Dark Strangers, Gorgeous Slums

Philip Horne

  • Off the Rails: Memoirs of a Train Addict by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Bloomsbury, 193 pp, £12.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 7475 0011 8
  • The Marble Mountain, and Other Stories by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Cape, 126 pp, £10.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 224 02597 X
  • The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated by Barbara Bray
    Boyars, 125 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 7145 2880 3
  • Motherland by Timothy O’Grady
    Chatto, 230 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3341 4
  • A Lesser Dependency by Peter Benson
    Macmillan, 146 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 333 49093 2

Travel is sometimes supposed to broaden the mind, impending death to concentrate it. Travel is more desirable than impending death, but it is usually harder to arbitrate between the claims of mental breadth and concentration. Reading Off the Rails by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, however, a memoir in which she brings us up to date with her 35-year ‘lifetime of truancy and escape’, a career of spontaneously marrying, travelling and writing, will make many readers feel that the loss of some sorts of breadth is not to be deeply regretted. The first third of the book, which takes us up to 1984, works best: because the author has already written about many of its strange experiences in her fiction; because it clips along with extreme rapidity; and because the exotic wanderings and encounters it records lie sufficiently in the past to allow due ironic distance. It has remarkable passages. The rest of the book is a different story – though it might be thought to tell the same story through rosier-tinted spectacles.

‘Lisa’, as the blurbs of both her new books insinuatingly call her, portrays herself as possessed from the age of six by a compulsion to travel on trains in pursuit of interesting strangers – strangers who seem to stand for her own cosmopolitan South American father, ‘the personification of too many women’s dreams of a tall, dark stranger’. What is painful for the reader of these memoirs is the way in which the writing about the recent past and the present in the latter two-thirds of the book cannot muster the urbanity or control of the opening. We are told of her mother’s death, of the break-up of her marriage to the poet George MacBeth, of the obsessively repeated train-journeys in Italy with her infant son which were her way of fending off (or having) a nervous breakdown, and of her incipient relationship with the painter Robbie Scott-Duff (whose painting of her is on the cover of The Marble Mountain) – all in an inflationary style of uneasy melodramatic overstatement which veers between confession and self-justification.

The tone sometimes becomes strenuously entertaining, as when ‘the trains quicken, and the plot thickens,’ or when a beautiful young Greek proposes to her on an acquaintance of a few hours, and she locks herself in a ship’s bathroom, ‘feeling upstaged’ in spite of her self-image as ‘Miss Impulsive, or, rather, Mrs Impulsive’. The cultivation of idiosyncrasy – Edwardian costume, stiletto heels, bulky antique leather luggage, an ‘entourage’ and an unusual tolerance for down-and-outs – can look like posturing (not least in the pose she strikes for the cover photo): thus her daughter is happy to go along with Lisa’s cross-Channel scramble back to Robbie because ‘she understands my heart.’ On occasion breathlessness becomes gormless and unpleasantly thoughtless: ‘I love to go slumming in Chicago. It has such gorgeous slums.’

Fortunately, for Lisa St Aubin de Teran has real gifts, the writing in The Marble Mountain benefits from the concentration of the brief form, and from the threat or arrival of death in most of the tales. The gushy idiom of the interview or women’s magazine feature is held off; the writer’s preoccupations with violence, with strangers, with compulsive restlessness, with relations between mothers and daughters, with family plots that repeat through the generations, are varied, framed and controlled without tonal slippages of the kind which sabotage Off the Rails. Some of the most successful stories are very nasty. ‘I never eat crabmeat now’ has a disturbed, excluded husband address a fantasising, fugitive wife who has taken flight from England with an entourage of children and a sexy teenage nanny and gone to pieces in Normandy next to a nuclear power station. The husband comes over to the rescue, and finds the youngest of the volume’s dead children glued by his own juices to the inside of his pram, festering and being wheeled around on the hot empty beach by ‘the twins’, feyly insouciant eight-year-olds who seem to be taking after their mad mother. The nanny seems to have been raped by locals and has disappeared. Back in England at the end, the husband is left muttering, inadequately but truly: ‘I don’t know what to do with you.’

