What time is it?

Michael Wood

  • Dreams of Roses and Fire by Eyvind Johnson, translated by Erik Friis
    Dedalus, 384 pp, £11.95, December 1988, ISBN 0 946626 40 5
  • Women in a River Landscape by Heinrich Böll, translated by David McLintock
    Secker, 208 pp, £10.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 436 05460 4
  • The Standard Life of a Temporary Pantyhose Salesman by Aldo Busi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal
    Faber, 430 pp, £12.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 571 14657 0

‘If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca,’ Humphrey Bogart moodily asks in a famous movie, ‘what time is it in New York?’ The answer is not as obvious as it looks. Time, especially political time, has snags, hitches, runs; lags behind in some places, suddenly catches up. Reading translations, which have often travelled to us across all kinds of odd delays, we could do worse than adapt Bogart’s question to our texts. If it’s February 1989 in England, what time is it in Sweden, Germany, Italy?

In Sweden it’s 1949, as far as the publication date of Eyvind Johnson’s remarkable novel is concerned, but then things get a little complicated, because the novel is set in 17th-century France, and concerns the devils of Loudun – Aldous Huxley published his account of this celebrated case in 1952. In fact, we have to jump over two largish fences to get to Johnson’s book at all. In America it was published (in 1984) as an instance of ‘Nordic Literature’; in England it is offered to us now as a ‘masterpiece of fantasy’. It is Nordic only in the sense that its author is Swedish, and it is not a work of fantasy in any sense. It is a complex, amusing and passionate historical novel, an eloquent gesture of the European liberal imagination – if the liberal imagination particularly knows, in Lionel Trilling’s words, ‘that the world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place.’ Johnson takes a sane look at an insane age – but all ages are insane, he would say – and offers not hope but whatever comfort is to be found in lucidity and scepticism.

Johnson was born in 1900 and died in 1976; he won the Nobel Prize in 1974. He edited an underground magazine in Sweden during the Second World War, but lived in France and Germany for much of his life. Part of his novel is narrated in a speculative, ironic present tense, the voice of a man who has just got out of a demonic glasshouse and is not in a position to throw stones. ‘How can we at this early stage in the history of mankind ... we who have not progressed further than the atom bomb – get an overview of cause and effect in ... such sensitive material as nerve fibres and souls?’ Johnson seems interested not so much in telling or understanding his ghastly story as in testing its historical reality, contemplating the contorted but nonetheless human faces of its cast. ‘We cannot assert that we can see the demons,’ he says. ‘Nor can we deny the possibility that someone saw them clearly right there or that someone will see them clearly in the future.’ No easy belief then, but no easy dismissal either. Even the most determined rationalist would have to admit, particularly in 1949, that people do see demons now and again, whether the demons exist or not.

But did the nuns of Loudun see them? They were sure they did. ‘What do we know about her?’ Johnson asks of the Prioress of the Ursulines Convent. ‘She was possessed. This was her strongest, most genuine, most profound consciousness. She was possessed.’ We can doubt almost anything, but not this conviction. Yet it is a conviction with no object, or with only a false object, a possession without a possessor. The nuns’ claim was that they were beset and raped by demons, led into obscene pacts, all at the behest of the Jesuit priest Urbain Grandier (called Urbain Grainier in the novel), a powerful, haughty and attractive man. Grandier/Grainier was certainly guilty of arrogance and of breaking his vows of celibacy, and of standing in Richelieu’s way. But he seems to have had nothing at all to do with the nuns. The demons were born of an unholy alliance between the nuns’ repression and certain twists in French politics. The exorcists got the nuns to confess whatever was needed, and in 1634 Grandier was tortured – the tortures are described by Johnson in casual, hairraising detail – and then burned. This priest is one of the central figures in Johnson’s novel – far more central than the nuns. He has, as he says, helped himself to too much of life: this can’t be wrong, he would like to think, but must be dangerous. He knows his enemies are persecuting him because they need his submission or death, although even they believe he is innocent of witchcraft; but he knows, too, that he is not innocent of desire, of the rabid longings which also torment the crazed nuns. He almost thinks that he has brought the devils to Loudun, at least metaphorically, in rousing passions which he may not share but which he is pleased to have roused. But he hasn’t. He is not a sorcerer, only a man not trying to be an angel, and it is this acknowledgement which allows him to suffer and die with impeccable courage, accepting none of the charges against him and forgiving all his enemies.

