Wasps and all

Philip Horne

  • A Chinese Summer by Mark Illis
    Bloomsbury, 135 pp, £11.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0257 9
  • Three Uneasy Pieces by Patrick White
    Cape, 59 pp, £7.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 224 02594 5
  • The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene
    Reinhardt, 189 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 1 871061 05 9
  • View of Dawn in the Tropics by G. Cabrera Infante, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
    Faber, 163 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 571 15186 8
  • The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine
    Viking, 282 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 670 82414 3

As this summer wore on I became aware of wasps in my bathroom. There would be a remote drone, and then a wasp would be flying at me, at head-height, on its way to the window, there to cling, finding itself shut in. Entrants multiplied, but without stinging. They just clustered at the source of light. When not expelled or allowed issue, the wasps simply curled up and – unhurriedly, with twiddling of legs and little angry buzzings – died. After a day at work I would find a dozen, after a week’s holiday a hundred, of the dead and dying, where they had dropped or crawled; and would hoover them up, or scoop them, for defenestration, onto the offprint of a friend’s article. I postponed calling in pest control, however, till the first sting. Baths and showers became occasions of suppressed anxiety; my invaders emerged from any number of orifices in the cupboard containing the boiler, which overhangs the tub. But their numbers declined with the onset of autumn. Soon I thought myself relaxed. One day, though, reading in the bath, I glanced down from the page to see a large one busily doggypaddle towards me: and weeks of submerged panic surfaced with a splash. I hurled the book into the air, expelled the wasp, sent half my bathwater onto the floor and subsided again into what remained within a couple of seconds, pulse racing. That seemed the climax of the infiltration. Now, though, I have the impression that even if no more than one or two any longer crawl out in person, or in toto, black bits of wing, of sting, of tiny leg or thorax or mandible, can be seen flowing from the taps. I am bathing, shaving, brushing my teeth, in a decoction of wasp.

It has struck me that if I were much less sane, or a novelist, I would be tempted to make something of this. Such experiences are novel, even while they are mundane, and the novel is a medium traditionally directed to search for meaning in the shifting textures of everyday life. The significant structures of fiction and of psychopathology seem close here. In my small tribulation, the oddity became normalised, but my normality became distinctly odder, perhaps more artistically patterned, in the process. Dwelling on it – which includes trying to describe it, as I have done – draws out meanings which may be latent in it or in the dweller. Wasps and water, cleanness and death, hygiene and poison: no doubt an imaginative system of associations has been insidiously formed. The person who has been thrown off-balance by some traumatic event might feel persecuted, or that he had been told something.

In Mark Illis’s exceptionally promising first novel, A Chinese Summer, a young man tipped into crisis by the unexplained departure of his girlfriend tries in his deep depression to make sense of odd things in the world by interpretative procedures which have a slightly paranoid pressure behind them: even on a familiar suburban train, ‘everything was foreign now, needing a second look. Even the noises of the wheels and the rushing air were worth listening to for ulterior meanings.’

It is to this foreignness, and the need to interpret it, the psychological after-effect of emotional disturbance, rather than to far-flung travel, that ‘Chinese’ in the title refers. The haunted narrator, Simon, tells us a story which is exotic or romantic only in his head, but is intriguingly so there. Daydreams and hallucinations unsettlingly alternate with sharp noticings. In a seeming paradox he ‘reads the thoughts’ of a fellow passenger on the Tube as expressing the psychological clairvoyance he himself lacks (as his desertion by his friend Helen has shockingly shown): ‘You should be glad you’ve got me, I’m your interpreter,’ the passenger is thought to be smugly thinking. ‘You’re all Chinese, hiding behind your Chinese walls, and I’m your interpreter.’ But a minute later his eyes meet Simon’s and, ‘making absurd my interpretation of his demeanour, he smiled pleasantly.’

The novel tracks Simon’s attempts to get back to reliable basics in his understanding of experience, attempts based on a regressive wish to recapture ‘the uncomplicated perceptions of a seven-year-old’. Simon escapes from London up the motorway, and lets his mind wander. ‘The sign said knives and forks, petrol pumps and wheelchairs; 1m and 31m. I imagined a million knives and forks, thirty-one million petrol pumps and wheelchairs, forming an avenue disappearing like streetlights into the far distance.’ These are the vivid perceptive distortions of a character who has suffered a psychic wound and, by this point in the story, a nasty medical one. Simon’s distrust of the adult perceptions he has learned by his early twenties, some of which have so badly let him down, is a precondition of Illis’s descriptive success in much of the book. To see as a child, though, is not possible for a grown-up: rather, the alienation from others and their purposes which his attention to the non-human world represents apparently grows out of Simon’s previous self-centred fetishisation of meaning: ‘I’m expecting the Significant Thing in my life to show up, the vocation,’ he says, recalling James’s too-passive hero in ‘The Beast in the Jungle’.

