End of the Century

John Sutherland

  • Worlds Apart by David Holbrook
    Hale, 205 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7090 3363 X
  • Story of My Life by Jay McInerney
    Bloomsbury, 188 pp, £11.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0180 7
  • Forgotten Life by Brian Aldiss
    Gollancz, 284 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 575 04369 5
  • Incline Our hearts by A.N. Wilson
    Hamish Hamilton, 250 pp, £11.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 241 12256 2

It would be interesting to place Jay McInerney and David Holbrook as neighbours at E.M. Forster’s imaginary table. Both novelists are fascinated by decadence – that much they have in common. But their diagnoses and anatomies of the decadent condition are quite different; worlds apart, to use Holbrook’s dominant image. For him, the present rot can be traced directly to the 1960s: specifically to Richard Neville’s Play Power, with its demonic slogan ‘the weapons of revolution are obscenity, blasphemy and drugs.’ Holbrook still sees that era – which began with the 1960 Lady Chatterley acquittal and ended with the Gay News prosecution in 1976 – as England’s dark age. ‘Permissive’ and ‘alternative’ remain the dirtiest words in his lexicon; his black beast is dressed in soiled denim, ornamented with hand-crafted jewellery, has long, unkempt hair, chants ‘we shall overcome,’ or ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ and trails a ‘sickly haze of pot smoke’. The fact that hippies are – like the superannuated Neil in The Young Ones – no longer the force they were does not pacify Holbrook. The poison is still coursing deep in England’s veins.

McInerney (who was five years old in 1960) is the leading connoisseur with Bret Easton Ellis (who was not born in 1960) of a Nineties decadent chic. It’s that time of the century again, and McInerney’s style here and in his earlier bestseller Bright Lights, Big City is strikingly similar to 1890s Fin de Siècle, if one replaces absinthe with cocaine, green daffodils and velvet with leather skirts from Fiorucci and Kamali silk tops, Paris with Manhattan or Los Angeles. McInerney’s decadents wear designer clothes. They run up monthly phone bills of 1300 dollars and daily coke bills that are scarcely smaller. They live on trust funds, allowances from their divorced parents and American Express gold cards which are transparent from being pushed through the versatel so often. Holbrook hates his decadence, with all the pinched earnestness of a bred-in-the-bone Leavisite. McInerney has a more complex attitude to his depraved children, admiring their style while lamenting the butterfly shortness of their golden lives.

Holbrook has been saying the same things so long, so often and so loudly that it is easy to forget that he is an accomplished poet and novelist. Not coincidentally, these are the genres which lend themselves least readily to propaganda. Worlds Apart is not, I think, as good as Flesh Wounds, the novel which recalls Holbrook’s experiences as a tank commander in the Normandy Invasion. For one thing, he adopts the Lawrentian device of a palpitatingly sensitive heroine. This has risks for the male writer. ‘Creating’ women is a tricky psychological operation. For another, the matter of Worlds Apart is slight – too slight, probably, for the weight of the cultural message.

Holbrook’s heroine, Anthea Markham, is a ‘born’ schoolteacher, possessed of an intuitive ability to communicate with young children. This gift is the outcome of the ‘richly imaginative experiences’ stored from her own childhood. For Holbrook, health is as much a transmitted thing as disease. The author’s academic hobbyhorses are fairly well reined in, but in analysing the tip-top conditions of Anthea’s imagoes he lets fly with a familiar volley of references to Jung, Winnicott and Melanie Klein, reminding us briefly of what a bore he can be on these subjects, vitally important as they are.

Drawing on her classroom experiences, Anthea writes a treatise, ‘Symbolism and Meaning in Small Children’. It expresses her conviction that children can best be educated by releasing their creativity. All children, not just the swots, should be encouraged to appreciate poetry by writing poetry; to appreciate art by painting. The doctrine is progressive but not ‘anarchic’, not inhumane. It is not, that is, to be confused with the evil progressivism of the Little Red Schoolbook, with its instructions to the child on drug-taking, and the therapeutic use of porn and oral sex.

One has to equate Anthea’s book with Holbrook’s own English for the Rejected (1964), a work which significantly influenced primary-school teaching in this country. Anthea receives an enthusiastic review by ‘Hogwood’ in the New Statesman. (It did occur to me to wonder whether Hoggart had reviewed Holbrook.) On the strength of her new fame, she is invited to lecture to educationists in Australia (as, coincidentally, was Holbrook in 1969). It being the Sixties, the trip involves a long return voyage by ocean steamer, the Oriana. Before leaving, Anthea becomes engaged rather prematurely, as she fears, to a dessicated science teacher, with whom she has ‘tremendous rows about her progressive approaches to teaching’. Peter’s Benthamite training has rendered him ‘traditional ... conformist ... reductionist ... mechanist’ (another lexicon of Holbrookian dirty words). Psychologically Peter has ‘buried the boy within him, very deep’. His imagoes are in bad shape.

