Yak Sandwiches

Christopher Burns

  • Pleasure by John Murray
    Aidan Ellis, 233 pp, £10.50, October 1987, ISBN 0 85628 167 0
  • Absurd Courage by Nobuko Albery
    Century, 254 pp, £11.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 7126 1149 5
  • Laing by Ann Schlee
    Macmillan, 302 pp, £10.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 333 45633 5
  • The Part of Fortune by Laurel Goldman
    Faber, 249 pp, £10.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 571 14921 9
  • In the Fertile Land by Gabriel Josipovici
    Carcanet, 212 pp, £10.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 85635 716 2

John Murray’s fiction has always seemed to arise directly from the circumstances of his own life. At first, his work concentrated on his childhood and adolescence among the tiny, depressed communities that straggle along the English side of the Solway Firth. He then broke with his working-class background and read Sanskrit and Avestan at Oxford, later studying classical Indian medicine. These somewhat unexpected interests inform and animate many of the stories in this first collection, Pleasure. Meanwhile, although the autobiographical element in his work is still strong, a new range of settings has broadened his perspectives and brought his talent into sharper focus. The stories are linked, not by a common character, but by a kind of standardised personification of certain experiences, beliefs, interests. It isn’t too difficult to spot the similarities between the Cumbrian boy winning a scholarship to a prestigious university, the graduates wandering through the Indian subcontinent in the Calcutta and Katmandu stories, the character Stone on a ‘directionless pilgrimage’ through the Hebrides. And although the arrangement of the stories is not chronological, Murray is in the habit of specifying the ages of his protagonists, so that the progress of a life can be made out. Murray doesn’t flatter his alter ego, but portrays him as somewhat callow, lacking compassion, though clever, and often plunged into contrition because he does not, or will not, live by the certainties by which others steer their lives. He is nevertheless dogged by epiphany, so that wherever he goes, insight follows like an elusive and confusing sprite. The stages of his journey are set out in a style that is densely wrought, ironic, and eager to incorporate both vivid colloquialism and arcane abstraction. Such a form gives an individual pattern, not to say skew, to the content. A sense of the particular is fostered, too, by Murray’s selection of locale, his scrutineer’s exactitude on matters of the human face and form, and by his quirky, sometimes bizarre sense of humour.

Pleasure takes our hero, if ‘hero’ is the right word, from his childhood, through his post-adolescent travels, to a questioning maturity and to marriage. The journey begins with ‘Master of Ceremonies’, in many ways the most accomplished piece. In mid-Fifties Cumberland the carefully-named Jack Spade lords it over his small household, enchanting his grandson and being unrelievedly cruel to his wife. Murray is unafraid of sentiment, and has a practised eye for the totemic value that can be placed on the most mundane of objects – a box of coloured matches, a valve radio, a presentation clock. The portrait is both affectionate and dismayed, and disturbing in its acknowledgement that cruelty and comfort can make uncomplaining bedfellows. It is from such ritualised humiliation, such suffocating warmth, that characters attempt to escape. Iris, in ‘Ticket to Bombay’, lives in West Cumbria yet daydreams of returning to her Indian boyfriend, Prakash. She takes up Buddhism, Indian cooking and Marathi to aid this return (soon she will ‘paint, sculpt, ride horses ... and maybe not go mad again’). Iris is a loser. But she articulates one of Pleasure’s major themes-the desire for transcendence.

This comes through strongly in the Asian stories. In ‘Natural Learning’ there is an interplay between Indian Christianity and the theological pursuits of Western devotees who have meaningful conversations about the ‘shunya void’ and the ‘notion of no-thingness’. All this takes place against a background of the deliberately maimed, leprous beggars of the Calcutta streets, who are described with a kind of zestful and unsettling bad taste. In the title story, the dillettantes and the drifters fetch up in 1973 Katmandu, a place of elephantine bureaucracy, devil festivals and yak sandwiches. Here the pursuit of sensual pleasure co-exists with the rigours of Eastern asceticism and the free availability of drugs.