But the novel, though disturbing, doesn’t merely mime disintegration. For all the poetic rewards of the childlike individual’s exclusion from life, A Chinese Summer eventually refuses it in favour of social, sexual and familial bonds. It records a grim rite of passage and a provisional reintegration, in which the suffering protagonist learns to control his egotism by coming to understand, retrospectively, the loneliness of someone else – his girlfriend when he was unconsciously distancing her. At the end he wants ‘to break down the walls around me’.

The suffering is not just mental, though, as I have intimated. On his way to a job interview Simon is run down by a Volvo. ‘The impact was like a mallet swung by a lumberjack against my knee, sending me pirouetting, but it was all right, it wasn’t too serious, because the surface of the road was cushion soft, and the left leg, the leg that was hit, didn’t hurt at all. I couldn’t feel it at all.’ The numbness is bad news.

Underneath the final, transparent layer of dressing I saw that my knee was covered by an exotic growth. A livid purple egg-sized lump grew shiny black lettuce-leaves backwards, encircling my leg. They were at once taut and wrinkled, as if hiding wormy creatures beneath. My knee was no longer my own, it was a malevolent thing clinging to my leg. When I saw it, I wanted to shrink away from it.

When Simon returns to the hospital some time after his discharge, an X-ray shows ‘a white smudge on the picture, behind the kneecap’. This is worse still, but it perversely seems to help Simon with his priorities: ‘The mystique around cancer makes it hard to set aside, even when it is not the most important thing.’ New importances are established in the cancer ward, where Simon talks to his neighbour, a man ‘like a skeleton with skin stretched over it’. The thin man mockingly volunteers that

‘I learnt a new word yesterday. Do you want to hear it? Etiolation. It’s my new word.’

‘What does it mean?’

‘It means I’m next.’ He winked, and raised his emaciated arm eagerly, as well as he could, like a boy eager to be chosen for a team. ‘Me next.’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said. He looked at me steadily. He was all eyes, they were protuberant and bright, the only part of his face that hadn’t shrivelled. Bulging like ripe fruit, so that it seemed unlikely that his lids would stretch over them. ‘Sick?’ he said. ‘You want to talk about sick?’ It was impossible to interpret his tone. ‘Sick of it all, that’s me. Sick in the heart. Which means sick of life.’

The novel repeatedly achieves such passages of painfully pointed truthfulness: Illis at his best has a rhythmic command and a genuinely individual feeling for language which enable him to be unusually searching and honest.

A Chinese Summer is far from easy reading, and in places it shows rough edges: on one side some uneasy literariness in its allusions, and a degree of wilful obscurity and surrealism; on the other, a certain explicitness about themes and a skirting of sentimentality. But it tells a strong story, and its unpreachy seriousness in the portrayal of Simon’s flight from and then startling redirection towards the human community recalls a similar powerful movement in Richardson’s Pamela, when her flight from Mr B. turns back towards him under the impulsion of her love. ‘Running away has given me the choice to return,’ says Simon. The final scene of Simon’s reunion with his parents and small brother finds a touching understated tenderness which must have required some courage on Illis’s part.

The cancerous growth in A Chinese Summer has a trivial equivalent in ‘The Age of a Wart’, the main story in a little work by a writer at the other end of his career from Illis. Here, too, it concerns love and socialisation. Patrick White’s Three Uneasy Pieces uses, as did his previous work Memoirs of Many in One, but more concisely, a doubling and multiplication of personalities and grotesque flights of fancy to explore some seamy aspects of his own life and imagination. His self-portraiture is less warts-and-all than, caricaturally, all warts.

The wart, a human blemish, represents White’s lost twinship with his virtuous poorer schoolmate Bluey (really Tancred) Platt, who has since gone on to live among the Aborigines, help bomb-victims in the London Blitz, save lives in Japanese POW camps and succour the maimed and dying after Hiroshima. ‘Tancred is the part of me I’ve always aspired to. My unlikely twin, who got away.’ The story exists through a fantastic amplification of the wart’s significance. Platt’s wart is immortal. White’s wart dies off after he has gone to great trouble to kill it. The privileges he was born to have kept him from contact with real life and from doing real good. Now, late in life, his wart has reappeared (‘It’s been lying dormant’); and it seems connected, if only in his head, with melanoma and a cosmic cancer: he wants Tancred to come and explain things, to be his interpreter, ‘before the wart thing spreads and darkens my body ... the whole earth’.

