True Stories

Michael Irwin

  • Have the men had enough? by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 251 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3400 3
  • Aurora’s Motive by Erich Hackl, translated by Edna McCown
    Cape, 117 pp, £10.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 224 02584 8
  • The Open Door by Alan Sillitoe
    Grafton, 358 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 246 13422 4

Fiction derives from facts as paper derives from trees, but in either case the transformation can be left incomplete. While many a novel of the past twenty years or so has hinted or advertised its fictionality, others have asserted in various ways their entanglement with real life. The three works to be discussed here are of this latter kind, fibrous with circumstance. The characteristic could be seen alternatively as a strength or a limitation. It suggests relevance, authenticity: a real-life problem has been addressed, a true story transliterated. These are no mere flights of the imagination. But to claim so much, even by implication, is to invite a potentially damaging counter-argument. Why has ‘imagination’ been invoked at all? Would not the work in question be yet more authoritative and persuasive as frank documentary or autobiography?

At the centre of Have the men had enough?, a relentlessly monocentric work, is Grandma, who suffers from senile dementia. In the moderate stage of the illness she still remembers the names and faces of those close to her, and can look after herself physically. But the degeneration that is diagnosed as inevitable gradually drains away her personality and her surviving levels of competence. In an intermediate phase her memory has virtually gone: ‘She does not know if she has eaten recently or what she ate. She could not recognise a comb, a brush, a jug. She cannot put her shoes on or a cardigan.’ She can still walk and talk, and is continent. But the doctor can affirm that she will lose all these capacities. As his prognostications are proved correct, Margaret Forster charts the efforts of Grandma’s family to cope with their growing problem.

Most of the practical responsibility falls to three female members of that family. Of her two sons, Stuart, a policeman, thinks she should be in a council home: ‘Grandma had paid her taxes and was entitled and that was that.’ Charlie, a successful broker, is willing to pay the rent for the house where she lives, and to hire a variety of helpers or minders, but it is his sister Bridget, a nurse, who shares that house and looks after her with tireless devotion. For practical help she must rely largely on Charlie’s wife, Jenny, and his 17-year-old daughter, Hannah.

These two tell the story, in alternating chapters, from their different perspectives. Hannah is fond of her grandmother and, for a time at least, takes a simple moral line: of course she belongs to the family and must be personally cared for. Why, indeed, should she not live with them? Jenny, less personally attached to her mother-in-law, and categorically unwilling to share a house with her, is yet full of respect for her, and anxious to offer her as comfortable a way of life as circumstances will permit. But circumstances permit less and less as Grandma’s condition deteriorates. Who is to care for her when Bridget takes a holiday? It is difficult to find a temporary companion, even at £250 a week. Various homes for the elderly are inspected and found wanting. In any case the best of them will not admit the severely demented. What are the facilities on offer in such cases? What is the kindest course of action?

Have the men had enough? seems to provide a complete if depressing answer to such questions, but its comprehensiveness depends on the sympathy-shrivelling datum that the family are sufficiently well-heeled to be able to choose from the full spectrum of available possibilities, private as well as public. Charlie thinks nothing of shelling out £20,000 a year on his mother. Many a reader would envy his plight.

What is admirable in the book nonetheless is the scrupulous exposition of a widespread and formidable problem that doesn’t obviously lend itself to literary presentation. Aspect after aspect is considered: arthritis, bad feet, Talls, clothes, incontinence, the arguments for and against euthanasia. There is a prevailing honesty that makes one trust the detailed accounts of the ‘homes’ that are visited. But to say so is virtually to admit that the book seems rooted in documentary rather than imaginative truth. There is a whiff of the notebook about much of the description:

We all troop out and cross the hall and go through what looks, in passing, like a pleasant sitting-room with chintzy chairs, into another room at the back. It has a black-and-white checked floor and is full of easels. At each easel there is an old woman, wearing a smock. Some have paintbrushes in their hands and are managing to dip them occasionally into paint and splodge on the paper in front of them.

Such a passage would be equally at home in a Guardian article or, translated into visual terms, in a television programme.

This emphasis entails a corresponding weakness in the personal side of the story. Grandma has little left in the way of personality, and the documentary pressures behind the novel leave little space for retrospect. One senses that in this area the author has imagined more than she has communicated. The occasional Scottish locution and a tendency to quote Burns are too little to recapitulate the old lady’s Glaswegian past. She is less a character than a moral Bull worker for her relatives.

