Flights from the Asylum

John Sutherland

  • Mother London by Michael Moorcock
    Secker, 496 pp, £9.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 436 28461 8
  • The Comforts of Madness by Paul Sayer
    Constable, 128 pp, £9.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 09 468480 4
  • Sweet Desserts by Lucy Ellmann
    Virago, 154 pp, £10.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 86068 847 X
  • Happiness by Theodore Zeldin
    Collins Harvill, 320 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 00 271302 0

Michael Moorcock’s novel honours the loonies of London. It seems there are more of them every year, especially since – by one of the more perverse acts of enlightenment – the asylums were emptied in the Seventies. One sees the London mad everywhere in the streets and parks: ranters, mutterers, arm-wavers. The quieter cases are charitably allowed into the public bars of seedy pubs; I once saw one huddled over his light ale with an antique mahogany-cased ECT apparatus perched beside him. It was, presumably, some kind of survivor’s trophy. Only tourists are frightened by these urban mad; respectable citizens good-naturedly ignore them as being of no more account than pigeons and as inscrutable as gang graffiti. In New York and Los Angeles (where they parody the consumer-mad host society by heaping their possessions in supermarket trollies), they are called the ‘homeless’. There is, as far as I know, no generic English name. Moorcock calls them ‘ordinary Londoners’.

Mother London begins in a psychiatric outpatient unit of the NHS. Three of the Bedlamites (all bona-fide graduates of the Bethlehem Hospital) have a relationship extending beyond their weekly group therapy. The youngest of the trio, David Mummery, was born in 1939 – an ominous year for London. He is a writer, obsessed with ‘the London under London’. In 1964, he began researching the city’s ‘lost’ tube lines and stations whose maps exist only in Masonic libraries. Mummery has since discovered evidence of a whole lace-work of tunnels beneath the London streets: the ‘home of a troglodytic race that had gone underground at the time of the Great Fire, whose ranks had been added to periodically by thieves, vagabonds and escaped prisoners, receiving many fresh recruits during the Blitz when so many of us sought the safety of the tubes’. This race, if you believe it, is accompanied by a free-ranging colony of pigs, which have bred in the Fleet ever since the 17th century when the river was first roofed. For David, London’s mythic archaeology is ‘only describable in terms of music or abstract physics: nothing else makes sense of relationships between roads, rails, waterways, subways, sewers, tunnels, bridges, viaducts, aqueducts, cables, between every possible kind of intersection.’

Mummery is, of course, mad as a hatter, clinically paranoid. For his undeluded physicians, his delusions originate in childhood trauma: specifically in March 1945, when his home in Streatham suffered an indirect hit from a V2. A generation older than Mummery, Mary Gasalee is also a casualty, but of the earlier Blitz. In 1940, her house suffered a direct hit which wiped out her husband and all domestic evidence of her married existence. She emerged new-born from the flames with a baby in her arms only to go into a 15-year-long catatonic sleep. (The baby meanwhile grows up fostered, and becomes a best-selling Mills and Boon romantic novelist.) Finally awoken in 1955, but without memory, Mary discovers herself a ‘sensitive’ able to tune in (but not very accurately) to the seething thoughts and quiet desperations of the London crowds around her: a walking radio-receiver among eight million random transmitters.

Josef Kiss (occasionally referred to in the text as ‘Josef K’ lest we miss the allusion) is a former Music Hall performer, a mind-reader whose powers fade out at London’s perimeter. He lives in four different lodgings at the four corners of the city and dulls his clairvoyance with copious beer and talk. But the roar on the other side of the city’s silence is always rumbling away in his head. Like Mary and David, Josef is alive to the Londons beyond or beneath London. All three, we understand, are products of ‘urban evolution’, as adapted to their environment as the Brazilian native of the rain forest. Only the mad, that is, are ecologically adapted for life in London.