White’s writing is fuelled by disgust and fascination, including self-disgust and (especially) self-fascination, which give many of his descriptions a hopped-up vividness. In the second story, ‘Dancing with both feet on the ground’, telepathic back-projection from old age in an Australian kitchen to adolescent presence at a long-past dance in a Swiss hotelschloss is supposed to mark a triumph of the human spirit and especially the Romantic imagination: the persona beamed back discovers the ‘figures of the tireless dance disguised’ and leads them off. The ferocious observation let loose on this grotesque scene, however, at whose centre sits ‘the Contessa del Castelmarino, alias Gladys (Baby) Horsfall of Gundy, New South Wales’, White’s bosomy Dame Edna figure, recalls less Yeats or ‘East Coker’ than the rather cracked Eliot of ‘Hysteria’ – with a twist of Carry on humour at the end: ‘Baby Horsfall is the one that’s screaming, in spite of the laughter rippling down from the crimson mouth, through pneumatic rings round the white throat, and into the false peony, it’s bumpy going for the peony.’

The White imaginative system is oppressively claustrophobic: he performs the transformation and over-interpretation of objects and events with incorrigible insistence, so that the horrible has to represent the real, for which it is a poor substitute. Illis’s narrative shows proliferating wheelchairs and Chinese walls as symptoms of alienation and develops towards a difficult human re-engagement, a humbled literalisation; White’s dances and warts, for all his disapproving emphasis on ‘the distance between life and literature’, end in what are arguably just literary and subjective victories, from which the real world has been kept out to make space for self-contained affirmation within a world of dreams.

Victor Baxter, the fictitious narrator of Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy, is a lot less sanguine about his – abortive – literary career; he has no literary prizes to flagellate himself for winning in the manner of the en-Nobelled White. Victor is a sorry figure all round. His mother dies when he is young, not before leaving him with a baleful sense of life’s chances for domestic bliss: ‘ “Your father is a devil,” she was very fond of telling me, and her eyes would lose their habitual boredom and light suddenly up for a moment like a gas cooker.’ Victor is sent to one of those miserable boarding-schools, but – as the novel begins – is rescued or kidnapped from it by the Captain, a benign sort of liar and small-time criminal whose fictions seem well-intentioned enough. The Captain has won Victor – whom he renames Jim – in a bet with his devilish father, and takes him to his childless friend Liza, the Captain’s protégée since Victor’s father gave her a pregnancy and abortion and cast her off. Liza has been lamenting, rather in the air, her childlessness, and the little boy is landed on her in a seedy London house to both their bewilderments.

These surrogate parents, Liza and the Captain (who lives elsewhere), offer Victor an alternative vision of the domestic and of love to the one he has known before: when Liza hears the Captain’s foot on the stair, ‘suddenly her eyes lighted up, as though she had been brought into a room hung with baubles and mystery packets.’ But Victor, already marked down in life as a loser (at school, paradoxically, his name singles him out as a wet and victim), is set to make the worst of it, and as in The Fallen Idol, or Greene’s probable inspiration for such stories, What Maisie knew, but more malignly, he fails to understand the complexity of adult relations, to appreciate the delicacy of the feelings involved. At the end his mixture of ingratitude and interference becomes incompetent evil and his own undoing – in a second half that leaps to the other side of the world.

Victor’s wonder is a childlike one, as in Illis, about other people and the springs of their action, and involves a discovery about love. But where Illis’s Simon has strong attachments temporarily stunned into neutrality, a sense of foreignness, by a shocking event, Greene’s Victor has a hard heart of long standing. The touchingly hesitant relation between the Captain and Liza, revealed only near the end as a real passion, is alien territory to the pruriently interested Victor, whose love life is a matter of selfish sexual conquests: ‘when I read the Captain’s letters I found myself entering a foreign land where the language was totally strange to me.’ The fallen child envies, is shamed by, and therefore scorns, the innocence of the adults. The fiction Victor writes (for he acknowledges that it is impossible to avoid invention and distortion), and the Panamanian plot he treacherously becomes a blind mover in, combine compulsive curiosity and malevolence, and shroud him in guilt and bad faith.

