Ruined by men

Anthony Thwaite

  • The Truth about Lorin Jones by Alison Lurie
    Joseph, 294 pp, £11.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 7181 3095 2
  • Latecomers by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 248 pp, £10.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 224 02554 6
  • Where the rivers meet by John Wain
    Hutchinson, 563 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 09 173617 X
  • About the Body by Christopher Burns
    Secker, 193 pp, £10.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 436 09784 2
  • Stories by Elizabeth Jolley
    Viking, 312 pp, £11.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 670 82113 6

Alison Lurie’s new novel is, among other things, an anthology of several characters from her earlier novels. Readers unfamiliar with these books need not be apprehensive, however: The Truth about Lorin Jones is perfectly self-contained. Indeed, that self-contained quality helps to account for the powerful, painful oppressiveness of the book, as Polly Alter becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in her quest for the eponymous woman she is pursuing.

For Polly is engaged in writing a biography of Lorin Jones, a painter who died some twenty years before the quest begins. Polly has recently become divorced, has a teenage son whom she adores, and earns her living in a New York museum. At the time the book opens, she has secured a commission to write her life of Lorin Jones and has been given leave of absence to do so. From the beginning, there are parallels, it appears, between Lorin and Polly, making Polly all the more eager to write a book which will be sympathetic, properly feminist, and true. Lorin (1926-1969) died before the advent of true feminism, but it seems that she suffered at the hands of men. It becomes Polly’s job to seek out those men (and some women), interview them, discover just how Lorin suffered, and why.

Gallery dealers, fellow painters, school friends, college friends, relatives and former in-laws – all are interviewed. Alison Lurie provides transcripts of their answers, not Polly’s questions, these transcripts forming an almost impersonal running commentary on Polly’s investigations. Alongside them go Polly’s own journeys and returns, discoveries and blank walls, exaltations and miseries. Much of the time her confidante is Jeanne, at first a comforting ear and reassuring antidote to male mendacity, but whose lesbianism begins to be a complication: not so much because of designs on Polly, which Polly finds not entirety unwelcome, but because of Jeanne’s tangled affair with the married Betsy. ‘If even two women couldn’t be happy together, what good was it all? Maybe if you had to be in love, with all the problems and craziness that involved, it was better to be in love with someone who was dead.’

Indeed, ‘sometimes Lorin Jones’s life seemed more real to her than her own.’ But there is also that common experience among biographers, whereby, faced with mounds of ‘evidence’ in the form of papers, reminiscences and, in the case of a painter such as Lorin Jones, works of art, they sometimes have moments of despair at an apparent carapace of material surrounding an enigma. Just as things begin to seem to come into focus, Polly finds herself drifting away from her subject, or rather, Lorin drifts away from Polly into a ‘lumpish amorphous mass’.

Then there are the contradictions, the anomalies, the injunctions made by those whom Polly interviews, such as a gallery dealer who says: ‘But you mustn’t put any of this in your book, promise. It’d be fatal. I don’t know why I told you anyhow.’ Gradually, as Polly presses on through the fog, she realises that ‘everything that had gone wrong for her over the last few months’ (relations with her son Stevie, with her friend Jeanne and Jeanne’s importunate lover Betsy) ‘was because of Lorin Jones.’ Lorin’s stepmother says: ‘I’m sorry ... but Laura Zimmern wasn’t a nice person.’ (Lorin has, or had, several names by which she was known; and Polly’s own surname is – perhaps a bit too nudgingly – Alter.) The derogatory descriptions start to accumulate in Polly’s head: self-centred and spiteful, self-centred and evasive and untrustworthy, selfish and cold and inconsiderate. One begins to see parallels with Lawrance Thompson’s quest for Robert Frost: as Thompson, at first a hero-worshipper, dredged deeper into the material that eventually became his big biography, the hero began more and more to take on the lineaments of a monster.

When she set out on her quest for the truth, Polly already knew who were the most important men in Lorin Jones’s life: her husband, Garrett Jones, the influential art critic, who can still make or break reputations; and, after the end of that marriage, Hugh Cameron, a poet of little reputation, with whom Lorin had some sort of affair down in Key West before her premature death. Polly is quite sure that Jones is ‘an old-fashioned male chauvinist’, and almost equally sure that Cameron is an exploiter, a slob. Indeed, Jones, after answering all her questions in a way she didn’t expect and doesn’t trust, makes a pass at her. Much later, in Key West, she discovers that the helpful and handsome man who has been trying to track down Cameron for her is in fact Cameron himself, now known as ‘Mac’. In the process of getting to know both of these men, Polly finds herself more sympathetic to Jones than she had ever thought possible, and she actually finds herself falling in love with Cameron: ‘though she knew all her informants were probably untrustworthy, whenever she got too close to one of them her vision blurred and he turned into a sympathetic person; in Mac’s case, to worse than that.’

