Undertellers

Walter Nash

  • The Panda Hunt by Richard Burns
    Cape, 189 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 224 02445 0
  • Davy Chadwick by James Buchan
    Hamish Hamilton, 145 pp, £9.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12115 9
  • Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris by Mavis Gallant
    Cape, 196 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 224 02426 4
  • Black Idol by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Cape, 157 pp, £9.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 224 02437 X

Along with the hearing-aid and the bifocals and other indices of personal decay goes an elderly fretfulness about staying alert in a world so teasing, so elusive, that even novels, which should plainly edify and console the senior citizen, seem to become more and more equivocal, devious, conspiratorial, riddling. ‘What’s the fellow driving at?’ mutters Tetchy. ‘Why do I need to know all this?’ ‘Why don’t they speak up?’ These are questions upon which might be founded a typology of narrative which would include the overtold and the undertold tale, the story that misleads with a profusion of detail and the one that mysatifies with laconic artfulness.

The Panda Hunt is a tale at once overtold and undertold, and hence flawed-though it is an engaging book, humorous, lyrical, with a kind of dawdling charm that comes from the blending of comedy and pathos and occasionally something deeper and darker than pathos. It has its own panda-nature – winsome and harassed and fleetingly tragic – reflected in the reader’s responses as the narrative develops. The story is this. Edmund Sin is a Chicago-born American, of Chinese parentage. We meet him first as the sad narrator, in sight of his 60th birthday, mourning the loss of a wife he has belatedly learned to love, looking back over forty years to another self, squaring accounts with the past. His starting-point is the year 1926, in Monaco, where young Edmund is fashionably adrift among the gaming wheels and the champagne. An accident brings him to the notice of Roscoe Hamilton, a big-game hunter who is planning an expedition to China to track down ‘a special kind of black and white bear’. Hamilton takes an immediate fancy to Edmund. ‘You remind me of Chingachgook’ he announces, not altogether plausibly. (Edmund comments, even less plausibly: ‘Chingachgook, the Last of the Mohicans, is actually pronounced Chicago by those in the know.’) This romantic fancy prompts Hamilton to offer Edmund a place on the expedition, as translator (though he has no word of Chinese) and guide (though he has never been to China). Edmund refuses, but later reconsiders his decision. ‘In China. I realised, I would be cured and healed.’ His disease is the leprosy of alienation, the affliction of not belonging to the white tribe into which his father has so assiduously tried to enrol him. Fathers are important in this book, though they appear no more than transiently among its personnel; one of its messages is that our fathers, love them or hate them, hold us in their bondage till they die, and even afterwards.

Edmund’s father, whom he guiltily loves, dies before the expedition begins; Roscoe’s father is drowned in a swimming-pool at a Hollywood party, an event that troubles Roscoe only for as long as he is suspected of having engineered it. His is no guilty love; the secret of his unerring marksmanship, we are later to learn, is that he always sees his father’s face in the gunsight. In Shanghai, Edmund the translator equips himself with a book called Commercial Mandarin in 32 lessons (the first chapter, entitled ‘Speak’, begins: ‘Chinese words are always monosyllable. Kung is speaked like Gung’), and tries to put on status by ordering a tailor-made, European-style silk suit, of which he is promptly stripped by muggers. The recovery of the suit – its ownership established by the pocketed presence of Commercial Mandarin in 32 Lessons – is a delicious essay in the absurd, one of several marking Edmund’s woebegone quest for an identity. ‘You’re a natural comic, you know that?’ Roscoe tells him. ‘Just about everything you do makes me laugh.’ But this is the end of the laughing, for now the expedition begins in earnest, taking the travellers up the Yangtse into Szechuan, and beyond, beyond, into the serious immensity of central China, the peaks and forests of the Tahsueh Shan, the Great Snowy Mountains, the retreat of the panda. The narrative crosses a frontier, and discovers a different vernacular of the emotions.

The closing chapters of the book are quite beautiful, with a serene, slow-breathing gravity, unfretted by the panting impulses of comedy. In their completeness, they create a novella to which the rest of the book is no more than an accessory source of information: its theme is the quest, the search for a death or a beginning or a redemption. What have Edmund and Roscoe gone into the wilderness to see? Mr Burns properly leaves the answer to his readers. When the explorers find their panda – ‘sitting on its fat butt with a piece of bamboo in its hand ... It looked like a man dressed in fur’ – Roscoe, the immaculate marksman who never fails while his father’s face is in the gunsight, fires – and misses, and walks away, disburdened, without looking back: but Edmund weeps, and why he weeps is the riddle that the reader must solve.