The activity of writing or promulgating fiction, certainly when undertaken by his characters, has long seemed to Greene morally dubious. The life-and-death farce of Our Man in Havana (1958) recurs, but without comic extravagance, in the second half of The Captain and the Enemy, where the glum young know-nothing Victor replaces the drily witty pretend-spy Wormold of the earlier novel, and where the idea is the gravity of human love rather than the ingeniously satirical one that fiction can’t be told from fact in the absurd world of spies. The Captain emerges from a lifetime of fraud seriously to engage himself under the banner of a good cause (as Greene conceives it), that of a Sandinista plot to kill Somoza; he is Victor’s Bluey Platt, a mysteriously loving and remote figure at home in the world of action. Victor, on the other hand, with mercenary naivety, enrols with the Contra-loving opposition. Victor fails as a writer, throwing his final manuscript into a waste-paper basket to be found by uncomprehending Panamanians: he has betrayed the trust of his symbolic father, cruelly deceiving him about Liza’s death. Unease about the probable lovelessness and unlovability of writers of fiction pervades the book.

In Our Man in Havana, Wormold picks up a local paper. ‘Havana was full of martyrs of one kind or another.’ Exotic cases are listed. But ‘from this picture of violence and passion and love the victims of Captain Segura were alone excluded – they suffered and died without benefit of press.’ It is salutary to have an account of ‘the victims of Captain Segura’, as it were, and from an exiled Cuban who has become attached to the English language. View of Dawn in the Tropics is a translation, supervised by the author, of a work written by G. Cabrera Infante in 1974, and constituting a passionate and sardonically selective history of Cuba in 117 vignettes of its oppressors and martyrs. After one bloody revolutionary fiasco, he remarks that ‘you couldn’t spell it out in so many words then because they were all martyrs but it was all a mess.’ The consciousness of ‘mess’ fills the book and evokes a fierce pity in its author.

Some of Infante’s bits are reported facts from history books, but most are descriptions from engravings, photographs, and in more recent times a segment of newsreel; there are also in the final pages anecdotes from personal knowledge, and monologues by those who have tried to escape Castro’s Cuba, or lost loved ones in its repressions. The almost complete suppression of names and historical explanations, in favour of roles like ‘the rebel’, ‘the general’, ‘the senator’, ‘the dictator’, makes the relentless reiteration of executions, assassinations, torturings and ironies of circumstance seem a long nightmare of gory injustice, repetition more than development, not ending with the arrival of Castro (whose persecutions of homosexuals under the Improper Conduct Act are added to the appalling roll). How far Castro’s regime signals the ‘Dawn’ of the title is extremely questionable.

The format of the chunks of history is often that of a movement towards a dry statement of unblinkered fact. Thus, ‘history says’ one general thing about a rebellious scheme, ‘legend has it’ that something else happened, ‘in reality’ it was sadder and squalider, and the consequence was that ‘all the conspirators were hanged.’ The cumulative effect is powerful, and the extravagance of Infante’s later work is held at bay by the rapidity and economy of the formal procedure (the pun-count is pretty low), as well as by the need to do justice to each sufferer.

The flat style Infante adopts corresponds to, but through shrewd touches comments upon, the normalisation of violent death in Cuba. The emphasis on photographic images also makes the book in its way a poetic meditation on the freezing of moments by photography’s mechanical reproduction. One section describes three men lying in grass with bullet-holes in them: ‘They don’t move because it’s a photograph and because they’ve been dead for hours and were left near the highway as a warning.’ The motionlessness of any photograph is here reinforced by the absolute inertness of corpses, of a shocking history.

Murderous violence has been half-normalised in The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine (the pseudonym of the crime writer Ruth Rendell), whose narrator Elizabeth Vetch has in the 1980s to deal with a friend, Bell Sanger, who has served a ‘life sentence’ for a late Sixties murder and come out again.

Murderers used to be hanged. Now they are set free and come back to live among us. Or to exist. I look at people and I wonder ... People like me ... know them and go on knowing them and learn to adjust. Yet you would think murder the one act no one could adjust to, no one could make allowances for.

The site of the killing is not the Cuban jungle but the Notting Hill of miniskirts and candles and cheesecloth, ‘happenings’ on the ‘fringe’ and marijuana in the Electric Cinema.