The other central figure is less heroic, a careful counterpart to Grainier’s lordly poise. He is Daniel Drouin, a vain and fussy but likeable government official, fond of his wine and his absinthe, proud of his ability to get along with both Catholics and Huguenots. There is some sharp and intelligent dialogue in this novel, and interior monologue for several characters, but the chief voice we hear, apart from that of the rather helpless 20th-century narrator, is Daniel’s. He writes a diary, and what he calls protocols, memoirs for a future historian: ‘I write all this down merely in order for posterity to be able to place us and our fate in a larger context.’ In fact, Daniel doesn’t say much, and what his writing reveals is not a fate or a history but the ordinary fearfulness of a man treading softly in perilous times. But although he is not a hero, Daniel is not without his moments of courage, one of which is as important to the novel as Grainier’s martyrdom. The possessed nuns are being interrogated by the exorcist, the devils supposedly speaking through the unfortunate women’s mouths, when Daniel boldly comments on the devils’ poor Latin. Voila un diable qui n’est pas congru, he says. This is apparently a historical remark, made by a bystander and reported in an early book on the case. Congru, we learn, means correct, grammatical. ‘One doesn’t have to be a demon in order not to know Latin,’ Johnson slyly adds; but then one probably isn’t a demon if one doesn’t since fluency in all tongues is an orthodox, privileged sign of demonic possession. Daniel is expressing his doubt about the existence of the devils of Loudun, a frightened man whose sanity is stronger than his fear. Johnson makes the connection for us: ‘He had more courage than we have today: we don’t dare express such a tremulous or affectedly confident doubt.’

The time of this novel, then, is both the 17th and 20th centuries – or, rather, certain moments in those centuries, and by implication in others, when hysteria became a norm and open resistance to it a feat for heroes; when a tiny wisecrack like Daniel Drouin’s could register as a significant victory for beleaguered human reason. The time of Heinrich Böll’s Women in a River Landscape is quieter, shabbier, less lurid, but also a possessed and a political time. ‘I only caught a glimpse of him,’ a woman says of a former high-ranking Nazi: ‘white-haired, distinguished, lots of Old World charm, like most surviving murderers.’ The novel was published in Germany in 1985, the year of Böll’s death, and is set in the present, when Cuba and Nicaragua fill the dreams of the European young. Some of the European young: perhaps Böll was not entirely up-to-date with the fading popularity of radical dreams. But the time here really stretches back to 1945. It is a whole post-war Germany that is being portrayed. ‘Politics,’ the woman I have just quoted says, ‘was like a deserted factory that was still completely intact, though the bosses had run away.’ This is a book about the politicians, some decent, many unscrupulous, who took over the factory and made a fortune, for themselves and their country. The women of the title are the wives and ex-wives of these men, and they know more than they can say about the returning Nazis and the price of certain collaborations. ‘You know what people think about women who tell stories ... without being able to prove anything ... It’s funny how women hardly ever tell people about things like that.’ One woman in the novel has told people, and has been sent to a rest home for her pains, a place where she can have her ‘memories corrected’. She refuses correction, and finally commits suicide. A politician underlines the lesson for us: ‘Remember – the truth always sounds incredible ... don’t forget that everything Elizabeth [the dead woman] told people was true, and that was why nobody believed her.’ The devils here are entirely grammatical, can’t be caught out, and beyond grammar there is only silence or the unheard stories of women.

There is a recurring act in the novel which rattles the grammar, comments obliquely on this smooth and wealthy world, and has something of the effect of Daniel Drouin’s wisecrack. An unknown criminal has been dismantling grand pianos in bankers’ houses, skillfully taking the instruments apart and stacking the pieces against a wall or in a fireplace. The malefactor is never caught, and his motives can only be guessed at. Has he understood, for example, the connection between music and money in the new Germany, the conversion of sweat and labour into culture? Does he know what only the brightest politicians realise: that politicians rule, while bankers control? The grand piano is perhaps a sign of the clean and orderly realm of control, a place untouched by the daily dirt of politics.

