Interesting Fellows

Walter Nash

  • The Book of Evidence by John Banville
    Secker, 220 pp, £10.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 436 03267 8
  • Carn by Patrick McCabe
    Aidan Ellis, 252 pp, £11.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 85628 180 8
  • The Tryst by Michael Dibdin
    Faber, 168 pp, £10.99, April 1989, ISBN 0 571 15450 6
  • Gerontius by James Hamilton-Paterson
    Macmillan, 264 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 333 45194 5

Take one housemaid, who interrupts you while you are making a ludicrously maladroit attempt to swaddle a stolen painting in brown paper. Fly into a sulk. Bundle the poor girl into your car, and when she protests, silence her with a hammer, noting, as you do so, that its impact on her skull is like hitting clay or hard putty. (You are brilliantly obsessed by details.) Drive thirty miles – recording, wide-eyed, the comic contingencies of a world as yet ignorant of your deed – to a patch of waste ground, where you leave the car, and the corpse, and the painting you set out to steal in the first place. Walk away, into the curious conviction that by this enormity you have liberated yourself from the burden of having to pretend to be what you are not.

Well, you are an interesting fellow, yes, indeed, and a queer fellow. Your name is Freddie Montgomery, and in prose of enviably luminous, ironic elegance you reveal your disastrous moral malfunction, an inability to relate thought to action, action to consequence, consequence to those structures of commitment and responsibility that frame the lives of less interesting fellows. It is fascinating that you express so coherently your spiritual incoherence; a symptom, perhaps, of your condition. What that is, I do not quite know, even after considering The Book of Evidence which you have laid before me. I might be tempted to use words like ‘psychotic’, or ‘psychopath’, but your creator, John Banville, would understandably resent these catch-all categories, as restrictions on the subtlety, the complexity, the truth of his creation. If it is possible to get at the truth of this elaborately inventive tale.

The elaboration is in the incidental detail; the story itself is simple enough. It tells how Freddie Montgomery (Frederick Charles St John Vanderveld Montgomery, if you please), stout, blond, of some intellect and no substance, king of the expatriate castle on a Mediterranean island, carelessly finds himself owing money to one Señor Aguirre, a local ‘businessman’ given to irregular commercial practices like cutting people’s ears off. Somewhat startled by the realisation that borrowing entails the concept of repayment, Freddie goes to seek his fortune in his native Ireland (in other words, does a runner), leaving his wife and son as hostages to the ototomic Señor Aguirre. His hopes of dunning his sly old mother for an advance on his patrimony are dashed when it turns out that she has been reduced to selling the family’s pictures to a Mr Behrens, a landed gentleman with whose daughter Freddie has a passing erotic acquaintance. It is during an exploratory visit to Whitewater, the Behrens’s house, that Freddie catches sight of a Flemish painting which fascinates him and which he feels impelled to steal: and it is in the course of this theft, planned and executed as though the thief had never heard of witnesses, that the maidservant makes her fatal entrance. After the murder, Freddie takes refuge with Charlie French, a seedy, shady dealer in art and antiques, whose innocent and touching loyalty to an old friend almost leads to his own ruin. This, however, is the end of Freddie’s run, and here he skulks until at length the Police arrive to arrest their man and remand him for trial, during which time he writes his Book of Evidence.

But what sort of evidence is it? The presiding policeman humorously rejects Freddie’s account as a fantasist’s pack of lies. We readers may think we know better, but perhaps it is in our own interest to take sides. There is something sadly familiar about Freddie’s attempts – oh, in those studied sentences, that precise diction – to retrieve the past, reinvent himself, put two and two together. He talks so convincingly, so honestly, with such banal and terrifying candour, yet nothing is discovered, nothing is truly known as the effect of a cause. The Police, baffled by this existentialist monster, ask him to explain the killing. His reply is indeed monstrous: ‘I killed her because I could, I said, what more can I say?’ And he adds: ‘We were all startled by that, I as much as they.’ It is this perception that nothing can be said that will explain, excuse, or even condemn, that subverts ordinary notions of ‘evidence’. It also compromises certain indications, towards the end of the book, of the repentance and rehabilitation that a gentle reader might crave of a kindly author. Freddie can weep, and in moments of tenderness acknowledge things done to others’ harm, but there is no way for such a morally unstructured man to achieve atonement and regeneration. What does Yeats say?

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot.

I think Freddie Montgomery might want to forgive himself, but I am not sure that he can; and that is the unresolved question at the end of a book which I judge to be at least seven-eighths of a minor masterpiece.