In all of the stories Murray is fascinated by the demands which people make on each other, and by the way in which relationships buckle under the pressures of expectation and misunderstanding. He is an aficionado of embarrassment, and there are few straightforward transactions here (one of his characters unwittingly insults a Calcutta pimp – not, one imagines, the easiest of achievements). As if in hope of perfection within and beyond an imperfect and capricious world, many of his characters seek religion. This can range from simple faith to yearning vision, and includes the esoteric dabblings and the drugged voyages of his expatriates. For such as these the grail is bliss, eternity, ‘no-thingness’. All of these concerns come together in the centrepiece of the collection, ‘The Señor and the Celtic Cross’, first published in the London Review. More exotic in its way than either of the Asian stones, this is ambitious, flawed, and packed with ideas of rebirth, annihilation, ecstasy. The mystical experience, in short, but considered with a sceptic’s eye. Stone pursues pleasure, which he thinks of as merely sexual, but what is in store for him owes more to Tantra than to Kinsey. The symbolism is ripe, the prose both knowing and questioning. On Iona, Stone undergoes a chaotic, frightening and fusing vision: here at last is the desired sense of oneness, an experience both intense and releasing, in which Eastern and Christian myths come together. In its attempt to portray Stone’s state of mind, the prose becomes clotted, a mixture of involvement and detachment (for a quirky humour is still at work – the horse of death is less messenger from hell than variety turn, down to its obliging disappearance in a puff of smoke once its act is done). Soon Stone is to repudiate his experience, but later, when he has an unexpected love affair, earthly pleasure and spiritual delight at last begin to close on each other. The lovers’ bodies, and the landscape which contains them, become part of the greater flux. It is characteristic of Murray that this is seen as merely temporary.

His interest in the transcendental, while fuelled, apparently, by his knowledge of Eastern religion, places him within a European tradition. The stress on intensity, like the stress on individual growth, is fitting for someone who spent his childhood within sight of the mountains of the English Lake District: his characters, though, have to travel before the concern becomes apparent.

Pom, too, is fascinated by the East, although he travels further (geographically, at least) than Murray’s characters. Lord William Arthur Valerian Pommeroy is the hippy aristocrat who, in Nobuko Albery’s Absurd Courage, becomes so fascinated by Oriental thought that he founds a kind of guerrilla priesthood, the World Elsewhere. For him, emulation becomes immolation. Literally. A more interesting character, however, is Asako, narrator of the novel, a 22-year-old Japanese girl who by a series of coincidences has met and married an English art critic and gallery-owner. He takes her away to begin a new life among the Euro-American cultural élite. So we have life in a French chateau, trips to the fashionable watering-holes of Europe, and around Asako gather the well-heeled and the well-connected, with their foibles, their rather abstract interest in the right causes, their fascination with each other’s lives. This is the kind of novel in which characters can quote Ioncsco at each other, organise Redon exhibitions, exhibit Vuitton suitcases, and not a meal goes by without its components being carefully itemised. Product names litter the text as thickly as in any Ian Fleming.

The author is Japanese, fluent, it seems, in both English and French; like John Murray, she is alive to those periods of adjustment and stress when cultures meet. There are some nicely-judged moments of wry humour when Asako meets those who wish to enlighten her about the West, or who try to patronise her. Albery’s fluency stands her in good stead here (it is noticeable, for instance, how the dropped articles of Asako’s early speech are gradually righted). Unfortunately, there are a number of proof-reading errors, which become even more glaring when matters of syntactical exactitude are at stake. Some judicious checking might also have been applied to proper names: in view of Asako’s fascination with Miss Havisham and Susan Hay ward, it seems odd that she should get their names wrong. Offset against this, but rather too infrequently for this reader, are moments when one is arrested by an unusual image or phrase: ‘our lips parted reluctantly, like hot caramel being pulled apart,’ ‘the moon, slightly chipped but huge, suddenly appeared from behind the elm tree.’ Absurd Courage begins enjoyably, but refuses to come fully alive, and its characters remain, for the most part, mere assemblages of possessions, tastes, interests. I suspect that Nobuko Albery realises this, for by the end she seems no longer interested in maintaining the poise she struggles for in the earlier chapters, so that Asako’s love affair with Pom, and his death, are unmoving and more than a little unbelievable. One has the impression that something wittier and far more substantial is struggling to free itself from the present text.