‘Miss Lizzie and the Musical Rats’ begins with another fugitive mother, engaged in custody battles for her child, taking refuge for the winter in a remote Norfolk holiday cottage after a period of international wandering. The cottage turns out to be full of hundreds of the wrong sort of ‘small furry animals’, for whom, as for herself, it is a ‘stopping-place’ (a verifiable ‘phenomenum’ in natural history, as a rat-catcher informs her). They are all too fond of children. The story draws much power from the tension between the gruesome practicalities of infestation and the insidious guilts and anxieties of young, newly – single motherhood. The poison used dehydrates the rats ‘from the lungs out’, and ‘makes them gasp’: as a result, in its hollow walls, ‘the whole cottage was haunted by the sound. It almost seemed to whisper her name, over and over, with a slurred, gasping, rasping appeal of pain and desperation.’ The stories in the volume move confidently and with great speed over a considerable range of subjects, building up a composite picture of tragic confinement, of compulsive repetition, of lives in which the different either never appears or, when it does, turns out to be the same again, or the terrible.

Situations in which the point is that not much changes work well for short fiction, since the brevity doesn’t seem to involve leaving much out. Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s short and strangely enjoyable first novel The Bathroom (1986, he has brought out two more since) very noticeably returns to its point of departure by concluding with an almost exact repetition of a passage near the beginning. Its hero is a young Belgian (like Toussaint himself) who increasingly takes to his bathroom in a wryly ascetic search for clarity of perception, trying to catch mortality in the act of encroaching. He performs experiments. ‘I’d study the surface of my face in a pocket mirror and at the same time keep count of the hand going round on my watch. But my face didn’t show anything. Ever.’ Like Lisa St Aubin de Teran and her heroines, he takes a train to Italy on impulse, leaving behind in Paris his girlfriend Edmondsson: not with an eye to meeting exotic strangers, though – he loves Edmondsson extremely – nor to broaden his horizons, but in order to get away from distractions.

He passes his time on the train to Venice, not feasting out of ‘a hamper and a flask of brandy and a suitcase full of giant-size Toblerones’, but austerely concentrating on motion and decay:

I’d spent the night in a compartment of a train, alone with the light out. Not moving. Yet all I could feel was motion: the self-evident external motion carrying me along despite my own immobility, and the almost imperceptible internal motion of my own disintegrating body. I started to concentrate on the latter movement to the exclusion of all else, tried with all my might to hold onto it. But how? And where was it to be found? The slightest gesture was a distraction.

Attempting to hold onto epiphanies expressing disintegration, the hero goes to pieces. In Venice he reads Pascal in an English edition that’s lying around, and especially, it seems, the sub-section ‘Le Divertissement’ in the ‘Misère de l’Homme’ section of the Pensées, where Pascal persuasively claims to have discovered ‘that all the unhappiness of men comes from one cause alone, which is not knowing how to stay peacefully in a room.’ Edmondsson comes down to Venice to his rescue, but while she goes out to concerts and places of interest, he stays in the hotel room, his chosen stopping-place, lying on the bed or playing darts in pursuit of the right state of mind and body.

Whenever I played darts I was calm and relaxed. I felt soothed. A sense of nothingness gradually stole over me, and I concentrated on it until all traces of tension disappeared from my mind. Then, in a flash, I’d launch the dart at the board.

This is only apparent ‘relaxation’, though, the mark of an obsessional state, and, irrationally, when Edmondsson tries to distract him from his darts and get him to return to Paris, ‘I hurled a dart at her with all my might and it stuck in her forehead.’ He is much distressed at his (not fatal) act, which follows the account of a moment of extreme despair and seems to be its consequence.

In the middle of the night, he tells us, he would sometimes put his hand on Edmondsson’s arm. ‘I’d ask her to console me. She would gently ask me what I wanted to be consoled for.’ This exchange is glossed in the next paragraph, which cites Pascal in English: ‘But when I thought more deeply, and after I had found the cause for all our distress, I wanted to discover its reason. I found out there was a valid one, which consists in the natural distress of our weak and mortal condition, and so miserable, that nothing can console us, when we think it over.’ Even in his favourite ice-cream sundae, a ‘white lady’, the hero has found an emblem of disintegration.

I watched the white lady melting. Watched the vanilla melt imperceptibly under the topping of hot chocolate. Watched the scoop of ice-cream, almost perfectly round a moment ago, dissolve slowly in even, hybrid trickles of brown and white. I watched movement, myself unmoving, my eyes fixed on the dish. My hands lay stiff on the table, and I tried with all my might to keep still, to hold onto immobility. But I could feel motion oozing over my body too.

The immobile is in a fixed, restful state, whereas ‘motion, however swift it may seem, tends essentially towards immobility, and thus, however slowly it may sometimes appear to do so, continually conducts bodies towards death.’

The Bathroom may sound offputtingly morbid, but the hero’s ascetic project and mild misanthropy do not inhibit a dry comedy of social and domestic detail which leads another character to attribute to him ‘an English sense of humour’. When a dispute about what colour to paint the kitchen is going on, his sociable conscience leads him to chip in: ‘In order to make some contribution to the conversation, I said I personally didn’t think anything.’ When he and Edmondsson go to meet the previous tenants of their flat they take a bottle of Bordeaux.