The more diligent reader can find a plot of sorts in Mother London’s proliferating sprawl, which sympathetically mimics the data overload that bombards and deranges the principal characters. Mary at some point in the undescribed past (or future – depending on where the narrative happens to settle) has had an affair with the teenaged David. But she gives him up for the middle-aged Josef. In 1964, during his hippy phase, David discovers the ‘black captain’ (a pre-Commonwealth immigrant) who rescued him from his rocket-blasted house in 1945. He returns the favour by rescuing the captain from rioting police at the 1977 Notting Hill Carnival. (Moorcock retains from his Sixties days a hatred of pigs and politicians.) At the end of the novel, Josef and Mary marry – another allusion hovers. David, palsied from the doses of tranquillisers prescribed him, drowns: not in one of his legendary underground rivers, but banally, in a disused gasworks canal.

The design of Mother London is massive and at the same time intricately-detailed. The narrative is split into six thematic parts, and within each part moves abruptly from character to character, and from period to period. Part Two, for instance, is festive and entitled ‘High Days’. Its six sub-parts centre on a sextet of public houses (identifiably real public houses) from the Queen Boadicea in 1957 to the Princess Diana in 1985. There is no obvious sequence or progression in the assemblage, however, and the reader who tries to make sense or tidiness of Mother London will have a hard time of it. Better relax and enjoy the Moorcockian scenery, which is, as usual, stunning.

Michael Moorcock has never made it easy to know what’s going on in his novels, relying instead on mass and velocity to carry the reader forward. He certainly likes a large canvas: either one which is serially extended (as in the Jerry Cornelius saga of his earlier SF days) or the large single expanses of his more recent civilisation epics, Byzantium endures and The Laughter of Carthage. Like them, Mother London is too much. By usual measurements the novel is grossly over-long, and everything in it is excessively overdone. Moorcock’s writing is marked both by descriptive redundancy and descriptive anarchy, in which every detail is of equal importance and connecting structure is tantalisingly omitted. The effect is reminiscent of what Orwell describes in 1984, when Winston Smith ventures into the proles’ sector to quiz an old man in a pub about what the past was really like, before the Revolution. All he gets is ‘a rubbish heap of details ... they remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a work-mate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago; but all the relevant facts were outside their field of vision.’ For Moorcock, these are the relevant facts: this rubbish heap of details is the past, the London under London.

Paul Sayer works as a staff nurse in a psychiatric hospital. The Comforts of Madness is an extended imaginary exposure to what the wretches under his care feel. Peter is a long-term catatonic patient, and the novel takes the form of his interior monologue. Seemingly impervious to the outside world, Peter watches everything around him keenly. It is his choice to switch off – like Bartleby, he simply prefers not to participate in life. The greater quantity of the novel’s (rather sparse) wordage is taken up by descriptions of hospital routine. It opens with an extended account of how immobile and incontinent patients are ‘turned’ every morning as the night-nurse’s final chore. There is a morbid fascination in all the business about continence pads, draw-sheets, bed sores, wheelchairs and assisted feeding. By playing everything off the indifference of his hero Sayer keeps a fine balance between the Poe-like horror of conscious paralysis, pathos and indignation (sadistic nurses hurt and sexually abuse Peter). In the nature of things, the action of the novel is restricted. Peter is removed for a while to a rehabilitation centre, where attempts are made to bully him into responsiveness. This is part of a Thatcherite ‘on yer bikes’ economy drive, designed to the get the idle sick out of their NHS beds, off the public charge and out into the streets with Moorcock’s crowd.

Peter suffers silently and obstinately stays uncured. From time to time he flashes back to the childhood that brought him to where he is. His schizophrenic mother left home to be murdered by an even madder lover. His inadequate father simply turned his face to the wall to die, leaving Peter alone. Several weeks later, a National Insurance man arrived to find the boy confined in the house with a corpse. There follows a dreary series of backings-off, hurryings-off and passings-on from special school, to institution, to the terminal ward.