For Mr Burns does not grant us the obtuse privilege of supposing that his book is simply about two oddly-assorted chaps who set off to shoot a panda and have adventures by the way. Its underlying purport is hinted at in diverse asides. ‘There were so many layers to my identity now,’ says Edmund at one point, ‘I could have been peeled like an onion.’ And again: ‘If you read between the lines of any story, including mine, you find the blank spaces where the truth is to be found.’ And again: ‘I am realising more and more that this is not Roscoe’s story, nor the panda’s, but is mine.’ Such hints are picked up in the context of a ‘soft-focused’ symbolism that pervades the book. In the structure of the narrative there are fairly obvious symmetries, parallels, counterpoises, for the reader to remark or ignore at will. Edmund Sin is half-American, half-Chinese, yet neither; and the panda, half-black, half-white, is like a man and like a bear, yet is neither. Roscoe and Edmund are mirror-companions – each with a father to be placated or defied, each with a loved-yet-lost wife. (Edmund is not married at the time of the action, but his wife-to-be is introduced asynchronously into the narrative, to complete the symmetry.) The imagery is so regular that the issues, one might guess, should be obvious: then why is it that at the end of the book I find myself a little puzzled, as though here and there along the way I had grasped at the wrong ends of several crooked sticks?

The answer is, I think, that for two-thirds of the book there is a good deal of overtelling that muddles the strict process of undertelling. To read between the lines you have to know where the lines are; you must be confident that every incident in the narration is strictly relevant to one governing theme. Perhaps because of my own bifocal, hearing-aided impercipience, I do not have this confidence as I read The Panda Hunt. In the early chapters particularly, there are knockabout episodes that seem to be brought in for their own fun-loving sakes, raising for the reader the prospect of a rather different kind of novel from the one Mr Burns appears, by the end, to have conceived. I enjoyed his book, laughed often, was often touched by his power of compassion, found some descriptive passages memorable: but felt, after all, that his inventive capacity had only served to botch his argument.

Mr Buchan is also highly inventive, but he, in Davy Chadwick, is a rigorous underteller, a demonstrator who compels his readers to scrutinise every event, watch every sentence, not allowing them to enjoy for a moment the relaxing, gossipy irrelevance of mere anecdote. Everything has to be registered somewhere on a mental balance-sheet – a not inappropriate metaphor, for the morality of transactions is a sustaining motif in this story. Deceptions and concealments are regular entries; the accounts are persistently fiddled; and because of this it is impossible to summarise the true story without depriving potential auditors of the pleasure of fingering the significant misappropriations. Ostensibly, then, the tale centres on the abduction of four year-old Davy Chadwick from his parents’ house in Southern Italy, shortly before Christmas 1984. This much we learn from the opening sentence, after which we embark on process of assuming, comparing and revising our assumptions. There are two strands in the narrative, each winding round the other, each in itself interesting to follow: the investigative routine, ‘Who took the child, and where, and how, and why, and for whose benefit?’ and the psychological question, ‘What sort of people are these, whose lives have interacted, whose failures meet in the crisis of this moment?’

The sort of people who surround Davy, and lay on his innocent life the burdens of their love, need or cupidity, are his father, John Chadwick, his mother, Dawn Chadwick, and their old friend (or acceptable enemy, depending how you read it), William Nelson. These people are all failures, all refugees, all victims. Chadwick is a failed stockbroker. Nelson is a man in what used to be known as ‘reduced circumstances’: a failure in banking, a refugee from the nightmare memory of watching a close friend being put to death by hijackers; a candidate for rescue, hardly a man to rescue others. Dawn Chadwick is a victim of her beloved father, a voraciously selfish monster resuscitated in the person of the man she has chosen to marry. There are other characters, who contribute materially to the action, but these three monuments to unsuccess are the most important, if only because the actual telling of the story is entrusted to them.

Multiple narrative is a common device of the underteller, forcing the audience to read between, or across, the lines. Common or not, it presents compositional problems, notably that of contriving a distinctive speech-style for each narrator – within a general stylistic unity, Mr Buchan manages this admirably. The general rule is evidently to control the length of the sentences, keeping them fairly short even in the most discursive sections. I suspect Mr Buchan of enjoying a private stylistic joke at one point, when one of his characters quotes a gobbet of Tacitus: ‘the sentences were so short,’ comments Dawn, who knows no Latin because her skunk of a papa has considered it useless – irrelevant, that is, to her servitude in the cause of his comfort. My notion is that Mr Buchan has creatively adapted the laconic and dispassionate periods of the historian to the general style of his novel, but perhaps this is a fancy flying wide of the mark. At all events, the short sentences create throughout the book the illusion of speech and speakers, inhibiting stylistic bravura, forestalling elaborate passages of description or reflection. The writer denies himself the opportunity to overtell.