The male previous tenant, a distinguished-looking chap, inspected the bottle and said it was a very nice wine but – with a propitiatory laugh – he preferred Burgundy. I said that for my part I didn’t much care for the way he was dressed. He smiled awkwardly and blushed. A certain coolness then ensued, to tell the truth, and conversation flagged.

The not quite impassive behaviour of the inwardly tense narrator here is typical of the book’s measured surface; its studied neutrality turns out to conceal impressive intelligence, deep-seated metaphysical anxiety and real passion. The Bathroom is a powerful, sympathetic debut, which contains, apart from Pascal and Mondrian, a certain amount of sex and a generous ration of sport – football, cycling and tennis. It is being turned into a film.

Toussaint arranges his narrative in three parts, three ‘sides’ in fact, each with numbered paragraphs: Paris, The Hypotenuse (Venice) and Paris (40, 80 and 50 paragraphs respectively). His epigraph is the most famous dictum of Pascal’s great predecessor as a mathematician-mystic: ‘The square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides’ (I was unable to work out the bearing of this on the book: surely we need ten fewer Venetian paragraphs?) Pythagoras, spokesman for the doctrine of metempsychosis, of the fusion of identities across history, is the abiding spirit of Timothy O’Grady’s extraordinary first novel, Motherland. It may suggest the scope and texture of this risky, ambitious, consciously Irish work, which broadens and concentrates its protagonist’s mind by having him travel about in Ireland and back in time, to quote the hero’s mentor speculating on why the 12th-century Norman Bertrand de Paor, the novel’s prime authority figure, so admired Pythagoras.

I believe it was because Pythagoras was both a logician and a mystic. He discovered the rule of right-angled triangles and at the same time two of the principal tenets of his society were abstention from beans and the injunction not to sit on a quart measure. Can you credit that? How did he reconcile these things? ... He thought with his whole being. He was a repository of reason and unreason, unlike others who came after him who regarded the two as exclusive.

There would be no point in denying the presence of a healthy leavening of blarney in this passionately articulate novel, which takes certain surreal premises as read in order to conduct its mythic discussion of Irish histories. To grant these premises for the duration of a reading is in this case, as it is not in much ‘playful’ fiction, to be carried with great momentum into an unfamiliar but internally consistent world, where serious, intelligent fantasy is the medium for an all-encompassing attempt at wisdom and reconciliation in the face of centuries of slaughter and waste.

Pythagoras appears here as reconciling opposites and inspiring the Norman wisdom of Bertrand. The myth of origin which O’Grady proposes, registered in the huge family book which the bloated 42-year-old mother’s boy of a narrator struggles to decipher and interpret, is itself a myth of racial reconciliation reaching back beyond the usual records of animosity and atrocity. Like Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill, bringing home to modern children the origins of the English race in alliance and friendship between the Saxon Hugh and the Norman invader Sir Richard, O’Grady, whose political opinions are mostly unlike Kipling’s, brings home to his infantile though middle-aged detective-clairvoyant hero the origin of his Irish family in a vision of the lyrical coupling of the Norman Hervey Synnott with the Celtic Emer MacDiarmuid, an act of union which practically embodies the tragically doomed scheme of Bertrand. Bertrand’s experiment, a mixed-race commune, ‘is essentially an attempt to strike a harmonious balance between the characteristics of our race and those of our hosts, which I perceive at present to be diametrically opposed’. He foresees the terrible consequences of failure in the long Irish future: ‘these sets of opposites will become so prominent that the way in which they are handled by their representatives will determine how life is to be lived here for many centuries to come.’ They have in the event been handled with disastrous crudity, and O’Grady, who is now based in London after living in Chicago and Dublin, sympathetically investigates in Bertrand’s eloquent exposition the Pythogorean perception that if ‘you can truly see, you will comprehend that that which is your opposite is in possession of something which you lack, which may in fact be your complement.’

Motherland’s epigraph is from the second canto of the Inferno, where Dante follows Virgil on ‘that savage path’, and the quest of the fat, childish narrator, ‘a journey without a known endpoint or even a method by which to plot a course’, is also undertaken in the company of a guiding authority, a wise but embittered mentor who seems to to be a modern equivalent of Bertrand. The reference to Dante and his encounter with Virgil may appropriately recall T.S. Eliot’s meeting with the ‘familiar compound ghost’ in ‘Little Gidding’; or more recently, and Irishly, we may think of the admonitions received from the ghost of William Carleton in Station Island (l984) by Seamus Heaney, a translator of Dante:

you have to try to make sense of what comes.
 Remember everything and keep your head.