Alison Lurie is a very adept novelist, manipulating plot and characters with such consummate ease that it’s only after finishing the book one notices how cunningly she has brought together her strands, establishing suspense here and exhaustion there, allowing one to make discoveries and be faced with puzzles as abruptly and with as much bewilderment as Polly. It seems likely that some ardent feminists will take The Truth about Lorin Jones to be an attack on their doctrines, both in view of the Jeanne/Betsy relationship (and how Polly is exploited by that) and, more broadly, in the conclusion of the book: ‘It wasn’t Lorin Jones whose life had been ruined by men ... Lorin hadn’t been deserted and damaged by men, as Polly had; she had deserted and damaged them.’ But it’s clear to me that this is even-handed, neither doctrinaire nor insipid. If the novel is to serve as a text, it does so best as a terrible warning to biographers, forced to see the ‘multiple, discontinuous identities’ of their subjects atomically splitting under their eyes.

Much of The Truth about Lorin Jones is made up of dialogue. Anita Brookner, in Latecomers, almost does without it. The few lives (substantially, four) she has created have been so displaced, made so uncertain, in a past that is itself so blankly mysterious, that it is as if Anita Brookner has had openly to create them for our benefit, rather than allowing them, in the common fictional way, to present themselves through dialogue which one habitually forgets must also have been created by an author. Hartmann and Fibich, successful partners in a London business, happily married for years to Yvette and Christine, are united in many things; but chiefly because they were deprived of their childhood. They were refugees from Hitler’s Germany (Hartmann from Munich, Fibich from Berlin) and their parents and early years have long since vanished, can hardly be talked about, almost must not be talked about. They have found wives who understand them; and, if they don’t fully understand their children (Hartmann’s Marianne, Fibich’s Toto), at least this doesn’t make their adoration waver. But there is a blankness somewhere underneath, or behind, their comfortable bourgeois success, their routines of business and pleasure – an undiscovered country.

It is Fibich, the more nervous of the pair, who, quite late in the book, tries to discover that country; and his attempt touches off what looks likely to be a disaster, if not a tragedy. That it is not so is evidently meant as a testament to the sustaining power of the in many ways oddly matched quartet of Hartmann and Yvette, Fibich and Christine. Here too, as in Alison Lurie’s novel, there are hints that Anita Brookner has an acerbic view of current notions about What Do Women Want. Yvette Hartmann is, from the beginning, presented as a frivolous woman. Employed, before marrying Hartmann, in the Hartmann/Fibich firm, she refused to take the work seriously: ‘In those days women did not labour out of any sense that the work itself imposed rules and laws superior to their own personal inclinations. Those who did were thought unlikely to get a man.’ She lavishes great care on her highly feminine appearance, despising women who don’t: ‘this curious position, not uncommon before the great awakening that was to overtake women in the years of liberation ...’ And so on. Yet Yvette is gradually and subtly established, not as a tiresome bitch or a maddening butterfly (though she might, carelessly, be labelled as both), but as a person who is wholly necessary to Hartmann, just as he is wholly necessary to her. It is a surprising portrait of a happy marriage, rare in modern – or, one could say, in any – fiction.

Similarly with Christine Fibich, who, in her girlhood, ‘wondered if anyone would have her as a nun, but as she did not believe in God was forced to dismiss this idea as unrealistic’. Christine is, on the face of it, a paler, vaguer, weaker figure than Yvette: but she has a more testing partner, and emerges triumphantly as quite as essential to him – tremulous, troubled Fibich – as Yvette is to Hartmann. ‘He knew that he could have married no one else. He knew that he loved her. Yet he also knew, in an unrealised way, that his true life lay elsewhere, that it remained undiscovered, that his task was to reclaim it, to repossess it ...’ But in the end, having made his attempt at repossession by returning briefly to Berlin on impulse, he ‘felt a great peace come upon him, recognising at last that his purpose in life had not been to find his own father but to be a father himself.’ And Toto, their son, as wholly distinct from Fibich and Christine as they are distinct from one another, is miraculously living proof of their interdependence.

Anita Brookner seems to have quite deliberately broken away from her habitual characters and situations – sensitive and badly treated women, families that quietly torture the life out of their members – and has produced a novel which has her recognisably elegant, sometimes slightly arch style, but devotes it to a curiously haunting tale of Happy Families. Fibich’s brink-of-breakdown venture to Berlin, Yvette’s sudden sense of Torschlusspanik (‘the panic of the shutting of the door’), and her mother’s brief and shocking revelation of how her father died – shot, as a French collaborator with the Germans: all these cast their appropriate shadows. Toto, the son, though a minor character, is a marvellous one, one of those dubious people who effortlessly make their mark and hold people in thrall, producing Comus at Oxford and then swiftly going up the mummers’ ladder (‘Then he got a part in a film on Channel Four. The part was small, but at one point he was required to take off his shirt’). At times I felt I was reading a cosmopolitan, if not actually louche, Barbara Pym, in a faded fastidiousness, or fastidious fadedness, which is so smoothly done that it, and almost everything but the style, can slip by unnoticed. But the after-effect is poignant and strong.

