Dark and Buzzing Looks

Susannah Clapp

  • Serenissima: A Novel of Venice by Erica Jong
    Bantam, 225 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 593 01365 4
  • Her Mother’s Daughter by Marilyn French
    Heinemann, 756 pp, £10.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 434 27200 0
  • The Wedding of Jayanthi Mandel by Sara Banerji
    Gollancz, 208 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 575 03984 1

When William Shakespeare kisses the heroine of Erica Jong’s novel, he does so ‘with molten sweetness’. When he goes to bed with her, Jessica Pruitt is ‘caught up in a sort of natural disaster ... It was as if meteorites showered the earth.’ This is new even to Ms Pruitt, who is accustomed to feeling her ‘silk panties moisten’, and given to referring darkly to ‘those other, lower lips’. She has flown to Italy from Hollywood to act her namesake in a ‘filmic fantasy’ based on The Merchant of Venice. She has speculated that in modern Venice, ‘life is very much as it was centuries ago.’ She has found herself whisked, at the touch of a magic ring, to the 16th century, where she is indeed Shylock’s daughter, and where ‘word-drunk Will’ is cruising the city with a very lascivious Earl of Southampton.

The enchanted ring and a cackling witch capable of summoning mists and hailstones are the most obtrusive supernatural elements in a novel that presents much of its magic as metaphysics. The beautiful Jessica gives quite a lot of thought to her appearance: she tells us about her ‘huge, brown almond-shaped eyes’ and unconvincingly disparages the ‘tarnished gold’ of her ‘curly, cuprous aureole’. But she is also inclined to deepness, explaining that ‘the Jew is the quintessential exile, like the artist,’ and that Venice is a ‘city of illusion where reality becomes fantasy and fantasy becomes reality’. These musings pave the way for her translation from Hollywood star to Renaissance ghetto girl. A bedazzled literariness prepares us for the nature of this translation. Jessica, who often thinks about the pointlessness of materialism, is a big reader, and regards Shakespeare – peculiarly, given subsequent events – as her ‘substitute mother’. An elaborate series of puns and parallels binds this heroine to her Shakespearean obsession. Like Portia, she is restricted in the exercise of her free will by a legal will. She lacks the resolution, or will, to combat her difficulties until she has her adventure with the Will who span sonnets around such puns.

It is part of Erica Jong’s point that her heroine should, for much of the novel, feel vacant. At the soft centre of Serenissima is the proposition that the ‘most humanising act of the human species’ is the act of being a mother: ‘The identity is immutable – the opposite, in short, of an actress’s role.’ Successful Jessica, separated from her ‘much-missed’ daughter by her bad husband, and brooding on the suicide of her own mother, has got to feel ghostly. But need she be vapid? Seen through this heroine’s eyes, colleagues and acquaintances – the ‘international set’ of the 20th century – are easily reduced to a catalogue of famous names and designer labels. Among the attenders at parties are ‘Paloma P.’, ‘Jackie O.’, ‘Arianna S.’ and ‘the incomparable Gore V ... making everybody laugh at his legendary aphorisms’. Jessica Pruitt’s wardrobe encompasses a ‘black Zandra Rhodes Victorian fantasy’, ‘an elegant Missoni knit dress’ and ‘a Thierry Mugler jump suit’.

Arrival in the 16th century is signalled by a mistiness of documentation, a mistiness which may be intended to convey the quality of dream. Jessica notices ‘humble working people’ and ‘magnificently dressed aristocrats’. On the Rialto she spots ‘shops of every description’ – shops which aren’t described. Celebrities figure here, too: Bassiano and Gratiano appear as loutish gamblers; Jessica’s father, Shalach, is ‘an embittered man but not ... without his reasons’, and a devoted father. Conventional period effects are added: there are farthingales and feathered fans, roast oxen and marchpane. There are scenes of antique violence, in which voluptuous nuns strangle their babies and revellers are disembowelled by hoe-waving peasants. There is also William Shakespeare, who bumps into Jessica in an alleyway and exclaims: ‘Who ever loved, who loved not at first sight?’ Shakespeare is jealous of Marlowe’s fame, and fed up with Anne Hathaway, ‘once so dark and dirty abed’ and now a scold. He is too indecisive to be an invariably effective fighter, and is ‘not much of a horseman’. But he is full of ideas for new plays, quick to pounce, ‘as poets will’, on the details of a story, and gets high on the ‘sound of goosequill scratching O’er the page’. He has a nice turn of phrase: ‘Now cracks a noble heart,’ he sighs over the body of a teenage mother. And he is an extremely energetic sexual partner. Making up a threesome with the Earl of Southampton and a whore, he displays a ‘tingling flute’ and a ‘silver fountain’; he plunges his ‘soul’s sabre’ into Jessica, causing an unfurling of her ‘tight rosebud’. This dark lady’s excursion finally proves to be a limited one – from moist panties to ‘musical pillicock’.