Ann Schlee’s third novel begins in 1825. Its protagonist, Captain Alexander Laing, is part of the scramble for Africa. He arrives in Tripoli intent on being the first European to cross the Sahara, enter Timbuctoo and explore the Niger. The novel follows his journey and the fortunes of those who remain behind in Tripoli-in particular, the Consul’s daughter Emma, whom he marries (although the marriage is not consummated) just before his journey begins. Material enough for a ripping yarn, one might think. Laing has all the ingredients: a single-minded explorer with a mystical belief in his own destiny (‘You must trust me to my fate’), a loved one left behind who fills her letters with metaphysical questions, a hero’s travels among unknown and violent men, and lots of what used to be called local colour. Laing’s effects arise, in fact, from the steady accumulation of detail. The pace is deceptively slow. Imperceptibly, a hypnotic power takes hold.

This is the 19th century as seen through late 20th-century eyes, but without the intrusiveness of, say, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Much is made of Laing’s need for patronage, for the financial guarantees which underwrite his expedition, and of the need to cosset the equipment he carries with him. The portrayal of Emma, too, is intriguing. At first she appears to be a mere adjunct to the story, an English rose withering in ungodly heat. Gradually, as befits a novel written now, she becomes its other pole. Her tragedy is revealed to be more poignant than her husband’s. Much of Laing seems utterly authentic, from the equipment to the route to the procedures for controlling camels.

They rode towards the east. The sun sank behind them. The limewashed walls of the village they approached grew pink in the still intense light of evening. They passed a mosque and saw the muezzin climb up into its low square tower to call out the dismissal of the day. Now their horses ambled along sandy lanes pitted with hoofprints and walled in by high hedges of fig. Behind them groves of orange and pomegranate heaved up their sighs of resignation and rustled back in place again. The same sweet odours which had reached him in the Bashaw’s barge came in gusts. From the secluded gardens he heard the sound of water running and single voices calling. Everything was awed and stilled by the ebbing light.

The observation is keen, the depiction sure. The lyricism is kept in check by a succession of short, at times almost truncated sentences. After a while a sense of apparently paradoxical restriction sets in, so that the tone becomes remarkably similar to passages in Paul Bowles. Ann Schlee is very much her own writer, however, and her talent is considerable.

The Part of Fortune is set in the American South, and is centred upon the Green Mansions Home for the Elderly. This lies deep in the heart of Dirty Realism County (‘To support us Celia worked three hours a day powdering donuts at the bakery and three hours three nights a week serving drinks in a roadhouse on the outskirts of town’). What is interesting about the book, though, is its attempt to interweave this ‘real’ world with the fictional and the fabulous. Footloose Clara Julian establishes herself at the home as a storyteller. ‘I tell stories everywhere to anyone who’ll listen,’ she claims, and begins to transmute other people’s lives into dark fairy-tales set among displaced landscapes where the rules of the real no longer apply. The novel consists of linked episodes or fragments which seek to explore the present and past, youth and age, the relationships of men and women, parents and children. The effect is intended to be that of an elaborate mosaic, the whole being greater than its parts. But it is the parts that are the more effective, and the organisation of the narrative tends to work against its aims, so that The Part of Fortune remains an arrangement of vignettes.

Carcanet Press brings memories of the heady Sixties days of Calder and Boyars, and Gabriel Josipovici fits naturally into such a Modernist, European-based list. His literary predecessors are Beckett, Brooke-Rose and the generation of experimentalists loosely associated with the nouveau roman. In The Fertile Land contains of 18 stories, mostly very short, and “Distances’, which is rather grandly claimed to be a novel. The style is Spartan, repetitious and faintly antiseptic. At the rate of one or two sentences per line, for instance, the first three sections of ‘Distances’ go like this:–

A woman./The sea./She begins to walk./She walks./She walks.
The sea./She walks./She climbs the stairs.
The sea./she walks./To her right, the town. Ahead of her,
the gas-works./She walks./She walks./She climbs the stairs.

You’ll get the idea, no doubt. The starting-points are works of art, or comments by artists. The results are often uneasily cold. Even the confessedly autobiographical piece, ‘He’, a meditation on early death, is cold. When they appear in anthologies, Josipovici’s stories catch the attention with their Modernist stance. Gathered together in one volume, they resemble a series of exhibits, examples of particular problems tackled in particular ways. Well, literature has its need for alternative forms, and Gabriel Josipovici continues to stake out his territory there. Not for him the messy vitality of mainstream narrative techniques. My advice to his readers, however, is to take the work, like any medicine, in small doses.