The two aspects of the novel that most obviously pull against this documentary drift would seem to cancel out. There are recurrent suggestions that the failure of the men concerned to involve themselves sufficiently is somehow typical. Any man would be likely to regard such a problem as ‘women’s work’. But there is also a belated and rather gingerly hint that this particular Grandma reaped as she had sown: she ‘didn’t like men’ and hence loved her sons less than she loved her daughter. Neither of these possibilities is dramatised with sufficient energy to make it interesting, but in any case the two can hardly co-exist.

Aurora’s Motive’, more baldly, is a true story: in fact, Erich Hackl concludes by listing his main sources. His tale is startling and intriguing. Aurora Rodriguez, born 1890, daughter of a Spanish attorney of advanced political opinions, develops in adolescence idiosyncratic views about sexual politics and child-rearing. When she comes of age she advertises for a man to father the child she proposes to bring up alone. Eventually a priest who serves with the Merchant Navy is accepted as a suitable ‘physiological colleague’, and a daughter is born: Hildegart, ‘garden of wisdom’. Aurora sets out to make her a prodigy, and her hothouse methods produce extraordinary results. At 13, Hildegart begins to study law at Madrid university. At 14 she becomes a political activist. By 17 she has graduated in law, entered medical school, published several books and achieved considerable fame in radical politics. But these remarkable exertions have imposed great strains on the relationship between mother and daughter. In 1933 Aurora shoots Hildegart dead, gives herself up to the authorities and is sentenced to 26 years imprisonment.

The title of the novel would seem to indicate its purpose – to suggest possible explanations for the tragic outcome of Aurora’s experiment. But if Hackl has insinuated any theories of his own, he must have done so with extreme tact, almost solely by selection and proportioning. There are no overtly explanatory passages. His narrative is as brief and spare as it could well be – in fact, it leaves massive contextual and chronological gaps that render many aspects of the story unimaginable. We don’t know what the characters look like. As Hildegart grows older, it is no longer clear what role her mother plays in her academic and political activities. Given such vacancies, the assumption must be that the materials Hackl does include, even the scanty conversational exchanges, are based on evidence of some kind. An oblique comment in his final chapter suggests that he sees his role as a restricted one: ‘In retrospect, the author finds it difficult to order and disentangle the accumulation of facts and implications.’ Ordering and disentangling can be demanding tasks, but they are tasks of the editor or the historian. Does the book indeed propose, even implicitly, some sort of imaginative diagnosis? Is there a need for one? Aurora’s motives do not seem obscure to the prosecutor at her trial: ‘The defendant, highly perverse, committed the crime for three reasons: because her daughter wished to lead an independent life; because Hildegart had fallen in love; because Hildegart had turned her back on politics.’ Counsel for the accused pleads that his client is suffering from mental illness, a defence that Aurora herself promptly and bluntly rejects. Since the narrative has offered so little evidence from which an alternative hypothesis might be derived, the prosecutor’s account seems not unreasonable. Hackl seems to have provided much more than a deft synopsis of the available facts. Aurora’s Motive tells an arresting and salutary story well, but it can’t properly be described as a novel.

The Open Door is entangled with reality in a different way. Its hero, Brian Seaton, returns to his native Nottingham in 1949, after serving with the RAF in Malaya. Increasingly absorbed in reading and writing, he is directionless, reluctant to resume the pub-and-factory life he used to know. Before his demobilisation is complete, he is found to be suffering from tuberculosis and obliged to spend a long period in an RAF hospital. Eventually discharged with a disability pension, he goes to France, determined to make his living as a writer. As the cover of the novel will remind those who don’t already know, these biographical details all apply to the author of the novel, Alan Sillitoe. This is to be a candidly, if not straightforwardly autobiographical work.

It is also the concluding volume in the series that began with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Arthur Seaton, the leading figure in that novel, has here only a walk-on part, as Brian’s 14-year-old brother. But there are a number of echoes, presumably deliberate, of the earlier work. Ma Bull is already on the prowl. In the pub a drunk rolls down the stairs. As Arthur is later to do, Brian appropriates his father’s polling-card in order to register an illegitimate vote. Brian shares his brother’s passionate unwillingness to be categorised, explained or understood. Like Arthur, he is an instinctive liar, but with the saving grace that his lies can be transmuted into fiction.