According to Erica Jong, motherhood is a superior ‘means of travelling through time’. According to the less playful Marilyn French, it is a dangerous form of transport: ‘It is not the sins of the fathers that descend unto the third generation, but the sorrows of the mothers.’ Some of the sorrows examined in her fat book are produced by grim circumstances: women are beaten up by their husbands, suffer unwanted pregnancies, work at uncongenial jobs for a pittance. Some of the laments are more wistful: about mothers who never brushed their daughters’ hair, mothers who rejected their daughters’ gifts, mothers who were oppressively present or culpably absent. All of them touch on the notion that men feel they have a choice about what they do and women don’t: as long as this is so, women will feel constricted by caring for their children, and children will pay for this sense of constriction.

Much of what is said in Her Mother’s Daughter can’t be argued with – though not everyone will think it axiomatic that men not only don’t have to but don’t care about their offspring. The trouble is that Marilyn French keeps telling us what she means, and what she means is not all new. She has written a novel which aims to show that looking after a household and children is not ‘frivolous and mindless’, a novel which speaks of domestic procedures rather than public actions, and which deals in fates rather than destinies. The apparent eventlessness of large parts of her tract carries some compulsion. We are given detailed accounts of mashing meatballs, frying potatoes and pickling cucumbers. We are taken through the scrubbing, the wringing, the bluing and the pegging out of washing. We are supplied with a comprehensive breakdown of household budgets. In hefty doses these accounts are laborious: we don’t want to read only about what we’re accustomed to doing. In small doses they offer the fascination of seeing habitual actions as complicated activities – the peculiar fascination of seeing our own house on television.

The narrator’s solemn summaries don’t add much to what have been shown as the facts of these women’s lives. She tells us that bringing up children is ‘more valuable’ than repairing cars or designing bombs. She produces a selection of ineffective, corruptible or barbarously chauvinist men – ‘This is a dangerous mission, miss. Too dangerous for a girl’ – and explains that these are not models to be emulated: to live like a man is to become ‘inexpressive’. On discovering feminism, this narrator, who has preened herself on an indignant rejection of ‘anything that seems facile’, glazes over like a hippie. She declares herself compelled to reassess her ‘entire view of things, of profound things, the most essential things, like what were women really like, and men, and life’ – and embarks on an affair with a woman who finds in her ‘someone sweet and hurt and frightened’.

A persuasive picture of a woman with a vivid personality who gets what she wants is supplied by Sara Banerji in The Wedding of Jayanthi Mandel. It is surprising that this should be so, since the woman in question is party to an arranged Hindu marriage, and could be thought to have little room for manoeuvre: her glamorous sister-in-law causes offence to her relatives not merely by drinking and smoking, but by using her husband’s first name. The device by which Jayanthi Mandel asserts herself is drastic: she becomes possessed by a family spirit which lends her the demeanour of a snake. But the device is not incongruous. Although this is not a novel which makes much of magic tricks, it is one in which bizarre and often gruesome events occur without immediate explanation, so that they have the effect of magical intervention. It is also a novel in which supernatural control is both longed for and laughed at. In his Eternal Bliss Pharmacy, Jayanthi’s brother pops human brains into illuminated coffee jars, hoping to keep them alive and happy: he is impeded by an erratic electricity supply.

Mrs Banerji’s flexibility of tone allows her to accommodate a variety of violent acts. A conniving Anglophile politician is assaulted by one of his employees on the golf-course, and grumbles that ‘golfers hardly ever get stabbed in the breast in England.’ A waiter who slashes women’s bare arms on crowded buses threatens Jayanthi – and gives her a chance to practise her cobra act. A corrupt police chief expires in a puff of menthol, his sore throat slit while he is spraying it.

These dramas – all practised on or perpetrated by members of the bride’s family – are discussed in a plain and vigorous narrative which holds itself aloof from psychological probing, but allows some intimate glimpses of the protagonists: Jayanthi is seen gleaning ideas about love from copies of True Confessions spread out for sale on Calcutta pavements; her bridegroom is viewed in his pre-nuptial bath, attended by three lewd aunts and a brass band. An alternative commentary is provided by a gullible and self-important policeman, who, in the middle of the mayhem, announces his eagerness to chase after illegal importers of ‘French panties and English marmite’. This character is at times too much of a clown, with his droll delivery – his wife, having been struck by religion, is ‘therefore eschewing subsequent sexual copulations’ – and his aptitude for disaster. But he is the natural source of some of the best moments in a very engaging novel. He tells us that Jayanthi is ‘well-plumped in the body’. He retails the procedure at the wedding party when the donor and estimated cost of each gift is boomed over a loudspeaker. And he describes with some beauty the little peeps which Jayanthi darts at her husband: the peeps are ‘of the kind we compare to bees. These consist of dark and buzzing looks associated with love.’