanatic left-wing soul – that we have, for the time being at least, left behind. Meanwhile McEwan, setting his novel several years into the future of the Thatcherite epoch, that timeless ‘on and on’ of which our leader herself has spoken, seems especially prescient and up-to-the-minute. Such are the risks of writing political fiction in democratic societies. In this instance, McEwan stood to lose far more than Murdoch has in fact lost.
Mrs Thatcher is not named in The Child in Time, but she is clearly intended by the figure of the Prime Minister, a 65-year-old woman with a voice ‘pitched somewhere between a tenor’s and an alto’s’, old-fashioned ideas on the upbringing of children and a deep scorn for the railway network. The Britain she governs bears a plausible relation to the Britain we live in now. It is a soulless place. Notions of public welfare have succumbed to the dominant culture of enterprise and profit. Public services barely function. Schools are being sold off. Houses are in short supply. Even nature has had to meet productivity targets. The Parliamentary opposition is ‘enfeebled’, the press and the administration have been co-opted, the police have guns, the Forestry Commission has run amok.
McEwan hates Thatcherism, but he has not exaggerated its potential for awfulness. The idea that Mrs Thatcher might think Britain should become self-sufficient in wood is the novel’s only implausible flight of fancy, and it is imaginatively a good one. The image of the British countryside replaced by conifer plantations conveys the banality of Thatcherism and its meanness of spirit, and it lends the novel a touch of nightmare, a closed-in atmosphere within which the author’s humane values can the more effectively be felt to struggle for breath.
The author’s humane values are looked after by Stephen Lewis, celebrated children’s book writer and member of the Parmenter Sub-Committee on Reading and Writing, one of 14 committees detailed to report back to the Official Commission on Childcare, ‘known to be a pet concern of the Prime Minister’s.’ Stephen is on the Parmenter Committee because his former publisher, Charles Darke, is now a junior minister in the government and a pet concern of the Prime Minister’s. Two years previously, Stephen’s three-year-old daughter Kate was abducted in a supermarket, and he is still in a state of shock. At home, he sits in front of the TV and drinks. In committee sessions his concentration is poor and he drifts into daydreams, rehearsing the events of the terrible morning when Kate was snatched and remembering how the subsequent shock and grief broke up his marriage with Julie.
The skilful exposition of The Child in Time, dovetailing thoughts and memories into the continuum of present events, is typical of the professional way that McEwan handles his material in the novel. The book is about many things: about loss and its effect upon love, about the nature of childhood and how adulthood betrays it, about being a parent and being one’s parents’ child, about the mysteries and magic of time. These themes weave in and out of a narrative that spans nine or ten months between summer and early spring. During this time Stephen Lewis must go through a series of intense experiences, leading to a climax when, within a matter of hours, he is visited by the Prime Minister, is sent out into the night to retrieve the half-frozen corpse of Charles Darke, discovers that Julie is pregnant with their next child and then delivers it. Stephen’s progress towards acceptance of his loss and reconciliation with Julie is represented as a process in which he is the passive, but sensitive recipient of gifts from a providence benignly devoted to guiding him back to happiness. These gifts include a mysterious vision in the ‘countryside’, when Stephen is on his way to visit Julie and conceive the baby that will bring them new life. Time warps, and through the window of a country pub Stephen sees his parents at the time of their courtship. Later, detailed questioning of his mother reveals to Stephen that he has experienced himself as a foetus, or rather the spirit of a foetus, and that when he saw his mother in the pub she was also seeing him, a vision that decided her against having him aborted.
The problem with this episode, as with the other bizarre episode in the novel, where Charles Darke resigns from politics and regresses to the age of ten, is one of intent rather than execution. In both cases, the atmosphere of strangeness is beautifully written up, but the meaning of the scenes is too designed, too clumsily obvious, and not very interesting. This is the weakness of the book as a whole. It expends its uncommon creative energies on a programme of undistinguished social and philosophical commentary. Passages of rare inventiveness are created to make very ordinary points: that time is a strange and wonderful thing, that women, being more in touch with this, are more strange and wonderful than men, that childhood is strange and wonderful and adults for the most part not strange and wonderful enough, that Mrs Thatcher is especially deficient in the strange and wonderful, that the world would be a better place if ‘the clever boy’ could develop into ‘the wise woman’.