I brood over Yeats’s lines, over what they mean to me, what they must have meant to him. What are we to do about things never to be undone? We can seldom let bygones be bygones, seldom anywhere, never (it seems) in Ireland, where sorrows ancient and modern go down the generations like christening spoons. We know this without quite understanding it. Our view from over the water is all bombings and balaclavas and faces righteously agawp with warlike rant; the native eye is better-trained to see how intemperate passions are rooted in a heavy loam of the commonplace and the customary. In Carn, Patrick McCabe describes three decades in the life of a small Irish community. Carn is a small town situated half a mile from the Irish border, a town honoured in Republican annals for the heroism of Commandant Matt Dolan, shot dead in 1922 during a raid on the railway. Dolan has his memorial plaque, but Carn has lost its railway and might have sunk into dereliction had not James Cooney returned to his native place in the Fifties, to revive its fortunes with a meat-processing plant, a dance hall and a select tavern-cum-roadhouse. Thereafter Carn has done well enough. The lawn-mowers whirr regularly like gossips, the regular gossips loiter in the streets and shop doorways, Republican sentiments are regularly voiced, the church clock chimes regularly, it is all very regular, even the drunks are regular in their drunkenness. The young people regularly long for London or hanker after Hollywood, finding reality in soap operas, perhaps not seeing the soap opera in their own realities. In the reality of Josie Keenan, abused by her father, raised in a clay-cold, loveless, nun-fusty orphanage, escaping to England to win her bread (not by the sweat of her brow alone), and returning to Carn as the town tramp who specialises in catering for the elderly and inexerienced. In the reality of Sadie Rooney, packer of poultry products, who reads True Romances, has Elvis pinned to the wall, dreams of rocking round the clock in fabulous London, and is made pregnant by young Benny Dolan, grandson of the illustrious Commandant. In the reality of Benny himself, heir to a distressful tradition, goaded by reminders of patriotic obligation, most interested in motorbiking and gallivanting with his jolly friend Joe Noonan, whose death in a pub bombing disastrously hardens Benny’s resolve to help the border-hopping Republican ‘northmen’. The stories are skilfully entwined and their narration analyses, without superfluous comment from the author, the dangerous energies of rumour, romanticism, spoilt religion, and a sexuality not so much repressed as viciously re-routed. The gunmen are visitors among people whose lives have failed to assuage their griefs and satisfy their cravings. Again, Yeats comes to mind:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love ...

Carn is stylishly narrated, but with a chronological forthrightness that comes as a benison after some modern novels, in which time is teasingly twisted, like a Möbius strip. That would perhaps not be a fair description of Michael Dibdin’s The Tryst, but it is nevertheless a novel of complex structure, the recurrent theme of which is the operation of the past in the present. ‘The past is dead,’ psychiatrist Aileen Macklin tells her young patient, Steven Bradley. ‘It’s over and done with, finished. All we can do is to try and forget and think about today and tomorrow instead.’ Ah, how wrong the psychiatrists are, if that is what they think; and how right the poets, fearfully glancing at the backward devils. Ironically, no one is less entitled than Aileen to say that the past is over and done with. Her story is chambered or whorled within other stories that spiral in time. The tale of Aileen, her wild youth, her attempted suicide, her lost child, her unhappy marriage to a smart scientific numbskull, involves the story of Steven, son of a prostitute, mentally scarred by the horrific experience of being locked in a room with his mother’s dead body, a disturbed runagate adopted as mascot and scapegoat by a viciously delinquent band of ‘stotters’, or gluesniffers; and Steven’s story involves that of Mr Matthews, shell-shocked victim of that ancient vileness called the Somme; and Mr Matthews’s story involves the strange tale of Maurice Jeffries, who in the haunted summer of 1914 keeps a tryst with a beautiful woman, a phantom, and falls to his death from an upper floor of the trysting house; and it is in that same house, from that same floor that Aileen, almost deranged by the stress of events, falls to her own death.

All the actors in the scrolling fable die: Aileen dies, Steven dies, Mr Matthews dies, Maurice Jeffries dies – and it is as if their deaths occur by the compulsion of some inaccessible, incomprehensible, controlling myth. Dibdin virtually says as much with an epigraph taken from Valéry: ‘Every crime has something of the dream about it. Crimes determined to take place engender all they need: victims, circumstances, pretexts, opportunities.’ It really is most eerie; enough to make your hair stand on end.

