Looking away

Michael Wood

  • First Light by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 328 pp, £12.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 241 12498 0
  • The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke
    Cape, 542 pp, £12.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 224 02537 6
  • The Northern Lights by Howard Norman
    Faber, 236 pp, £4.99, April 1989, ISBN 0 571 15474 3

‘The dead writers,’ Eliot said, ‘are that which we know.’ They are also, Peter Ackroyd might want to add, that which we don’t know we know or wish we knew better, agents of prodigious but incomplete hauntings. From The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde to Chatterton, Ackroyd has shown himself an adept in the speech of such ghosts. Indeed his gift for their speech is so great that it can be distracting: we forget to wonder if the ghosts have anything to say.

They do have things to say, though; the distraction is ours, not Ackroyd’s. The ghost of Oscar Wilde, for example, suggests that frivolity and suffering are far from incompatible, and that recognising our faults and regretting them are two quite different activities. The ghost of Chatterton hints that no fake is entirely false and that ‘time is nothing other than the pattern of deaths which succeed one another.’ Ackroyd’s new novel picks up and expands precisely this last notion. It doesn’t seek to revive or imitate the literary dead – it nods towards Hardy and Powys, borrows a few tics from Dickens, strays at times (unintentionally, I think) into the territory of William Golding and Iris Murdoch – but it does go in for resurrection in a big way. It digs up the past in all directions.

The major strand of the plot concerns an archaeological site in Dorset, the excavation of a tumulus thought to be about 4500 years old, or perhaps older. There are strange inscriptions on the uncovered stones, the skeleton of a hanged man in the entry to the tomb, further mysteries deeper under the ground. Another plot strand has a retired music hall and television star searching for his origins – the cottages where he lived as a child, before his parents died and he was adopted. Yet another strand involves an astronomer who works at a nearby observatory, and whose job is to watch the giant star Aldebaran. The strands are carefully interwoven, both thematically and in the criss-crossing story line. There is plenty of complication and suspense, and a fine climax. The buried dead are the past but so are the stars, since years go by before their light reaches us. An ammonite reminds a character of the ‘image of a star’. A widower begins to be consoled for the suicide of his wife by learning that ‘even our bodies are built with the fossilised debris of dead stars,’ which to him means that ‘nothing really dies.’ The ancient inscriptions turn out to be star maps, the work of prehistoric astronomers.

This is a novel about continuities, about what is rather too significantly described as ‘some unspoken and unanalysable communion between the living and the dead’, and it is leisurely and conventional in tone and manner – for Ackroyd, therefore, an unconventional move. Here we have a narrator who reads his characters’ faces and gestures (‘there was a wariness about his eyes which suggested a man who was compelled to make an effort to conquer self-doubt’), and knows what they think and do not think. He is an expert in pain and silence (‘The wave of her misery hit him now, knocking the breath out of him’); but also, rather oddly, a collector of grotesques (the lesbian lady who insists on treating her mannish companion as a piece of fluff, the comedian’s wife who commits a malapropism in every speech).

The grotesques, here as in Ackroyd’s other novels, are often very funny, and I accept his implication that apparently grotesque people can be as seriously unhappy as anyone else. Even so, there is something jerky and predictable about his characterisation now, even when he is not aiming for the grotesque – as if he had abandoned Wilde for George Eliot but had found only C. P. Snow. Martha, for example, one of the archaeologists, is a large and ‘deceptively jolly’ woman who manages to sound pleasant and cheerful while sowing discreet seeds of discord all over the place. This is an interesting gift, as Ackroyd says, but Martha displays it every time she makes an appearance on the page, as if she were a doll with only one movement. And most of the characters parade their salient habits in the same way. The method does also pay off, though, since one of the surprising triumphs of the book is a pair of parody rustics who seem to have stepped straight out of Cold Comfort Farm – until we realise that that is the effect they are after, that the parody is theirs, not the author’s. ‘He don’t know no secrets,’ one of them says, provoking a London woman to a mock complaint about rural double negatives, ‘and he don’t know nothing about no tunnels.’ A second later the rustic catches the woman out in what he correctly calls a tautology. ‘Almost as bad as a double negative,’ he mildly says.