The Child in Time isn’t a novel about politics, it reacts to them, and the politics it reacts to are Mrs Thatcher’s. So it’s lucky for McEwan that she was returned to power. The success of his novel depended on it. Iris Murdoch’s novels are never exposed to such risks and ironies. The reasons for this may partly explain why The Book and the Brotherhood will weather its bad timing better than The Child in Time its good. The crux of the matter is style and the point where style and class meet in what 18th-century critics would have called decorum: the set of unwritten rules governing what is appropriate or out of place in a chosen literary style. Like Henry James’s, Iris Murdoch’s style is high, in the sense that she writes about lofty matters – the nature of morality, the reasons for existence, how we should live and love, how we should die – as they arise in stories about the upper middle classes, stories about people who have the leisure, education, civilisation, plausibly to think and speak about these lofty matters in a suitably lofty way, stories about people who live at a level of society supposed, for the sake of the convention, to be above the distracting contingencies of everyday life. A high style will purge itself of references to vulgar reality. Racine wrote within a vocabulary of two thousand words. Iris Murdoch cannot write about supermarket trolleys, traffic wardens or blocked drains.
Beside McEwan, the altitude of Murdoch’s style is especially noticeable. The following passage from The Child in Time could not appear in The Book and the Brotherhood:
Restrictions on water use had reduced the front gardens of suburban West London to dust. The interminable privets were crackling brown. The only flowers Stephen saw on the long walk to the tube station – the end of the line – were surreptitious geraniums on window ledges. The little squares of lawn were baked earth from which even the dried grass had flaked away. One wag had planted out a row of cacti. Stronger representations of pastoral were to be found in those gardens which had been cemented over and painted green. The little men in red coats and rolled-up sleeves who turned the windmills were motionless, sunstruck.
The street in which his parents lived ran straight and shopless for a mile and a half, part of a single 1930s development, once despised by those who preferred Victorian terraces, and made desirable now by migrations from the inner city. They were squat, grubbily rendered houses dreaming under their hot roofs of open seas; there was a porthole by each front door, and the upper windows, cased in metal, attempted to suggest the bridge of an ocean liner. He walked slowly through the hazy silence towards number 763. A lozenge of dog turd crumbled underfoot. He wondered, as he did each time he came, how there could be so little activity in a street where there were so many houses close together – no kids kicking a ball around or playing hopscotch on the pavement, no one stripping down a gear box, no one even leaving or entering a house.
This is what McEwan does best. He understands the world of lower-middle-class respectability to which Mr and Mrs Lewis belong, and dignifies it through the fineness of attention he pays to it. The world of The Book and the Brotherhood turns between the twin poles of the Oxford college and Kensington. Hounslow is nowhere on its map. Murdoch’s world does not contain lozenges of dog turd. Dog turd, any turd by any name falls outside its vocabulary. By the same law, so do the processes of contemporary politics. Mrs Thatcher could as easily gain entry to the world of The Book and the Brotherhood as a garden gnome or a pile of shit. When the high style deals with politics it does so at a distance, in formal conflicts between idea and personality or public and private loyalties, as in the plays of Corneille or in Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most Classical play. The Book and the Brotherhood is roughly in this tradition. Its political material is kept remote from the world of contemporary politics and confined to the realm of intellectual debate and psychological speculation. We hear about ‘scandalous and violent and sickening goings-on’ in the public sphere, but that is all, and it is like the echo of distant gunfire.