The form of Böll’s novel is graceful and inventive, a set of monologues and dialogues spoken by charcters living along the Rhine, a river with a whole cargo of German myth. It is not a powerful work, and many of the charges against the new Germany seem familiar and too easily made. The business with the grand pianos is pretty whimsical. Nevertheless, there is an engaging intelligence at work here, and a genuine sense of loss. This is a Catholic form of the liberal imagination, and it mourns not the death of God but the takeover of God, the bending of God to the needs of pomp and propaganda. Most of the characters in the novel are lapsed catholics, but they seem to have assumed that the religion would get along without them, and are horrified now to see it emptied out, a mere show. What’s wrong with the new order is not its sin and corruption, but its failure to feel sinful and corrupt. ‘They take bribes, they rejoice at the arrival of the rockets, they worship death – none of that is new. What is new is that they’re not aware of any guilt, let alone sin.’ This frame of mind may not be as new as all that, but it creates an authentic desolation in this novel, as if neither author nor characters knew where to turn, since for them a world without sin is a world without a chance of redemption.

This is precisely the world of Aldo Busi’s The Standard Life of a Temporary Pantyhose Salesman (published in Italy in 1985), which recounts three weeks or so (with copious flashbacks) in the rambling, conspiratorial existence of one Angelo Basarovi, a student in Verona, author of a dissertation on John Ashbery, dabbler in bleak homosexual affairs, and manic pursuer of fees and rake-offs for his skills as a business translator. The plot of the novel involves trips to Germany, Turkey, Scandinavia and America; traffic in a once-legal but now possibly carcinogenic drug; a Down’s Syndrome child done away with for the sake of the Aryan honour of an Italian family.

The book owes something to Wilde and Huysmans – there is a character who collects diseases and dies of ‘psychosomatic leukaemia’ (‘Everything in Jurgen was so delicately insensate that all by himself he resembled a nation in decline’), there are three children who practise taxidermy, working their way from animals to humans – but it generally has the pace and flavour of much recent American writing, the scatty, glancing quality of a hyperactive but unfocused intelligence. I’m not quite sure what we should call the successor to the liberal imagination, but this is it. The world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place and a joke. ‘Everything is possible,’ repeated in the novel and described as ‘that depressing, fatalistic sentence’, means that anything can be bought and nothing is unthinkable. ‘Legal Italy,’ Angelo reflects, ‘from industry to university, from culture to politics, was an immense geographic basin of thefts.’ Or again: ‘There must be so many ... corpses and crimes scattered through the wounded astonishment of any middling entrepreneur ...’ So many chances for blackmail, he means.

The characters and the folklore of Angelo’s world are a good way further down the road to decadence than anyone or anything in Böll’s novel, but there is a lot of quirky life in these moral ruins, even moral life of a sort. Why does Angelo find it depressing that everything should be possible, since literally the notion suggests opportunity, and he is himself such a well-adapted inhabitant of this seamy world? He knows the answer, as he knows most answers. He is a sentimentalist at heart, ‘sentimental,’ he says, ‘as only ... an arid nihilist can be.’ The phrase echoes Humbert Humbert’s ‘naive as only a pervert can be’, and there is a hint of Nabokov’s strategy here: to find morality where moralists wouldn’t dream of looking for it. I don’t mean that Angelo is likeable or a positive hero after all, only that there is a morality and politics to his survival, to his successes and defeats. If life is all theft and death, sterile and repetitive, a stuffed animal, ‘a dust of standard frustrations and a smell of phenol’, then only something like what Angelo calls a ‘political faith in life’ will maintain our energy and anger. ‘Living, not surviving, was life’s highest revenge against those who proclaimed the sacredness of some to underscore the profanity of others.’ Angelo’s sentimental, asexual liking for little girls, his attachment to mongoloid children, is an aspect of this faith, a form of value. Defending the excluded and the despised of such a world is probably better than dismantling grand pianos. Except that Angelo doesn’t manage to defend them, and has further, tangled, Machiavellian reasons of his own for trying to.

This is a very runny book, its prose full of a bounce which seems to deny the dreary scenery. ‘Few ideas but heraldic’, Angelo thinks of a woman’s sense of family pride. And of himself, growing out of his desire to be liked: ‘his narcissism has drowned in cultural anthropology.’ But you need a taste for intricate picaresque adventures in order to keep going with this story, and the final effect, curiously, is of a text which is both fast and lingering. What time is it in Busi’s Italy? Later than anywhere else we have been, and certainly later than 1989 in England. There are no devils anywhere in sight; strange that our sense of relief should be so faint.