Mercifully returned to his former hospital ward, Peter is visited by his sister, the only person who has ever shown him love. She refuses to believe that ‘the poor creature’ is her brother: no more love. His body atrophies. Finally, a doctor decides to send him on his way with an injection: ‘Something, Peter, to make quick and light of your suffering.’ The novel ends with him contemplating his last moments and ‘waiting for the explanation I know will not be offered’. The idea of The Comforts of Madness recalls Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny got his gun and Beckett’s Malone dies. And to compare Sayer with these other writers is to appreciate that he is still something of a novice. But the extraordinary power of The Comforts of Madness derives less from its technical literary skills than from Sayer’s feeling for his character. The novel studiously avoids both special pleading for better treatment of the chronically sick and explicit criticism of such easy solutions as forcible rehabilitation. It insists only that the sick – however unresponsive and unappetising – are what George Eliot called equivalent centres of self: as real to themselves as we are to ourselves.

Lucy Ellmann has written a slim but stylish first novel. The matter of Sweet Desserts is easily summarised, though summary destroys the odd angling of the narrative. This is a daughter’s novel, but told ostensibly from a sister’s point of view. At the emotional centre of the story is an internationally-renowned American professor. History of art is his field and Rubens his specialism. Professor Schwarz establishes his reputation at the University of Champaign-Urbana in Illinois, where the heroine Suzy is born in 1956. She has an older sister, Fran. In 1970, Schwarz takes up a chair at Oxford and becomes even more renowned. Trailing in his academic baggage train are his two daughters. The professor also has two wives. The first dies of a stroke in America in the Sixties, and makes only a very faint impression on the narrative. The second does not get on well with her foster-daughters and, like her predecessor, features only remotely in the story. The professor finally dies, agonisingly, of muscular dystrophy, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It may, or may not, bring the sisters together.

The story is told, with studious off-handness, by the least-regarded member of the Schwarz family: Suzy, the younger, duller and constantly out-rivalled sibling. Even before birth she is upstaged by a young Fran who responds to her mother’s pregnancy with a first (phony) suicide attempt. Having failed to abort Suzy, Fran reacts to her birth by silence and bed-wetting. She gets the desired paternal sympathy: ‘Her father told her he too had wet the bed as a child; his mother hung the stained sheets out of his window so the neighbours would know (an Old World cure). Fran sat on his lap and he confided in this small, wet, troubled person.’ Suzy does not sit on her father’s lap.

Later, the rivalry between the sisters tones down into more acceptable forms of rivalry which can be lived with, or at least survived. Fran becomes an academic over-achiever in the same Rubens field as her father, accepting his belief that ‘scholarship is the only antidote to emotional turmoil.’ Her line, in opposition to his patriarchal belletrism, is fiercely feminist, attacking the master’s abuse of his ‘materials’. As a postgraduate at Essex, she sleeps with her teacher and does well. She publishes, lands good jobs in British and American universities, becomes a deconstructionist and has a state-of-the-art computer. Suzy by contrast is an academic dud. She is writing a history-of-art PhD thesis on collage which itself remains obstinately fragmentary. She consoles herself with food; ‘eating disorder’ becomes her criticism of life. Deep-down, she wants to become a roly-poly Rubens woman.

There are a few childhood snapshots. The sisters collaborate on a story about sisters that naively reflects their differences. A five-year-old Suzy runs away from home, leaving a note: ‘Dear Mommy, I am running away. I hope you don’t mind me taking a sandwich. Love Suzy.’ But she is recovered four blocks away, ‘wondering where to go, since she had already reached the boundary of her usual zone’.

The remainder of the novel skips over Suzy’s 30 years of life, weaving elaborations on the set pattern of outshone sister and insufficiently-loved daughter. Her first, painfully unconsummated love affair in Illinois is stage-managed by Fran. As a young Yank at Oxford High School in 1970, Suzy is wretchedly unhappy. She writes her last will and testament, and finds Franny reading it with relish. Her father remarries a gorgeous fashion consultant who ‘clearly considered me a large blob on her horizon, as did I’. She reacts by shoplifting and is put on probation. In 1973, she is sent to Italy by her father, to study Italian. Franny directs her to one of her former lovers, a middle-aged lecher who takes ‘the unexciting and unnoticed gift’ of Suzy’s virginity in between spouting lively Italian into his telephone. After investigating ‘another orifice or two, he dumped me at a bus-stop outside Florence. I’ve always associated the event with Napoleon.’ Suzy finally lands up in Ulysses Road, North London, co-habiting with another of Fran’s cast-off lovers, Jeremy, a Courtauld postgraduate. She gets pregnant (astonished by the fact that she should matter enough to be fertile) and they marry. But it doesn’t work. He batters her, she leaves with her daughter, Lily, and no means of support. Battles with the DHSS, British central heating and British Telecom ensue.