Mine doesn’t. I am sorry to say this, because Mr Dibdin is a highly literate, many-talented writer – I would say, quite simply, a clever writer, if ‘clever’ were not a tainted term among Anglo-Saxons. I know of no one who devotes more attention to the craft of storytelling, no one who more obviously relishes its kaleidoscopic complexities, no one better fitted to lead a movement to rehabilitate that dirty old word ‘plot’. He has also read widely, and reading is a practice which even some good writers are beginning to give up in favour of ‘research’. I shall willingly read anything that Mr Dibdin writes: nevertheless, I think that The Tryst is an uneven book, and not nearly as soon as Ratking or his superb fantasy on Browning, A Rich Full Death. I think the labour of construction is too apparent; that some narrative lines are projected, only to be left in awkward suspension; that in places the text shows signs of haste, or at least of impatience in furnishing the narrative with its necessary transitions and cross-connections. But I would not deny other readers their due of gooseflesh, nor would I ignore the working of something less comfortable, a sombre perception that as long as we are spelling out our life-sentences we are beyond help or amnesty. ‘Only the dead can be forgiven,’ says the Master: ‘But when I think of that, my tongue’s a stone.’

A stone-tongued poet is a dismal thought. What do they do, the poets, when utterance lapses? Or what solace can there be for a composer when the sounds desert his reveries? The question is taken up in James Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerontius, a book which has for its central figure a certain Edward Elgar, an elderly composer, a contemporary of Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern. ‘A certain Edward Elgar’ is a necessarily odd way of putting it. This is ostensibly the Edward Elgar, begetter of The Dream of Gerontius and the Cello Concerto, master of that noble elegiac rhetoric, that immense valedictory sadness that fills all Elgarians (including me) with the conviction that Sir Edward was mysteriously born to define their own unique melancholy. On the other hand, this is a hypothetical Edward Elgar, a fictional construct designed to give coherence to certain ideas about musical creativeness, about aging, about the fragility of human culture, about courage and despair, about perceptions of time and space and reality. It is the ‘real’ Elgar, in the minds of the musical, who solicits attention for the fictional Elgar – Hamilton-Paterson might not have got along so splendidly if he had attached his discourse to the life of some imaginary composer, an Ed Regal or an E.R. Gale – but that is, after all, a permissible advantage: for the reader quickly understands that the book is less concerned with biographical fact than with states of mind.

Indeed, Hamilton-Paterson cheerfully confesses to falsifying at least one fact in the life of the real Elgar. In his twenties, Elgar was briefly engaged to a woman called Helen Weaver. To serve the requirements of the fictional structure, this woman becomes, in the book, Lena von Pussel, a German lady intimate with Elgar in distant days when they were both aspiring musicians, but now, at the time of the narrative, resident in Brazil. We are encouraged to believe that she is the hidden subject of the 13th Enigma Variation, and that consequently the letters LML in the score do not stand for Lady Mary Lygon, but for Lena meine Liebe. Lena and Edward are in their sixties – she, content and fulfilled after a difficult life, he, lonely, perplexed, fretful, longing for the past, suspicious of the present, inwardly aghast at his loss of creative power, hungry for the praise he rebuffs, overtly contemptuous of the art that has sustained him and brought him fame. He comes over as a great spoiled baby of an old man: but other old men, if they are honest old men, will recognise his symptoms.

It is in this state of disgrace that the fictional Elgar (following the real Elgar) embarks on a six-week journey to the Amazon. The ship in which he travels, the Hildebrand, takes on something of the character of the Narrensehiff, the Ship of Fools: they are all on tomfool errands, some with more hope and contentment than others. Elgar on the Amazon is a displaced person, uneasily remembering things glimpsed in dreams, remembering also Elgar on the Severn and realising that all his music has been a visionary celebration in remembrance of things past. There is nothing left of the vision – but then, to his astonishment, at the outward limit of his voyage, he meets Lena again. There is no romantic consequence, there is no comfortable restoration of the old artist’s fading powers. Instead, there is a confrontation, never quite overt, realised mostly in Lena’s affronted musings, a moral confrontation in which, if the truth be told, Elgar is weighed and found wanting. His life’s victory is his public fame; hers is the courage and serenity with which she has sustained a life of exile in a remote corner of the world. The difference between them is expressed in their attitudes to music: ‘The music spoke to her not of any past, not even of her own; it was simply something immutable, something which had always been there, which had sustained and would sustain her passage through the world.’ But of this Elgar perceives nothing; he stoically re-embarks on the voyage that takes him back to where he was. This is a fine book, but painful reading for those who grimly abide the lapse of craft, the loss of energy, the decline of perception and feeling.

O who could have foretold
That the heart grows old?