Like Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, The House of Stairs is partly the story of a woman with beauty but without fortune, desperate for money, making her way in a leisured society – though with fewer scruples than Lily Bart. Like Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, the House of Stairs is the site of a gruesome killing that has a long sinister aftermath; it echoes with ‘the sound of a human being bursting bonds that are its own flesh and bones.’ And we may recall James’s ‘house of fiction’, his symbol of the novel form’s possible variety of recording consciousnesses, which has ‘not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.’

Elizabeth, writing in a fraught present of the gradual build-up to the novel’s climax years before, notes that

I have harped rather on the windows, I see, as if I noticed them more than I noticed the proportions of the rooms and their sizes. Of course I didn’t. It was what happened later that makes me think I must always have been more aware of the windows than of any other feature of the House of Stairs, even the staircase itself, aware not only of their size and shape but of the danger to which they exposed those inside them.

The distorting effect of hindsight on a character’s record of her perceptions makes this account by a heroine who has written an unpublished monograph on James (and who has as a literary ancestor Fleda Vetch in The Spoils of Poynton) resonate to his insight into the restrictions and intensities of an individual’s point of view. The crime writer, at the same time, alive to ways and means, registers a literal application of James’s metaphor. The ‘pressure of the individual will’ is realised here in the pressure of an individual’s deadly shove.

The remarkable premise of The House of Stairs, which Barbara Vine builds on with great subtlety and intelligence, is that Henry James’s novel The Wings of the Dove could be the same kind of catalyst for a disturbed individual as Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver was for John W. Hinckley III. The incongruity that so morally intricate and oblique a work as James’s should be exploited only for a cruelly manipulative piece of chicanery counts dramatically, moreover: the sensitive Jamesian Elizabeth, threatened with death from Huntington’s chorea (it runs in her family and may run in her), but making a living as a writer of pulpy romances, tells the plot to the barely-literate Bell, a dangerous and mercenary beauty with whom she is in love and who resembles, like James’s moribund rich heroine Milly Theale, Bronzino’s portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi. Bell could never read James – she complains of ‘the way he goes wanking on’. The riches in the story belong not to the possibly-doomed Elizabeth, as the Jamesian parallel might suggest, but to Elizabeth’s widowed, liberated and lover-seeking adoptive mother-figure, the immensely generous Cosette, who buys the House of Stairs and throws it open to a clutch of hangers-on in the hope of capturing the youth she feels she has missed out on. The relations in The Wings of the Dove are ingeniously reassorted, in ways it would be destructive to reveal.

Like other narrators in this review, Illis’s Simon, White’s Patrick and Greene’s Victor, Vine’s Elizabeth is set distrustfully apart, by emotional incapacity and writerly ambition, from a relation of true love which is seen as desirable. The construction of patterns in which the imaginative writer indulges receives severe moral questioning. She presents the philistine Bell, onto whom she projected her own wishful patterns, as a truer judge of life: ‘Not being addicted to literature, scarcely knowing that literature existed, she had not had her perception suppressed under its narcosis or her assessments of human nature distorted by its false reality.’

This self-rebuke is excessive, since literature has no monopoly on the creation of fiction (as the unliterary but mendacious Bell shows), but it fits the tensely remorseful retrospect the novel traces. Barbara Vine’s novel, at any rate, is literature which is unlikely to be much attacked for escapism. It learns more directly from Ford’s The Good Soldier than from The Wings of the Dove: about the first-person narrative unravelling the past misinterpretation of others’ behaviour; about the fallacy of assuming the untreacherousness of ‘good people’, assuming here that murder is beyond the civilised pale; and about the graduated shock of a series of surprising revelations.

In the presence of a book with so complex and generous a conception, with a first half so thrillingly purposeful yet unpredictable in its interweaving of plot-clue with emotional symbol, it seems graceless to utter qualms. But it seems to me possible to feel the genre of crime fiction as compromising the book’s achievement, narrowing its scope from the magnificently charged unguessabilities, psychological manoeuvrings and social amplitude of the opening to more mechanical questions of whodunnit, or, here, of to whom it was done. Outcomes of this order are crude beside the more indirect revelations about ‘the human heart’ which Elizabeth find in her favourite James and with which the earlier portions of the book are alive. The genre’s requirement of final surprises leads Barbara Vine into temptation, moreover: the equivocation on the word ‘find’ on page 148 is something of a cheat. Even so, The House of Stairs insidiously gets under the reader’s skin, renders a creepily believable experience and entangles one in the narrator’s attempts, which may be hopeless, to save her life, emotionally and perhaps literally.