Within this general standard, the styles of individual narrators are developed, and here Mr Buchan shows much originality and skill. The narrative accents of James, Dawn and William Nelson differ, and in doing so suggest nuances, not only of character but of characteristic medium: for we are tacitly invited to explain the stylistic variations at least partly in terms of the character’s recording method. James, the most obsessively short-spoken, speaks his narrative into a tape-recorder. William Nelson commits his observations currente calamo to some exercise books which he casually abandons on leaving the scene of the story. Dawn, in response to what she regards as Nelson’s distorted account, writes a long letter for her son to read when he grows up. Only Dawn, for all her painful withdrawal from the world outside, writes for somebody. Her husband talks angrily to himself (an assumption literally made by William Nelson when he overhears Chadwick at his tape-recording); and Nelson is a diarist who loses interest in his own communings. Accordingly, when the reader compares accounts, using one testimony to confirm or criticise another, it is Dawn who emerges as the character who has to be trusted, though reading between her lines is not particularly easy, for even her interpretation of events is kinked by the refracting principle of relative and partial truth. But it is she who guards a secret, the key secret of the book. It is conveyed obliquely in (I think) one sentence, and confirmed by a minor chronological detail that has to be discovered, unless the reader has an exceptional memory, by back-tracking through the narrative: but once we have made the inference we understand her motives, the strength at the centre of her neurotic plight, her reasons for marrying the abominable weakling Chadwick, whose mind feeds on money, instead of the more agreeable weakling Nelson, who flounders in the wreckage of his self-respect. We come to like Dawn, or at least to sense Mr Buchan’s compassionate interest in her, which is just as well, for there are times in this short narrative when one is made to feel that the only tenants of a morally untainted universe are the child and the village idiot. Yet Mr Buchan, as author, makes no judgment of his characters, does not grow angry or sorrowful, never intervenes – indeed, thanks to the circumscription of his chosen method cannot intervene – with explanations and commentaries. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the book is that it leaves a conviction of stylishness, but no impression at all of a personal style.

That could hardly be said of Mavis Gallant, whose stories of Paris are told in a style deliciously personal, a gallant style to be sure, in which sentences develop with the regulated ornamental zeal of the rococo, in measured constructions, rhythmically bridled, balancing, turning, descending in long cadences while the reader smiles in anticipation of the moment of wit, the small dissonance carefully written into the final clause. Of Speck, an art dealer, she writes: ‘Speck was expert on barges, bridges, cafés at twilight, nudes on striped counterpanes, the artist’s mantelpiece with mirror, the artist’s street, his bed made and rumpled, his still-life with half-peeled apple, his summer in Mexico, his wife reading a book, his girlfriend naked and dejected on a kitchen chair.’ Ms Gallant has a liking, here illustrated, for asyndetic patterns: often her sentences are lists of words, phrases, or clauses unconnected by conjunctions. The ‘lists’ are arranged with the most delicate prosodic care, as anyone may discover who will beat time through the sentence quoted above, counting syllables, noting the incidence of stresses, observing above all the rhythms of expansion and contraction in phrase length. There is an elegant command of the metres of prose; and swathed in the elegance there is a mischievous comedy of exact observation, for surely we have all seen these paintings. The power to observe is concentrated in the humorist’s characteristic devilry of precision in the choice and placing of particular words: ‘dejected’ not only retrieves from the back of my mind some hastily-suppressed irreverences, but will also make it difficult for me ever again to look seriously at that kind of picture. I would hesitate to say that Ms Gallant’s writing resembles that of Wilde, and yet her comic method is Wildean in its felicitous parading of the downfallen content in the uplifting style. Equally, her manner sometimes reminds me of the stories of Saki.

This gives me great pleasure; it has been long since I so much relished the savour of writing. At the same time, it raises misgivings, puritanical no doubt, about the appeal of style at the expense of matter. Those who write with such panache, such well-groomed invention, must sometimes risk the suspicion that they are not wholly committed to the stories they tell and the characters they create, but that their plots and their people are merely convenient cases for stylistic treatment or material for music. Such an impression is most strongly conveyed by the last story, called ‘The Assembly’, an enjoyably ingenious piece recounting, by means of a set of variations on a linguistic ground, the proceedings at a tenants’ meeting in an apartment block. It is successful as comedy, but still it appears that the characters exist to provide material for the progressively elaborated verbal structure and are no more important as beings than are the animates in ‘The house that Jack built’. In other stories there are characters with such names as Prism, Grippe, and Poche, who are put on elaborate display, but who are really no more than figures in a comedy of humours. Ms Gallant does not seem to rub elbows with her Parisians, as Joyce appears to jostle affectionately among his Dubliners. She views their predicaments at a distance, from overhead in a balloon, and the consequence is that her cool elegance seems sometimes cold, or even heartless.