Nevertheless, Anthea loves him. Their relationship is, of course, chaste: an ‘old-fashioned kiss goodbye’ is the extent of their farewell intimacies. About half the subsequent narrative is taken up with shipboard and port-of-call description so dense as to make one suspect that Holbrook must have turned up some old diaries. Anthea has a shipboard romance and fends off assaults on her virtue by licentious officers of the Merchant Marine. A stopover in Los Angeles provokes a furious denunciation of Disneyland: ‘Anthea was reminded of a parasite, that worms its way when young, into the soft life of some creature in a shell. It consumes the native, and lives in the shell itself. This is what the Disney Corporation Inc. had done to all the legends: Snow White, Pinocchio, even Huckleberry Finn.’ So much for the Magic Kingdom.

In Australia, the heroine encounters the opposition of entrenched conservatism, which she combats in a healthy spirit of give and take. On her return, the deluge has fallen on England. Deschooling and little red books are everywhere. Peter has taken up with a ‘a folk singer woman’. Her mother (‘Mumma’) conveys the bad news, stressing each terrible item of offence: ‘vegan food ... macrobiotic ... hippy ... R.D. Laing ... Joan Baez ... probably on pot’. ‘Is he living with her?’ an appalled Anthea asks (Holbrook’s italics). The silence is affirmative: some things are too terrible for words. Pain rises like a knot in Anthea’s bowels. Will she be able to save her lover from the new barbarism of enlightenment?

Holbrook’s two worlds are superficially Australia and England. But in a more significant way they are the periods before and after the 1960s. Like everything he writes, the novel breathes a constant nostalgia, if not quite for the wheelwright’s shop, then for the older certainties and innocence of pre-war England. His wych elm is the 1870s’ village school, lovingly described in his first paragraph. One forgives Holbrook his stridency, harlequin melodrama and infuriatingly repetitious tirades for the simple reason that at the end of the day (and, as he sees it, it is, no doubt, pretty near the end of the day) he does seem to have been more in the right than his opponents – or, if not in the right, certainly more durable. English for the Rejected is still, I believe, on the syllabus of British institutes of education. Who now reads (or can even remember) OZ28?

Jay McInerney seemed with his first novel to be able to dispense with all the tedious apparatus of a literary career. He arrived newborn, glistening, world-famous. Bright Lights, Big City ignored the convention of hardback publication and was put out in 1984 by Random House in America as a paperbacked ‘Vintage Contemporary’ – that is, instant classic. (There was an inexplicable two-year delay in its being published in the UK.) The novel attracted some scandalised attention for its supposed revelations of depravity at the New Yorker (strenuously denied). But its main appeal was as an apparently knowledgeable exposé of the latest lost generation and the latest drug culture. It was to cocaine (the snuffed, not the smoked variety) what John Barleycorn was to booze, what Naked Lunch was to heroin and what Dog Soldiers was to hallucinogens. Anyone who read Bright Lights, Big City could feel an expert on the modish drug of choice, even if he had never put anything stronger than Friar’s Balsam up his nostrils.

McInerney’s second novel, Ransom, was more ambitious and had as its hero a young American in Japan. Obliquely, it addressed the post-Vietnam syndrome – something that no novel and certainly no film (despite Platoon’s Oscars) has yet managed to do entirely successfully. In between that novel and this latest came the film version of Bright Lights, Big City, an appalling adaptation with wholesome munchkin Michael J. Fox in the lead. Like the film of Less than Zero, it was neutered by Hollywood’s supine acquiescence in Nancy Reagan’s demand that movies and television should not ‘glorify’ drug-taking. The jagged blackness of the original text was surrendered, together with the razor-sharp slangy rhetoric.