Since Joyce is one of the many authors shown to have an influence on Brian Seaton, it wouldn’t be pretentious to suggest that The Open Door stands in rather the same relationship to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as does Portrait of the Artist to Dubliners. Arthur is left entangled in the nets of Nottingham working class-life that Brian is able to fly past. Most of Brian’s experiences on revisiting his native town are thwarting or stifling. He sees his illness as an instinctive self-protective reaction: ‘When the troopship steamed up Southampton Water his existence entered a cul-de-sac, every prospect unthinkable, impossible to go back to a factory routine and a flat marriage. Something had to change, so his spirit had induced the body to lie him low, and then cast him so many fathoms down that he could only surface into a half-charted country which he nevertheless had a right to inhabit, because he had always felt in his dreams that such a land belonged to him.’ But the full process of extrication is a lengthy one, extending well beyond his illness and involving a variety of relationships and habits of thought.

There are four main areas of interest in the novel: Brian’s Nottingham life, his development as a writer, his illness and his relationships with women. The last theme proves the least rewarding. This is partly because the narrative is presented so insistently from Brian’s point of view that it isn’t easy to infer how attractive or otherwise he might appear to others. We don’t know what he looks like or sounds like. The five women concerned, starting with his wife, remove themselves from his life with convenient and unconvincing celerity. Only one of them, Lillian, a fellow-sufferer from tuberculosis, is interestingly individualised. Her literally feverish couplings with Brian are the only sexual episodes in the book that don’t seem imaginatively perfunctory.

On the other hand, the disorientation of Brian’s lapse into illness and recovery from it is powerfully conveyed. Still more striking are certain aspects of his development as a writer. Just as Joyce, in Portrait of the Artist, provides specimens of his youthful writing, so Sillitoe includes Brian’s long account of a jungle expedition in Malaysia. It is wonderfully judged, full of vitality, with stylistic naivities, like knots in wood, that authenticate it and lend it further charm:

The first hot meal for thirty hours of hard going was cooked by Len Knotman. By seven, when it began to get dark, four of us turned in, and I for one fell asleep immediately. Before it got dark we found a large insect, resembling a grasshopper, with a body about two inches in length and one inch in diameter. From this nucleus, coloured light green, were spread feelers several inches long. It was crawling along a slab of rock on which we intended spreading one of the beds, so it was found necessary to get rid of this unwelcome visitor. Len Knotman hit it with the butt of a rifle, but it only squeaked, and continued to roam over our camping space. Baker solved the problem by firing at it with the twelve bore. That was the last we saw of it.

There is a sense in which the freshness and unself-consciousness of this episode is too strong for the larger context. As the novel proceeds, one can come to regret the drift away from that younger, more exuberant, sensibility. An artist’s self-portrait always runs the risk of being unendearing in its solipsism. Seaton moves towards an increasingly defensive and grudging position: ‘All you could do was find out as much about yourself as possible, and keep out of everybody’s way for as long as they would let you, while at the same time trying to discover what you could about them.’ Given that programme, the occasional passage of self-excoriation – ‘he had acted in a manner unbecoming a human being’ – is likely to seem no more than a gesture. The Artist does what the Artist has to do. And moves on.

Such a self-portrait also suffers from a built-in limitation, or contradiction of a conceptual kind. We’re invited to take an interest in the experiences described because they conduce to the evolution of a writer. But that writer is a fiction, Seaton or Dedalus – not, after all, Sillitoe or Joyce. Moreover, the art which those experiences will sponsor is at a further remove from reality. The fictional Seaton rearranges and rewrites his fictitious life to create fiction: ‘Every morning, with a full fountain pen and a stack of paper before him, he wrote about Dick Spoak (instead of Boak) and those who went to his house, but he varied their relationships. Anne Jones fought with her husband, and Grace Rutland visited her boyfriend at his cottage in the country. In the story he made out that the person who was himself was in love with Anne, who in the end went away with Jim Bailey.’ Why should we care about the artistic evolution of a writer of non-existent novels? The answer has to be our sense of a real-life referent. Sillitoe would seem to be suggesting, for all the built-in disclaimers, that he experienced some such development, and was driven by some such impulses.

So why not a straightforward autobiography? Presumably Sillitoe (or Joyce) would claim that there could be no such thing. Reality can’t be cornered and confronted – only glimpsed through reflections. The ‘real’ Sillitoe is to be apprehended in The Open Door through the telling, through the style. The medium is a markedly individual one that moves easily from straight, even plodding, narrative to bold transitions, ellipses, assimilations. As one reads this novel, the lurking question must be: what do these miscellaneous experiences, these townscapes, these conversations, these sexual involvements add up to? What do they represent? It is through his very mode of writing, not through biographical correspondences, that Sillitoe asserts: ‘They represent me.’