Eyes and Ears

Anthony Thwaite

  • The Silence in the Garden by William Trevor
    Bodley Head, 204 pp, £9.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 370 31218 X
  • Sea Music by David Profumo
    Secker, 207 pp, £10.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 436 38714 X
  • Tell it me again by John Fuller
    Chatto, 202 pp, £10.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3288 4
  • The Continuing Silence of a Poet: The Collected Short Stories of A.B. Yehoshua
    Peter Halban/Weidenfeld, 377 pp, £11.95, June 1988, ISBN 1 870015 14 2

The innocent child, eavesdropping on adults and adulteries, puzzled by half-heard conversations and half-understood hints, has a respectable history in fiction: What Maisie knew, The Go-Between, many other novels and stories. Such children are at the centre of William Trevor’s tenth novel and David Profumo’s first; or rather, Trevor seems to have chosen to place young Tom both centrally and peripherally (as children often are, in fiction and in life), while Profumo makes young James the very eyes and ears of his book, though distancing him by telling the tale in the third person.

Trevor began as a ruefully comic chronicler of geriatrics and eccentrics (The Old Boys, The Boarding-House), squinnying at the frailties of the genteel English. Increasingly, though, he’s returned to his own Irish Protestant Ascendancy background, re-creating it with melancholy nostalgia, flecked with comedy but also burdened with hopelessness and impotence. Trevor’s most considerable strength, from the beginning, has been his acute transcription of stilted, circumlocutory, prim but often politely menacing conversations. For several years Ireland – more often the recent past rather than the present – has supplied him with these: in particular, the spinsterish propriety and faded locutions of the Anglo-Irish middle classes, caught between a decayed gentry and the mass of submerged peasantry.

The Rollestons’ family house of Carriglas, in County Cork, is the setting of The Silence in the Garden – decayed gentry rather than middle class. The Rollestons established their inheritance centuries before the book begins, and had an ancestral reputation for decency and kindness to their tenants during the Great Hunger. On the very first page the chronological parameters are drawn:

It is 1971, and the home that has been provided for Sarah Pollexfen for so long is still a provision that is necessary. She and a one-time maid, Patty, and Tom – illegitimate son of the Rollestons’ last butler – are left at Carriglas, The place that was once magical for her.

And then, flagged in reminiscent italics:

Dunadry Rectory, September 14th, 1904. ‘It came from Carriglas, Sarah,’ Mamma said when first I asked about the china on the sideboard ....

This is part of an entry from Sarah Pollexfen’s diaries, the first of many that thread through The Silence in the Garden; but they are glancing commentary, not central narrative, for Sarah is a distant cousin of the Rollestons, drawn into their lives rather than an active participant.

Tom (mentioned in the book’s opening paragraph I quoted) is part of the Rollestons’ life only through accident; but it was an accident on which the whole brooding presence of the story pivots. His father was Linchy, butler at Carriglas, who was murdered by Cornelius Dowley in an IRA killing which was intended for the Rollestons, not Linchy. Tom’s murky inheritance, his illegitimacy and the pious imprecations of his unwanted companion Holy Mullihan gradually emerge as the nervous spinal cord of the story; near the end, they blend with Sarah, reporting a conversation long ago, in 1931, with the ageing Mrs Rolleston, who trawls up buried events which are held back like the final words of a Sophoclean tragedy: ‘For what on earth would it matter if people knew that a childhood cruelty has turned around and damned a household?’

William Trevor’s precisions and indirections slowly and balefully accumulate in this, his most ambitious novel. As Sarah writes in her diary, ‘I feel more than ever that I live in a cobweb of other people’s lives and do not understand the cobweb’s nature.’ ‘Other people’s lives’ (Other People’s Worlds was the title of one of Trevor’s books of short stories), in all their strangeness and twitching familiarity, are what fascinate him in his fastidious art. And – in case such analysis may make The Silence in the Garden sound too solemnly grim a work – I ought to say that the book is irradiated with not only comic moments but comic sequences, including some juxtapositions of a Church of Ireland bishop with a stotious boarding-house lady which might have fitted into The Old Boys, or The Boarding-House.

Trevor’s precisions and indirections are impressively matched in David Profumo’s Sea Music, a first novel which restricts itself to a summer holiday in the early Fifties (a few years before Profumo himself was born), and which confidently takes disparate elements – sensitive pre-pubertal experiences, social comedy, rapt observation of nature, folk-mysticism and (in a proper sense) weirdness – and bravely tries to combine them.

James Benson, who is, I suppose, 11 (he’s not far off taking his entrance to public school), is up on a remote Scottish island with his father and some of his father’s friends, male and female. His mother is mysteriously elsewhere: gradually it becomes apparent that she has had some sort of breakdown, possibly following shoplifting, and is in a mental hospital. But James’s father is, at least ostensibly, in charge, with his friends, his drink, his guns, his opinions and, behind all these, no doubt, a good deal of money. James, ill at ease with his father and companions, finds his time more congenially spent with the islanders, including Alec, a gamekeeper full of fishing and other lore, with a taste for drink which is seen as less reprehensible than that of James’s father and his cronies, and Alec’s old aunt Rachel, who talks to James in a heightened simultaneous-translation Gaelic-English speech which is one of the few tedious ploys in what is otherwise a promising and assured novel.