But still it is a matter of reading between the lines. If this elaborate style mischievously kindles episodes of pantomime and farce, it can also be said that it cools, and therefore makes bearable, the swelter of things suffered in the ordinary way by people living middling lives in a state of middle-class fretfulness. Ms Gallant is not without compassion. She can identify, in the midst of high comedy, the moment of tragic pathos, and in narratives of great sadness – as in her four ‘Magdalena’ stories, the history of a marriage of fatefully inconvenient convenience – she discovers the exasperating stuff of humour. Her style in fact enables her to accommodate these perceptions of life’s brutal indifference to the banana skin and the crown of thorns. And she perceives, this almost excessively articulate observer, that we are all tongue-tied in the critical confrontation with what we are and what we cannot change. One of the funniest stories in the book, and possibly the saddest, is called ‘Luc and his Father’. It ends like this:

He tried, now, to think of something important to say to Luc, as if the essence of his own life could be bottled in words and handed over. Sylvestre, wakened by a familiar voice, came snuffling at the door, expecting at this unsuitable hour to be taken out. Roger remarked, ‘Whatever happens, don’t get your life all mixed up with a dog’s.’

That is also stylish after its own fashion – a fashion that calls upon us compassionately to interpret the undertold tale.

One’s first impression of Black Idol is of irrepressible loquacity, the teller telling all, which becomes all the more remarkable when it emerges that the teller is a corpse, a super-articulate Bryn Mawr-educated stiff. She is Josephine Bigelow, née Josephine Rotch, and the story she tells in grave monologue is that of her lover, Harry Crosby, American poet (1898-1929) who has just shot her dead and left her posed in her party clothes on a bed in the Hotel des Artistes, New York. Lisa St Aubin de Teran prefaces her book with notes from Henry Grew Crosby’s curriculum vitae, lest we should lose track of biography in the bravura of Josephine’s recital: but it is the recital that makes the book, the well-fashioned clusters of clauses clinging round the reiterated appeal to Harry, Harry, Harry, till the reader begins, in sympathy with those rhythms, to fashion a nodding parody. As I did. And I thought at first this is going to be tedious, Harry, this is going to be a protracted recital about you and your protracted thing, up and down, up and down, doing them on the beaches, doing them in the fields and in the streets, doing them in hotel rooms, only the best hotels, of course, Harry, never giving in, even doing them, it seems, on gravestones.

You were certainly a very active man, Harry, with a saintly dedication to nooky and decadence. If there had been an American Olympic Screwing Team, you could have been the captain and the coach, yes, and you kept a dog, didn’t you, a black whippet called Narcisse Noir, and you gilded its toenails, for heaven’s sake, you awful seriocomic maker of monsters, and you turned yourself and your wife and your mistress onto opium, which is called Black Idol. Why did you do that, Harry? Did you think it would change the world for the better? Could you possibly have fancied that a regular fix and 57 varieties of fornication would make you into a better poet?

Oh, yes, you were a poet, Harry, with some impressive literary friends, I might mention the sage and serious Archibald MacLeish, who spoke so movingly of the always rising of the night. You were always rising yourself, Harry, though not in MacLeish’s sense, and I find myself wondering what the devil Archibald was doing in your galley? (You’ll have to excuse the passing allusion, Harry, the hint of a quote fuming the air like yesternight’s patchouli; it’s a habit I’ve picked up from your poor Josephine and Josephine’s puppet-mistress and sufflatory genius, the elegantly knowing Lisa.) ‘The life of the poet is hard,’ MacLeish once said: ‘A hardy life with a boot as quick as a fiver’ – but you had fistfuls of fivers, Harry, and doubtless custom-made boots to boot, you were well-heeled and shabby-souled and when it came to poetry you were never fit, as well you knew, to foot the same pavement as MacLeish.

So why should anyone want to write about you, you and your wife Caresse (the quondam Polly Peabody – Oh Bottom, one murmurs, thou art translated), you and your friendship with Hart Crane, you and your literary ambitions, you and your flying lessons, you and your interminable erections, you and your terminal lust, shooting your mistress, bang, bang, after the last bang in last hotel room, then going away to shoot yourself? I have to say, Harry, that at first blush, if blush is the right word, I took you for a shit, but then by and by I began to take you for something much worse, for a pitiable mess; from which, Harry, it is not a far cry to a grievous sense of the fall, the lapse, of pride, of decency, of honour, the fall from possibility, Harry, everyone’s fall. This I hear in these mournful and well-contrived cadences murmured through the hole in your beloved’s head, these admonitions from Hades. It really is very well done, Harry, someone has done you proud with an elaborately stylish, phrase-bedecked, narcotic, literate elegy, a tale overtold in everything but the essentials, to keep the reader trancedly guessing. It lulls you into pity for the price of a little patience – just a little patience at first is all it needs, and God knows we fallen fellows, failed poets, grounded flyers, time-expired libertines, ought to have plenty of that. God knows, and He won’t tell.