Your Mum and Dad

Paul Sayer

  • Thou shalt not uncover thy mother’s nakedness by George Hayim
    Quartet, 232 pp, £14.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7043 2690 6
  • My Father’s House by Sylvia Fraser
    Virago, 254 pp, £4.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 86068 181 5

George Hayim, candid homosexual masochist, globe-scampering self-gratifier, unabashed lifelong idler, one-book novelist, offers, for what it’s worth, his life story. Born in 1920, the son of an adulterous, wealthy Shanghai stockbroker whom he hated, and a Shanghai mother whom he adored, Hayim recalls an incident in his childhood when his father punished him for swearing by sticking a pin in his lip. As a result, he states: ‘Today, sexually I am totally oral.’ The scene is set for a number of acerbic discourses against Ellis Hayim, the father ‘whose burning eyes and gentle velvety voice belied a dry, cruel authority’, the same father who, often as a result of his son’s tantrums and blackmail, funded George Hayim’s uninterrupted indolence. The young Hayim rebels against his father’s hypocritical ‘thou shalt not’ dictums, and we see the emergence of his sexuality in his fascination with local soldiers and his heightened affection for a pack of Great Dane guard dogs. (If one can ignore the self-obsession, there is a lively wit at work.) Moving to England via Siberia, he clumsily strings together lighthearted descriptions of his well-caricatured family and entourage. He runs away from Harrow (attempting suicide as part of the flight) and eventually finds his way, inexplicably, to Trinity College, Cambridge. All the while, he scatters pointers to his gay future: ‘I thought Axel Viale was wonderful but I wasn’t prepared for rape ... yet.’ Unbelievably, he is enrolled to assist with the war effort: ‘I never wanted to join the Navy to kill anyone, or to sink the Bismarck. I just thought it would be a turn on: a bunch of hard men bubbling away together in a pot. Also, navy blue is my best colour and I love dressing-up.’ In fact, his ship does sink the Bismarck, while our hero suffers seasickness, unaware of the heroics being performed on the upper decks.

Hayim wends his way through the Forties and Fifties. He offers unstructured narrations about unsatisfactory love affairs, his endless avoidance of work and his lingering on the periphery of a world inhabited by the famous and the artistic. There is an amusing anecdote about an encounter with Jean Genet in Venice, when Hayim introduces him to a ‘shocking’ but unspecified sexual act of apparently almost insurmountable difficulty.

Hayim’s lonely, indulgent, likeable mother seems to have been the love of his life. He is heartbroken at her death – following a fractured femur – though he is also concerned about the division and disposal of her jewellery. Searching for a durable love affair, he finds Edmond, who rejects him, and for whom Hayim eventually feels little genuine desire, though he is inspired to write Obsession, which appears to one or two good reviews. ‘I felt born again. I’d become someone at last.’ But the novel does not sell, except in Hong Kong, where his horrified Uncle Albert buys all available copies and shreds them. At 50, Hayim threatens to expose his father’s adulterous ways to Hong Kong society before killing himself, unless he gives him the money with which to buy a flat. The tantrum is successful, and the child is appeased with £20,000. The death of Ellis Hayim concludes the story.

Sylvia Fraser’s father always wore a white shirt, navy suit and red tie to his job as a steel inspector. He was a regular churchgoer who did not allow drinking or smoking in his house – the house in which he sexually assaulted his ‘favourite’ younger daughter from her infancy to her adolescent years.

Fraser is a Canadian novelist with four acclaimed books to her credit and she uses novelistic techniques here to alarming effect. We are not spared the details of the child’s awful impressions of her father: ‘His belly heaves like the sunfish I saw on the beach at Van Wagners. Something hard pushes up against me, then between my legs and under my belly. It burst all over me in a sticky stream.’ To cope with this, the child (Fraser studiously avoids using her own name and gives pseudonyms to the other friends and family she describes) creates and is dimly aware of another self, which enables her to live an otherwise normal life: ‘She knew everything about me. I knew nothing about her.’ This protective mechanism resides deep in Fraser’s psyche, re-emerging in explosive fashion later in her life to allow her to reconstruct and comprehend the incest she suffered.

By all outward signs, the childhood and adolescence Fraser describes are quite normal. She is seen as academically bright, striving to align herself in the world of her contemporaries. She becomes a school cheerleader and forms ‘The Golden Amazons’, a girl gang, with her friends. Yet all this happens under the shadow of ‘the house that knew’, where she dare not invite her companions.

At High School a further division of her personality becomes apparent: ‘Appearances’, a persona that would seem normal in any adolescence, is heavily made-up, popular, and pursued by loud aggressive boys. She pours her energy into social gigging and keeps a date-filled notebook, but she is fearful of intimacy with boys, and lives under threat of the sexual contact forced on her by her father. At last she finds salvation with Danny, who is unaware of the previous situation with the father: ‘He holds me, binding the pieces of myself together, allowing me to heal.’ The ‘Appearances’ contrivance is dismantled and in 1957 Fraser enters the University of Ontario. She and Danny agree to marry, but the idea of becoming pregnant is abhorrent to her. At her wedding, she scorns white and dresses in beige. ‘Other Self’ returns as she takes her father’s arm and walks down the aisle. Her memories of the ceremony and wedding night are obliterated: ‘Sexual initiation is the territory of my other self. She-who-would-not-wear-white has been summoned to stand fierce guard over her own secrets.’

Fraser becomes a journalist and enjoys several years of happiness, married to Danny: ‘Life was everything I dreamt it could be. I devoured it.’ When the magazine closes, she writes a novel, Pandora, and uses key facts about her family, suggesting child molestation and suicide. Through Pandora, her forgotten Other Self ‘had acquired a voice’. She considers adultery, believing Other Self to be seeking a ‘daddy-substitute’, and has an affair with the father of an old schoolfriend. Her real father becomes ill, and she reluctantly visits him in a nursing-home. She confesses her affair to Danny; in fine novelistic style re-creates the moments that marked the dissolution of her childless marriage. Her father dies. At the funeral the family minister speaks of ‘this gentle Christian, this fine example to us all’.

Time to face the past. She becomes ill and has a hysterectomy: ‘I couldn’t shake the disconcerting belief that I had aborted Satan’s child.’ As she recovers, the repressed memories of her childhood surface, and she begins to seek the ‘other self’ which is central to this remarkable testimony.