In Story of My Life, McInerney has returned to the cursed and gilded youth of Eighties Manhattan. The life in question is that of a rich-kid girl and would-be actress, Alison Poole, who tells her story in the first person. It has the contours of a moral tract. While ‘busting her ass’ at Lee Strasberg’s studio, Alison gets by on a handsome (but inadequate for the lifestyle) monthly allowance of $1500 from her father, who lives in the Virgin Islands with his new bimbo Tanya, who’s a year younger than his daughter. All her parents ever gave her were cars and credit cards. And never enough money (what do they want her to do, ‘sell her body, like?’). They have ‘seven marriages between them and any time I’ve been with a guy for more than a few weeks I find myself looking out of the window during sex.’ When we first meet her, Alison is nursing something her parents didn’t give her. She has a social disease caught from a two-timing boyfriend whom she’s not in lust with any more. It means a fortnight’s semi-abstinence while she’s taking the medication, which is a bore because – puritan that she is – she thinks ‘oral sex on the first date is pretty rude.’ Another two-timing boyfriend whom Alison is in lust with gets her pregnant. Or perhaps it was someone else, she’s not sure. Anyway, she has an abortion which she can’t afford (‘I’m like a fucking Third World country – empty treasury, exploding birth rate’). Boyfriend goes off with Alison’s sister Rebecca (‘she’s like the Tasmanian Devil, that character in the Bugs Bunny cartoons that moves around inside a tornado and demolishes everything in his path’). Alison’s flatmate spends all their rent and phone money on coke and an $1800 Chanel skirt which she just must have. Alison sells her grandmother’s pearl necklace – her grandmother being the only member of her family who meant anything to her. She’s 21 and the party ends with the heroine in a detox clinic, somewhere in Minnesota. Now it’s over, she writes the story of her life: dead or burned-out, what’s the difference? It’s hard to think of a grimmer little fable. But McInerney bounces it off his tough little heroine with an infectious gaiety. Line for line, it’s one of the funniest novels I have ever read. Yet add the whole thing up and it’s hell, 1988-style.

Brian Aldiss’s Forgotten Life has a strikingly good dust-jacket. The front reproduces Lucian Freud’s Interior with plant, reflection listening (self-portrait), a picture of the painter, ear cupped, looking through the foliage of a spider-grass plant, foreshortened to the size of a huge jungle tree. The back has a photograph of Aldiss, whisky glass in hand, contemplating himself in a baroque full-length mirror. The iconography is clear even before one wades through the preliminary thicket of epigraphs, dedications and meaningful chapter mottoes (of which Aldiss is rather too fond). This is a novel of introspection.

Aldiss has done so much, in so many different styles of writing, that one can take one’s pick as to what one likes best. My preference is for his early ‘hard’ Science Fiction, for his autobiographical Horatio Stubbs trilogy, and for his artful re-writings of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells (exercises which grow directly out of his critical history of Science Fiction, most recently revised as Trillion Year Spree). Less attractive to my taste are his New Wave experiments (particularly his hymn to LSD, Barefoot in the Head, which looks in retrospect like his only bad lapse) and the more recent Helliconia trilogy – a massive work of cosmic mythography into which the author diverted much of his 1980s writing energy. The Helliconia books have been very successful in America and students love them. But they seem mechanical compared to what Aldiss can do when he is not overstraining to produce a Paradise Lost for our time.

The structure of this latest novel allows Aldiss a ruminative retrospect of himself (or someone like himself) and his achievements in a more or less realistic fictional mode. The narrative is set up around a Nabokovian device. Clement Winter, a 49-year-old psychoanalyst and Oxford don, is searching for the elusive ‘real’ character of his 12-years-older brother, Joseph, who has just died. The brothers are divided by more barriers than years. Joseph served in the war; Clement didn’t. Specifically, Joseph (like the young Brian Aldiss) served in the ‘Forgotten Army’ in India, Burma and finally in soon-to-be decolonised Sumatra.

Aldiss used his wartime experience in a less devious fashion in the Stubbs saga, a work written under the heady influence of Portnoy’s Complaint. Much of that trilogy – especially the first volume – is a treatise on masturbation and has dated, as has Roth’s once outrageous book. (Aldiss might – if the subject still interests him – cast an eye at the description of ‘faucet orgasms’ in Story of My Life: it’s a new one on me.) With the double focus of Forgotten Life, he suggests that he now regards his wartime and post-war selves as irreconcilable and separate personalities: not to be stuffed into the single container of the autobiographical narrative form. Aldiss, to simplify brutally, killed for the King in the jungle and now lives quietly in Oxford. How can such diverse phases of a life ever be brought into single focus?

Joseph’s experiences in the East are recorded in a series of letters which his detective brother reads, vaguely intending to write a book – whether biography or military history is not clear. Wide-eyed astonishment is Joe’s principal reaction to the Orient. I’ve often thought that Aldiss the Science Fiction writer must have been born the moment in 1943 when, as a raw East Anglian youth, he disembarked onto the Indian sub-continent, and was affronted by its teeming, wholly alien native population (he has re-created the episode – directly or indirectly – in a number of places in his writing). Equally alien and prophetic of later space opera are the Jap enemy. As Joseph writes in one of his letters, ‘Slim, the commander of the Forgotten Army, calls them “the most formidable fighting insects on Earth”. I guess dealing with Japs is a bit like that – fighting giant invading insects from another world.’