The political debate in The Book and the Brotherhood is conducted between David Crimond, writer of a book of left-wing political theory, and the brotherhood, a sort of trust set up by a group of friends to provide Crimond with a regular income while he writes the book. The brotherhood, otherwise humorously known as the Crimondgesellschaft, consists of Gerard Hernshaw, Jenkin Riderhood and Duncan Cambus, three of Crimond’s contemporaries at Oxford (same college, studying Greats), Rose Curtland, sister of Sinclair Curtland who also studied at Oxford with Crimond but died tragically young in a glider accident, and Gulliver Ashe, a younger, later addition to the Rose-Gerard-Jenkin-Duncan set. The novel opens when relations between Crimond and his support committee have broken down. The split is manifold and complex. Since the early days of the Crimondgesellschaft, David Crimond has moved further and further to the left, putting himself outside the pale of conventional party politics by advocating violent revolutionary solutions to society’s problems. The brotherhood meanwhile has drifted in the other direction, coming to rest somewhere on the liberal wing of the Tory Party. Crimond is a Scotsman, and though the book does not say so, he seems to conform to the type of the lower middle-class or working-class boy made good by intellect and ambition. He’s a puritan ascetic who thinks his uncompromising thoughts in the basement of a shabby, underheated house in South London. The brotherhood, on the other hand, are born to the Establishment. They live in the smart parts of London and meet three times a year for reading-parties at Rose Curtland’s modest country house ‘Boyars’, where they are looked after splendidly by the housekeeper Annushka (though the days of kidneys and kedgeree for breakfast are sadly over).
Cosy at ‘Boyars’, the brotherhood see Crimond as ‘a lone wolf, restlessly prowling the hostile steppes while meditating terror to the settlements of democratic civilisation: a view he appears amply to justify when he knocks Duncan Cambus down the stairs of Duncan’s Irish tower and runs off with his wife, Jean. After a few months of spartan bliss with Crimond, Jean returns to the marital fold, but that’s not the end of the story, and when the curtain rises on the opening scene of The Book and the Brotherhood (an Oxford Commem Ball) we find Crimond ready to strike again and Jean more than ready to be struck (this time Duncan ends up in the River Cherwell).
Not surprisingly, the political discussions that rage around Crimond are tense and in them reasoned argument gets swamped by feeling. Rose Curtland is the most averse to Crimond’s politics: ‘He wants to destroy our democracy and have one-party government.’ ‘He wants to liquidate the bourgeois individual, that is the individual, and bourgeois values, that is values!’ ‘I hope and believe that in what remains of my lifetime I shall still be able to go out and buy half a pound of butter and a copy of the Times.’ Gerard, whose youthful left-wing idealism is described as having been replaced by ‘a humbler perhaps more rational desire to serve society by arranging it a little better’, is only marginally more specific than Rose: ‘there can never be a perfectly good society – there can only be a decent society, and that depends on freedom and order and circumstances and an endless tinkering which can’t be programmed from a distance.’ Only Jenkin Riderhood is prepared to take an interest in what Crimond may have to say. Only Jenkin is free enough of prejudice to entertain the thought that ‘perhaps misguided moral passion is better than confused indifference,’ and only Jenkin gets the grudging respect of Crimond for whom the rest of them are beneath contempt (‘You value yourselves because you’re English,’ ‘You all idolise your souls’, etc).
It’s hard for Rose, Gerard, Jenkin or Jean to think clearly about Crimond, because of his extraordinary personal power. With his narrowly wavy red hair, his light-blue eyes ‘cold and stilled, hard as two opaque blue stones’, his thin lips ‘drawn into a straight line’, this sallow-skinned slightly dandyish Scotsman is an irresistible figure, made to be mythologised by the young and execrated by the old, made to sweep passionate women off their feet and excite murderous jealousies in their deserted husbands. The other characters in The Book and the Brotherhood are mesmerised by Crimond and project onto him their wildest desires and darkest fears. To Gerard, he is like ‘one of the tall Greek Kouroi in the Acropolis Museum’; to Jenkin, he is ‘like Shiva’. For Jean, loving Crimond is ‘a meeting with an absolute’, for Duncan, ‘to go near Crimond is to go near death.’ When Rose is shown pages from Crimond’s book it is ‘like being shown a holy manuscript or rare work of art’, and when it is published she thinks of it as ‘a vibrating ticking infernal machine’, a bomb.