The attempt to make sense, and unity, out of a chaotic and divided history, is the heroic striving of O’Grady’s fine book. If the blend of history and mysticism recalls Eliot, there would also be a parallel with Kipling’s Kim, where the aged lama shows the young Irish Kim (short for Kimball O’Hara) ‘the Way’, a meditative route to truth, while on an unmethodical pilgrimage through a tumultuous nation seeking the site of a long-past event. Both novels end with a reconciling vision and a new freedom, the completion of a rite of passage; in the case of Motherland, there is a moving discovery of twinship and complementarity between North and South, the emotionally satisfying resolution of one of the mysteries the narrator has needed to understand. The claims of family are touchingly met and properly transcended.

Motherland is a bewilderingly complex work, demanding but generous in return. It is far from certain that its surreal abundance of weird detail is all essential to the necessary complexity of a rendering of O’Grady’s complex concerns: but everything is made interesting, and the plotting of its bizarre action is a triumphant correlative of the ornate design on the cover of the Synnott family book: ‘ingeniously intricate, wayward and explosive, so that each individual tooled line pursued its course through astonishing convolutions to its own unpredictable end.’

In Peter Benson’s second novel, A Lesser Dependency, the plotting is less intricate and the end less unpredictable, while there is little pressure to reconciliation. Rather than the complex and centuries-long colonial dispossession of the Irish by the Normans, its subject is a single act of dispossession, the expulsion of 1800 Ilois from the island of Diego Garcia in 1971, by the British. The novel is based, that is, on very recent history – we should say perhaps on one view of recent history. It caps the sad story of its central characters’ dwindling with a historical paragraph, stating what are to be taken as bare facts with a subdued fury the reader is supposed to share. The paragraph begins: ‘In 1965, the British Government had delivered their terms for Mauritius’s independence from the Empire. These terms hinged on the premise that Mauritius relinquish the Lesser Dependency of the Chagos Archipelago to the UK in exchange for £3 million.’ I understand, though, that it is a matter of dispute whether the Labour government in question did indeed make this relinquishment so fundamental a condition; and it weakens this novel artistically that Benson, eschewing narrative structures which could accommodate political argument, has such an obvious axe to grind on what he presents as the facts.

This is a pity, for the novel is touching as a sentimental pastoral of the Third World, a Deserted Village of the Indian Ocean. The life of the nuclear family on Diego Garcia before the British Government leases it to the Americans for nuclear defence is quaintly and affectionately shown as prelapsarian innocence, with enough anthropological detail of the entirely illiterate Ilois’ rituals and beliefs and decencies to mitigate the charge of idealisation. The descent into beggary, disease, prostitution, and above all hopeless pining for home, in the Mauritian slums of Port Louis, where the Ilois are dumped after depatriation, is horribly plausible.

There are proper reasons for an English novelist to tackle this subject: whatever the truth about the details, it seems beyond doubt that a cruel injustice was done with too little public attention; and the Ilois themselves can hardly write an account, since they seem to be either illiterate and deeply confused or dead. Yet Benson does little with the contrast between innocent, unwitting, suffering, alien Ilois and corrupt, deceitful, Western, familiar administrations and officials, beyond thrusting it in our face with aggressive faux-naïf sarcasm: ‘Leonard ... spat into the lagoon. “One of the finest natural harbours in the world” – he didn’t know that. Others did, though – some people who ate coconuts with forks and did polite things with napkins.’

A Lesser Dependency can be read as a negative, or reversed, Blue Lagoon, in which the boy and girl, as in the de Vere Stacpoole, lose their parents and are marooned far from home to face life as they have never conceived it. Only here their point of origin is the blue lagoon, and the rites of passage they go through belong to the depraved commercial civilisation the book deplores. In Port Louis sex becomes commercial, not natural (‘On Diego Garcia, sex had not been sold’); young Leonard despairs and comes to grief. Benson strikes the Stacpudlian note, in updated form, when he lyrically appeals to biochemistry for the father’s natural right to fish in Diego Garcia: ‘Generations of Ilois had bred absolute knowledge of the lagoons and waters around the island; every reef and headland was traced into his genes. The strength of the currents there, the depth of water here.’ It seems to me that this mention of ‘genes’, which corresponds to nothing else in the novel, betrays a serious difficulty of cultural perspective, a failure of literary self-consciousness at a point where it would have helped. Even so, A Lesser Dependency shows a generous heart and tells a distressing story of outrage, of enforced travel which intolerably broadens innocent minds, and of death which painfully concentrates them to no apparent end.