The experience, and the experiences, transmitted to James by Alec and by Rachel Mackenzie are in the foreground, far more important to him than the club-like asseverations of Richard Benson and the other Southern bores with whom he has to endure his summer holidays. The mysteries of fishing – which are not only mysteries but skills – come better from Alec than they do from such prim experts as Bobby Paton (‘Fishing with the fly is the supreme activity of civilised man’). As for Miss Mackenzie, her rapt dithyrambs rather frighten James:

And later that night, for the first time in the memory of the living, a winter sky was filled with the Northern Streamers – na fir chlis, the quick men, the dancers. Some call them the Northern Lights; they have many names. Leaping over our sorrow they went, green and white and red were their shafts, shaking their spearlight away across the horizon. It showed us a comfort. It reminded us where they had gone.

Things puzzle, blur, blend, and disturb. James, escaping from the constrictions of father and friends to go on an expedition with Alec, is discomfited to find his mentor crabbing at the life he leads in the place he leads it: ‘These islands are no place to be for a grown person.’ And Alec recalls wincingly the romantic-satirical tosh he remembers Sassenachs telling him in the Army (‘You must be pining for those misty sheilings’). This, tactically, is a good way for David Profumo to avoid what otherwise might seem too obsessively lyrical a manner of dealing with James’s experiences of sea, sky, shore, fish, and the heightened ‘other’.

The ‘other’, or the weird, is often there, increasingly pressing as the book goes on, with Miss Mackenzie taking on an almost choric function, analogous to William Trevor’s Mrs Rolleston:

It is him has seen the bird, he must know now. Cairistiona! The bird, and the sun, and fire on my arm, he has seen them all. He should know the meanings.

Some of this strikes me as tosh too. Its ‘significance’, signalled whenever Miss Mackenzie appears and produces her macaronics, seems to me of an altogether lower imaginative order than Profumo’s deft way with James’s father and friends, most discrepantly so at that moment when James, creeping back guiltily after an Alec-led expedition when he has stayed out too late, and when he has things he must urgently report, suddenly stumbles into his father’s bedroom, and finds him there in bed with a ‘friend’, Mrs Walker.

The end is precipitously hurried, with James ill in hospital with a mysterious, and apparently island-caught, sickness: ‘a white bird whirling in the blood ... James lay in the flowing heat. Later, that evening, his system burst like a bore-tide, and he died.’ But this and the laboured Gaelicisms are lapses in what otherwise is a poignant and accurate recreation of boyhood ecstasies and agonies.

William Trevor’s Tom and David Profumo’s James are simply – or not quite simply – innocents. John Fuller’s Hugh Howard, in Tell it me again, is much older – in his late forties – but acceptably an innocent abroad. Abroad is America. Hugh is an English composer, talented and successful, but a bit of a cold fish. In this sense, Fuller’s is another version, cool, elegant, distanced, of that kind of novel which has observed the talented, effete, bewildered intruder from the Old World into rich and strange America: Bradbury’s Stepping Westward, Hinde’s High, Lodge’s Changing Places.

It becomes a mystery story, in which the mystery is long in arriving, and which works on such a slow fuse that it almost seems over before it’s begun. Flying to Nowhere, Fuller’s earlier (and Booker-shortlisted) novel, was also mysterious, but it was constructed as if in a single breath of inspiration. Tell it me again, though not a long novel, drifts from moment to moment, from scene to scene, from reflection to reflection, without impetus. Yet, oddly, I felt that this teasing delay may have been part of what Fuller intended.

There is, on the one hand, Hugh Howard’s grappling with music, with his composition: this struck me as convincing and interesting, an aspect of the life of art versus obsession interfering with art, as Hugh spirals down into his bewildered affair with Virginia/Gin/the Baroness of the Blues, the black singer of whom he reflects: ‘He was in love with the embodiment of a romantic attitude.’ On the other hand, there seems an imperfect grasp of the obsession itself: is it really to do with the exotic Virginia, or is it ‘an adventure that took him even further from the calculated arc of his own ordered life’?

Fuller has shown himself, not only in Flying to Nowhere but, more relevantly, in his verse-novel The Illusionists, a cunning weaver of intricate tapestries, and, in his shorter poems, a craftsman who is inventive, intelligent, suave and teasing. Perhaps the greater length of Tell it me again has overtaxed his staying powers. It’s a very oddly paced novel, as if Fuller didn’t quite know how to build a work of some length; and in this – and if so he’s rather like his composer Hugh, who seems capable of turning his hand to anything, and yet who also seems (if one gropes below the text and beyond the itemisation of Hugh’s successes) to have achieved less than he’d hoped for.

As for the fascination with sex which pervades the novel, the fascination is there without being the least bit erotic. Hugh appears to think a good deal about sex, but seldom allows it to be more than thought, just as Fuller’s book seems to be fascinated with construction without being well-constructed. There’s an edgy feeling of something percipient, not perceptive; calculated, not inevitable. And yet – too late to give it proper leverage – there suddenly breaks through something truly sharp and shocking: a letter from Daisy, Hugh’s exwife in England, which shows how cruel and true John Fuller’s art can be. I wish that his distrust of straight confrontation would relax and allow him more moments like this.

A.B. Yehoshua’s ironical and troubled stories are less puzzling, but none the worse for that. He seems to have grown, in the almost thirty years of work represented in The Continuing Silence of a Poet, from brooding vignettes of isolated life in Israeli villages and kibbutzim to sharper pieces confronting actions and loyalties in war, both personal and national. Most of the stories have been collected before in earlier volumes. One that hasn’t, evidently the most recently written, is also the most audacious: set just after the Balfour Declaration, ‘Mister Mani’ is a strange, nervous, extended anecdote, in which a young Jewish officer in Allenby’s army tries to convince a British military judge of the bizarre truths that lie behind a trial about to take place.