David Crimond is this novel’s obsession. In creating him, Murdoch seems to have seen him with unusual clarity, to have been fixated, frightened, repelled, fascinated by him, to have been in love with him – like her characters, and like her characters she has not in the end been able to be conclusive about him. His function in The Book and the Brotherhood is richly paradoxical. We are certainly meant to see him as half-crazy and unstable, a havoc-raiser in the lives of other people. His humourlessness, his affinity with cold dead things, with Greek clarity rather than Shakespearean mess, his inability to dither or to take a break, his rigid habit of telling the truth, his games of death – are all things the book comes down against. Seen close to, Crimond is shown up as a mean, petulant restless, pathetic figure. His grand passion for Jean Cambus is disclosed as a necrophiliac delusion. The two great tragedies in the novel – Tamar Hernshaw’s abortion (Tamar is the daughter of Gerard’s cousin), and the accidental death of Jenkin Riderhood – are both in large measure Crimond’s responsibility. Moreover, the most loving passages of the book are devoted to those aspects of the world that Rose Curtland and Jenkin Riderhood hold dear: to the world of ‘Boyars’ and the countryside in winter, to the settled comforts of Rose’s flat, the excitement and fun of a firework party, the exhilaration of an afternoon out skating.
On the other hand, the novel benefits hugely from Crimond’s clarity. His decisiveness activates the plot. His madness draws out the confusion in those around him, exposing their rottenness to each other and to themselves. While Crimond is either a god or a devil, all black or brilliant white, they are shabbily mortal and every shade of grey. Having no inside, he is an antidote to their obsessive, swarming subjectivity. And while they have achieved little in their lives, he has written a book that Gerard says is wonderful, likely to change the world.
Aside from Crimond, the novel does not spare Duncan, Rose, Gerard, Jean and the others (there are several characters I’ve not even mentioned) its complex critical scrutiny. Under that scrutiny only Jenkin really passes muster, and it is in Jenkin’s consciousness that the book’s point of moral and intellectual balance is to be located. ‘Perhaps it is not only our fate but our truth to be weak and uncertain,’ muses Jenkin in one of the novel’s many stretches of worried dialectic. As The Book and the Brotherhood develops, weakness and uncertainty take over. An unease creeps into the minds of Gerard, Rose, Jenkin and Duncan, the characters who bear the largest share of the novel’s great burden of troubled consciousness – a weariness with life, a sense of depleted resources and hopes disappointed, a fear at the approaching dark. A dim awareness that their world and its values are exhausted and at an end, that, as Gerard puts it, ‘the Oxford Colleges and Big Ben can’t buy us off now.’
This self-doubt is the novel’s own, and it is its most remarkable and moving quality. Somehow The Book and the Brotherhood manages to signal that it understands its own anachronism, its having appeared now to rehearse a political argument which has no vital bearing upon what is actually happening to us all. It is as though the contemporary situation which the novel cannot deal with is exerting an unseen pressure on Murdoch’s imaginative and stylistic equilibrium, knocking her into a state of turbulent ambiguity. With Rose Curtland, the book wants to believe that the Times is as fixed a phenomenon as half a pound of butter. Yet it can’t sustain this illusion, seeming to know that the times and the Times have changed, that what they once were has gone the way of the kidneys and the kedgeree, swept into oblivion not by the forces of the fanatical Left but by rampant entrepreneurial capitalism with its productivity targets, performance indicators and the like. The Book and the Brotherhood cannot mention the existence of such things, yet manages to acknowledge that they have made the writing of high fiction a thing of the past.
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ If they were not so famous, Yeats’s famous lines could have been the motto for The Book and the Brotherhood. Like ‘The Second Coming’ but without its portentous bluster, Murdoch’s novel ends on a note of foreboding, a dark and open question about what may be coming to term in the womb of time. The Child in Time thinks it knows the answer and offers to play midwife. But the rough beast it delivers turns out to be a docile creature, paraded before the public on a rope of silken prose, so that everyone may see how painlessly its owner has tamed it. The novel’s certainty that its values are the right ones, the ones that it is safe to be seen with in public, makes it particularly exasperating to anyone, like myself, who has sponged up the same values from the same cultural pool.
McEwan’s predicament is that he belongs, like Stephen Lewis, to a class that has identified itself to itself by pretending to opt out of the Establishment in order to pose as society’s sensibility and critic. While Murdoch writes from within the class she portrays, and can expose its divisions and contradictions as a constantly shifting and ambiguous process, McEwan is stuck on the outside of things with only right-thinking in his repertoire. His novel’s answer to the problems of society is to point at them impotently and then turn away to become absorbed in ideals of private fulfilment. This movement is symbolised by his novel’s final scene, a secular nativity play, straight out of the Gospel according to St Michel Odent and ready-made for the lifestyle pages of the Independent. This is confinement indeed.