There is a slight wobble of intention evident in the blurb of and John Wain’s own prefatory note to Where the rivers meet. The blurb calls it ‘the first of three projected books on the life of Oxford from the 1930s to the present day’, while Wain writes ‘the fact that its narrative ends at 1933 does give me the option of continuing it in further volumes.’ ‘Projects and Options’: my notional title has a C.P. Snow-like sound, and there is something of Snow in Wain’s plain-man, matter-of-fact approach to this first large-scale volume; something of J.B. Priestley, too, to go further back, in its genial, faintly bufferish, ‘ah, when I was a young man’ reminiscential air. One can only partly account for this by saying that the book is set in the late Twenties and early Thirties, with the narrator telling the story of his own boyhood and early manhood. Wain, a full generation younger than his narrating Peter Leonard, seems intent on providing a big, solidly furnished, ‘human’ chunk of old-fashioned fiction, something to put on the shelf next to The Good Companions and Angel Pavement.

As such, Where the rivers meet may well, in part, please admirers of those once popular middlebrow monuments. Peter, ‘a member of the upper working class from a background still semi-rural’ (his parents run a pub at Oseney, on the edge of Oxford), is a bright lad whose brightness is spotted at school, who wins an open scholarship in history to Episscopus College (geographically modelled on Wain’s own St John’s), and who by the end of the book has got his First. Much of the novel is conventional Oxford stuff, quite decently done, particularly in the earlier Episcopus part, with Peter settling into the bewildering routine among other scholarship boys, the variously nasty and nice products of the public schools, and the learned, gentlemanly and eccentric dons. Nothing here is new, but many readers of novels don’t actually want anything novel. Such readers may well welcome Peter’s hymns of praise about how much better the shops in Oxford were then, how much better the food tasted, how different from one another the countries of Europe were in those days ‘before a cheap varnish of internationalism, made up of fast food, cut-rate travel, chain stores and pop music tended to make all Europe seem like one big sleazy airport’. Nor are such readers likely to be unhappy about Peter’s insistent historicism (he is, after all, an embryonic professional historian), which studs the pages with such comments as: incredible though it must seem nowadays ...’, ‘That was how shop assistants talked in those days,’ ‘the radio (we called it “the wireless”)’, ‘I needed money. So did a lot of people, in 1931,’ ‘God, it seems a million years ago that undergraduates were so waited on, and yet it was only in my own lifetime,’ ‘Trousers didn’t have metal zips in those days,’ and so forth.

But the narrating Peter is not just, or even mainly, a laudator temporis acti se puero. He is also, much of the time, a man who recalls ‘the old familiar straining at the crotch’. The quotation about trousers at the end of the last paragraph is one of a long march-past of accounts of Peter’s sexual exploits, first with Vinnie, a voracious shop assistant, then with Heather, a farmer’s daughter who, by the end of the book, he has made pregnant and had to marry, thus endangering his promised research fellowship at Episcopus. The frustrations and inhibitions of young people before sexual intercourse began in 1963 are simultaneously chronicled and joyously flung aside by Peter (or John Wain), and the whole book reads at times like an inventory of Peter’s erections, therapeutic treatment of which helps him to turn his mind back to his books and therefore a necessary preparation for his First. ‘Getting my end away’ (‘This last phrase, as I knew well enough, was a demotic expression signifying the deed of procreation’) is the glad cry that thrusts itself willy-nilly, one could say, through a good proportion of these 563 pages. It seems at one point that the insatiable Vinny has finally been replaced by the equally enthusiastic but nicer Heather: ‘All the good teaching, the famous libraries, the beautiful surroundings in the world, would have gone for nothing if Heather had not been willing to part with her knickers on a regular basis.’ But no, after a ‘cosmic fuck’ which finally impregnates Heather, he has a final (unless there is more to come in projected or optional volumes two and three) encounter with Vinnie, so splendidly exhausting that it leaves him lying by the stream ‘like a beached whale’. By this time, the admirer of The Good Companions may well have given up, and gone off for a drink – or, as Peter Leonard would have put it, sallied forth for some amber fluid.

Turning to a couple of leaner collections is a relief. Christopher Burns’s 14 pieces demonstrate a very assured, inventive, hard-edged, rather cold talent, playing some Post Modernist tricks (‘How things are put together’, ‘Dealing in Fictions’, both of which smell a little of the creative-writing workshop), but also showing a gift for something more striking: a two-man piece (‘Embracing the Slaughterer’) which hangs laconically as a suspense-laden pendant from Brecht’s ‘Die Massnahme’; a surprisingly touching slice of life spoken by an Italian gigolo (‘Angelo’s Passion’); and the extraordinary ‘Blue’, in which a sort of industrial archaeology, a father/daughter relationship and eroticism powerfully combine.

With Elizabeth Jolley’s Stories, it’s probably best to begin with the last piece in the book, a self-styled self-portrait (‘A child went forth’) which in a few pages deftly, and with a puzzled naivety which I don’t think is false, sketches in her Austrian origins, Anglo-German upbringing, Oxfordshire Quaker schooling, and eventual arrival in Australia in middle life, together with some insights into how her fictions begin (‘I use small fragments, hints, suggestions of experience’). Reading the stories themselves, I kept on seeing Elizabeth Jolley as an heir to Stevie Smith, quirkily and slyly keeping an eye on the oddities, vanities and vulnerabilities of human beings, unsettling the grown-ups with perverse but gentle pleasure.