The writing is often elegant and precise, at times a little feverish. ‘The immemorial procession of the animal kingdom towards ignominy and death’: not everyone’s first thought on seeing a herd of cows heading home, and I don’t catch any suggestion of parody here. The blurb calls this ‘a pastoral novel’, perhaps meaning only that it is set in the country, but the term is a good one. This is a novel that is excited about the countryside, about the secrets it reckons are to be found there, and its strongest moments are those which discover landscapes or feelings about them. The archaeological dig itself is an exploration of the earth, and Ackroyd captures very well all the eeriness and expectation of such a quest. What is explored is not some bland Nature or inert History but the lingering closeness of the dead, and the intimacy of various forms of life with each other.

First Light persuasively suggests the ghostly charm of the stars, and shows us ‘how the dead do surround the living.’ It respects sorrow and failure and loneliness. But there is a haziness about the novel which I think is not entirely the product of its woolly metaphysics (‘Only those who died could comprehend time, for time was God’). It looks at pain but looks very quickly away again. I don’t mean novels have to be about pain, just that here the looking away is noticeable. The heart of the book is a myth about peace and wholeness which only seriously splintered people could invent or care about. The myth is finally too quiet for such people, and the splinters yield too readily to caricature.

Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding is an intricate double narrative, and it is also about the life of the dead. Although Clarke calls it a romance, it is a pastoral novel too, since it describes a retreat from the world and a judgment on the world. The countryside here suggests, not the long perspectives of First Light, but isolation and emptiness, a space where new and old selves can be found and lost. Alex Darken is a young poet whose marriage has broken up, and who has borrowed a cottage in Norfolk in which to lick his wounds. He meets a burnt-out older poet and his young American mistress, and the foreseeable passions and conflicts ensue. What is not foreseeable is the torture and insight these relations provide, or the other, past story haunting the present one. Some hundred and thirty years before Alex’s retreat, a country gentleman in the region, along with his lively yet dutiful daughter, worked on a poem containing the great secret of the Hermetic Tradition, the means of reversing the Fall, of liberating matter from the dull servitude of the merely material. The daughter wrote an introduction to her father’s work, and fell in love with the diffident rector of the parish. The older poet and his mistress are now trying to learn what that father and daughter knew, anxious to retrieve the broken tradition, and half-consciously, as if in a tilted mirror, they find themselves miming or perhaps pastiching the earlier situation. Things are complicated by Alex’s feelings for the young mistress, and by the fact that she has ‘a way of tuning in to time’, as she says, of registering feelings and fragments of speech that were felt and spoken long ago. The key to both stories is more terrible and more familiar than anyone in them is able to imagine, a tale of moral and psychological harrowings which only a writer of considerable powers, both of patience and invention, could risk or pull off.

This novel has been ‘anxiously mediated’, in Conrad’s phrase, and patches of its careful prose feel as if they may have been polished once or twice too often, as in ‘there were larks and plovers over the fields, and the tall blue days seemed amazed by their own candour,’ or ‘there was ... an impenetrable thoughtfulness hanging on the air like scent.’ Edward Nesbit, the old poet, is vapid and boring about the distresses of the 20th century, and our need for the Great Secret, but no more than his character requires him to be. There is a small besetting flaw, Clarke’s equivalent to Ackroyd’s haziness. It’s not exactly portentousness, or a making of mountains out of molehills. It’s a refusal to believe molehills exist: nothing but the big time. This trait is successfully worked into the characters, part of their ongoing problem with the world. But it is in all of them, and so becomes a feature of the book, producing odd little slips into bathos. ‘Short of actual catastrophe there can be few more nerve-racking experiences than moving house.’ This wouldn’t be so funny if the novel were not full of far more nerve-racking experiences, all thoroughly realised. ‘I sensed the world changing round me,’ Alex says: ‘a sensation of risk, of things poised on a hot brink where anything might happen and never be the same again. I think I already knew then that I would not return to my job at the Polytechnic ...’