The last, most affecting section of Sweet Desserts deals with the father’s protracted illness. Suzy can keep the suffering at bay only by telling herself the Jewish jokes that he used to tell his girls. When, eventually, he dies, Suzy wants to murder his doctor, while Fran, ‘full of the mysteries of death’, plays a dignified part in the family bereavement. At Oxford, six months later, Fran and Suzy get together for Christmas: ‘I give her some nice ear-rings which she likes, and a star-fish pot-holder. She fails to give me a copy of her latest book, but offers instead a pair of naughty knickers that don’t fit. Later that afternoon we watch La Traviata on TV together, and weep.’

The power of Sweet Desserts lies in its passive-aggressive tone of voice (a kind of slyly snide bleat), interspersed, in the manner of a collage, with scraps from diet sheets, pop-songs, newspaper headlines, school reports, family letters and post-mortems. The novel contrives to be both bitter and amusing. It is, as its publishers claim, a very successful debut. But it is nevertheless difficult to read it without some uncomfortable twinges. The narrative accords so closely to publicly-known facts about the author’s family that one can’t help feeling it would have been proper, as with Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar, to publish the work (at least initially) under a pseudonym.

The review copy of Theodore Zeldin’s first novel is accompanied by a separately-printed 2,000-word statement by the author, entitled ‘How I came to write Happiness’. This preface is evidently for the eyes of the reviewer only. It is, I think, a pity that Zeldin’s foreword is thus placed in the non-existent condition of issued-but-not-published. It is an illuminating document, and arguably necessary for a full understanding of Happiness. Zeldin, who is by previous profession a historian of France, describes his disillusionment with history as a discourse. After years of ‘thinking’, he has determined that he must fashion ‘a new form of writing ... Increasingly, I saw scholarship as needing to become a consciously artistic activity. Academic prose could no longer suffice for me, rejecting as it does all the possibilities for the rearrangement of the facts of life which modern art has discovered.’ In Aristotelian terms, Zeldin had made the transition to Poetry (or, as he calls it, ‘Free History’) as the vehicle of essential truth.

Knowing this, one approaches Happiness as a courageous and probably quixotic experiment. New forms of intellectual discourse are as hard to invent as new vices. And, in fact, one’s first reaction to Happiness is that one has seen it before. It takes the form of a fable in which an ingenuous young girl ‘Sumdy’ (i.e. Somebody) voyages through death to Paradise, together with her dog Jolly and her pet cockroach Forgetmenot. Her mission is to investigate what is true happiness – ‘the world’s fastest-growing religion’, as Zeldin calls it. Paradise, the author tells us in his detached preface, is an allegory of France. The ensuing narrative opens with a joke: Paradise is now so overwhelmed with immigrants that it has imposed a visa system (as did France last year, on foreign tourists). The guardian angel corps has been swamped, and no longer functions. And no one is happy – least of all the 20th-century arrivals who expect the place ‘to be a kind of promotion for them ... like a more powerful, more luxurious car than their last’. Instead, they discover that Paradise is what you make it – and they have lost the power of making anything.

Sumdy is checked into Paradise by the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 started the First World War. She subsequently encounters Henry Ford, who entrusts her with his new gospel (history, however, is still bunk). She is burned at the stake at the local university, and survives to enjoy long philosophical exchanges with Isaac Newton and a Babylonian angel, Colopatiron. Finally, she returns to earth where, like Gulliver, she finds human beings smelly and unpleasant.

Other 20th-century authors have rewritten Candide: Shaw in his Black Girl in Search of God, Nathanael West in A Cool Million, Terry Southern in Candy. Zeldin’s engagement with specifically historical problems gives his book a character peculiarly its own. But its rather wistful and playful imaginings can often recall St Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Were it not so long – an artistic mistake, in this genre – Happiness might well have another career in the juvenile market.