Joseph has all his certainties shaken. The British Empire is rotten. The British Army is without glory, even in victory. He falls in love with a Chinese girl in Sumatra, but loses her in the chaos of Singapore. His life is never thereafter to be tranquil. He is a casualty of war to the end of his days. He devotes himself to the hopelessly quixotic task of helping the Third World. Meanwhile, his brother has lived a well-ordered, above all, ‘peaceful’ life among the dreaming spires. What connects them? And how do both brothers’ careers connect with their primal experiences in the Suffolk village where they were brought up, sons of a bucket-maker? There is much incidental play with a local poet – William Westlake – who lived, went mad and died in the early 19th century and who seems to be based on John Clare, an artist tragically unable to integrate his peasant heritage with his London authorial self. Lavish stretches of Westlake verse are invented to adorn the narrative – another Nabokovian touch.

Clement’s hunt for Joseph coincides and precipitates a series of crises. He realises that he has powerful antagonisms – and that these were fully reciprocated by his dead brother. Clement’s wife Sheila is a best-selling writer of ‘sword and sorcery’ romances, under the pen name ‘Green Mouth’. Her creativity is traced back to the toy lizard who consoled her in the bed where her stepfather abused her as a child. (Aldiss assures the reviewer in an accompanying note that the topicality of this is unintended.) She cuckolds Clement and leaves him for her editor. This stratum of the plot gives an opportunity for extensive and sometimes spiteful reflections on the modern publishing and reviewing trades, particularly as they affect best-selling authors of Science Fiction. Aldiss, we understand, is very sore on what he takes to be neglect of his main craft.

For all the backtracking of its narrative. Forgotten Life constantly surprises by its sharpness of plot-turn and incidental observation. But the most surprising thing about the novel is its departure from the patterns of the author’s earlier fiction. In the extensive package of promotional material which the publisher bundles together with the book is the proud facsimile of a letter from Anthony Burgess, declaring that ‘Brian’s novel’ has made him ‘forget a day’s meals’. I wouldn’t starve for Forgotten Life, but it does give one an appetite for more of the same.

It is not immediately clear how the reader should take A.N. Wilson’s latest novel, and one rather enjoyably flounders through it. The title – Incline our hearts – is a false clue. A religious element is present but not dominant. The opening quarter of the narrative comes across as a comic set-piece in a familiar Wilson manner. The orphan-hero Julian Ramsay is brought up in a Norfolk rectory in the Forties. Generous space is devoted to arch description of the oddities of Julian’s guardians and their pets, his aunt’s tweeds and addiction to radio serials, the nose-twitching pleasures of opening a tin of spam, his uncle’s snobbish addiction to the neighbouring Lampitt family. The reader is lulled into expecting an Age of Austerity Tristram Shandy.

With the hero’s departure for school, the tone and direction change joltingly. The work becomes savagely satirical of the English ‘Gulag’ – the beaten and bullied years that drag the young English gentleman from boarding-school to National Service (followed – although the novel does not go there – by the glorious liberation of university). Wilson seems to hate traditional British prep schools with an Orwellian virulence. Again the reconstruction is dense, and the narrative seems set for a Victorian-style bildungsroman. How will Julian survive this ordeal?

Just when one gets interested in the emerging social novel, Wilson changes tack again. The last section concentrates itself into a complicated meditation on the ethics and aesthetics of biography. James (‘Jimbo’) Petworth Lampitt is an Edwardian belletristic biographer who has done a stylish life of Prince Albert. He is hero-worshipped by Julian’s clergyman uncle Roy, the whole of whose life has been an act of fawning homage to the Lampitt family. He is a mine of biographical information about the Lampitts, and knows secrets that he would no more think of divulging than he would drop his trousers in church. But Jimbo is also the target of a predatory biographer of the new school, Raphael Hunter. Hunter cuts a swathe across Julian’s life, seducing women, stealing manuscript sources, destroying everything he touches. He finally writes a massive two-volume biography – dull in style but explosive in content – which sensationally highlights Lampitt’s homosexuality. It is a best-seller. Wilson, of course, is a leading English biographer and the novel reflects back on this aspect of his writing. If I understand the thrust of Incline our hearts, he admires the Stracheyan biographical mode, which aims at style and poised manner. He is tolerant of the biographical motive which originates in naked snobbery – there is at least reverence at its core. He is appalled by the modern warts-and-all school of biography – the most despicable exponent being, I suppose, Albert Goldman and the most admirable Michael Holiroyd.

Wilson invests heavily as a novelist in historical reconstruction. He is very adept but occasionally he trips up. Julian is supposed here to do his National Service in the Norfolk Regiment. As one who was there (while Wilson was still beginning his Gulag sentence), I can inform him that the depot of the Norfolks was in Norwich, not Northampton; that basic training was ten not six weeks; and that the notion that recruits during square-bashing had leave every weekend is fiction of a very high order. I hope he’s more careful when he does research for his biographies.