Ultimately none of this lumpiness matters. We get angry with Alex and fed up with Edward, but these responses are what the book needs. The intensity rides the bathos, and Clarke’s gravity comes richly into its own in his 19th-century sequences. The relations between father and daughter; the daughter, alone, fighting her personal demons as she writes her esoteric text; the estrangement between the rector and his harsh-minded wife; the rector’s grim battle with what he feels are his sins – all this is conveyed with intimate conviction and in balanced, lucid prose. There is more. The very craziness of the Hermetic Quest is turned into a sane metaphor, representing not the magical return of the symbolic to our heartless world, but a glimpse of how symbolic the world already is, how much it is made in our image, littered with fragments of our dreams. ‘The alchemist,’ Edward remarks, ‘means precisely what he says – but one must enter the language on its own terms or the meaning vanishes.’ The mystical marriage of the Sun and Moon, for example, is not as remote as it may appear. It is a figure for what human marriages fail to become – we see the smashed alembics everywhere once we start to look. A large part of the failure, Clarke is suggesting, lies in the aggressive masculinity of the quest, in a denial of the apparent in-coherences of the Great Mother (alias Molly Bloom, perhaps). This is the sort of feminism which promotes men even as it puts them down, since it keeps their disgraces in the centre of the stage, but it makes good sense for the men in this book, explains their inability to perceive molehills. They perceive banality and triviality, of course, but then deny them – their histrionic mountains are a refuge from just those things. To say, as Alex does, that ‘our own calamities are never banal’ is to miss what may be most important about them.

Two pastoral novels don’t make a movement, and I’m not sure we can conclude too much from the conjunction of these books. Even so, the convergences are quite striking – all the more striking for the entire difference of tone and attack. Both novels believe in ghosts, so to speak, although Clarke catches their terror better than Ackroyd does. We can take this suggestion as metaphorically as we like, but even as a metaphor it leaves our world pretty porous, the present only leakily sealed against the incursions of the past. And both novels abandon the city for the country, which turns out to be a way of going to meet the ghosts. The country is not exactly the past, but it is a place where past and present entertain interesting relations. I thought a few years ago that English novels had become obsessed with personal history, with the past and its loss – an intelligent echo perhaps to all the mindless nostalgia around them. What these new novels suggest is that we haven’t even started to read history, that the past is not lost but only refused or neglected. There are ghosts and ghosts. Some of them may be more up-to-date than we are.

Howard Norman’s Canadian version of pastoral, first published in America in 1987, allows us a sidelong glance at these questions. It, too, has ghosts and concerns the past, but although coolly and crisply written, it is more elegiac than either of the English novels. When ghosts appear they represent loss, the vivacity of grief rather than the persistent life of the dead. ‘Ghost,’ a character says, scowling: ‘That’s just a word. Your mind plays tricks. Out of misery or longing. It offers you something. You call it by a name.’ The setting is the late Fifties in northern Manitoba, home of Cree Indians and Nordic immigrants, and then Toronto, a city still mildly haunted by the wilderness. This very promising first novel measures the distance between modernity and the frozen lakes, but also the erratic ease with which civilisation reaches out into this territory. The dominant image of the book is a boy who drowned while riding his unicycle on the ice – a ‘contraption’, as it is called, seen in a mail-order catalogue, bought and lovingly practised on. The boy is our narrator’s friend, and his now vanished youth, but he is also a figure caught between cultures or between different moments in history, a private anachronic circus. The Northern Lights of the title are the name not chiefly of an effect in the upper air but of a Toronto cinema, and the film showing there as this novel ends is The Magnificent Seven – a Western made from a samurai movie, and an image, therefore, of two faded or possibly invented worlds. The ‘star-filled sky’ of the book’s last sentence watches over the remembered but not retrievable dead.