- A Particular Place by Mary Hocking
Chatto, 216 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3454 2
- The House of Fear, Notes from Down Below by Leonora Carrington
Virago, 216 pp, £10.99, July 1989, ISBN 1 85381 048 7
- Painted Lives by Max Egremont
Hamish Hamilton, 205 pp, £11.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 241 12706 8
- The Ultimate Good Luck by Richard Ford
Collins Harvill, 201 pp, £11.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 00 271853 7
In fiction the form of the fairy-tale and the sound of gossip are joined. The first allows heroes and heroines, tragic misunderstandings, farcical adventures, grotesque cruelties and happy endings. The second gives the valet’s view of the same events, or untinctured gushings from the parish pump. In some strains of fiction the tale atrophies and only the gossip is left, and of these strains the Anglican novel of village and suburban life is a pure variety. It is remarkable for tackling the problem of ordinariness. By an extension of Christian love, boring people are gathered together into the community of its characters. In the Christian congregations which figure in such novels they preponderate – the chorus of regular worshippers is usually subfusc. The challenge is, of course, to overturn or qualify the categories of ‘boring’ and ‘interesting’. The writers of these tales build their moralities around small derelictions (like Emma’s failure of charity to Miss Bates), and do not exclude the problems of homely, limited lives from the arena of the soul’s struggle. Agnostic readers probably feel easiest with them when they are funny: Barbara Pym pleases by her disengagement, by avoiding a charismatic or the enthusiastic tone.
Mary Hocking is not at her best in this mode. She is better on the larger themes of dying and the remaking of relationships, but her moral points are close to the surface, as though the book was planned as a vehicle for good sense and good feeling; the characters tend to serve the purpose of Jonsonian types in the working-out of conundrums in the morality of everyday life. Her hero, Michael Hoath, is the newly appointed vicar of St Hilary’s, a West Country parish. His wife Valentine is beautiful. They are childless. She is no more than decently dutiful in the discharge of her function as the Vicar’s wife, and is aware of the attentions of his female congregation; to her, they are an irritation, to the world outside they are at best excellent women. He is in the (fictionally at least) common situation of the priest who seems to be a capon among the hens – emasculated by the calling which makes him attractive. He must, like the novelist, care for all souls and try to dismiss none as unworthy of his time.
His problem is to find the spiritual strength to guide his flock and give direction to his life. The problems of the flock are various: Shirley, a young woman whose gay husband has run off with another man, is lonely, and her son is more deeply damaged still by his father’s desertion. Norah, a retired nurse, is unhappily married to a barrister who grieves petulantly for the domestic efficiency and subservience of his dead first wife. The congruent gaps in the lives of Michael and Norah lead them to fall in love; the book ends with her death from a brain tumour, and Michael and Valentine shaping up for what looks to be a better relationship.
One strand of sub-plot involves Charles Venables, a rather desiccated schoolmaster, more interested in literature than life. His lecture to a local group on Anna Karenina is followed by a discussion in which Anna’s conduct is criticised: ‘What had she done, Charles wondered, to arouse dislike in these liberated women?’ His fastidiousness about the introduction of his audience’s living morality into Tolstoy’s canonical fiction is very like what readers may feel who prefer their village vignettes drawn with a sharper pen. The breadth of Hocking’s sympathy imposes a strain. Even the voice in the book which comes closest to being the author’s – that of Michael’s aunt, a writer, typically found suppressing irritation at having her time taken up by neighbourly obligations – is too decent to tell the unkind truth about characters. The village has a familiar feel: perhaps what one is waiting for is a Chief Inspector and a corpse.
A Particular Place is a novel of amelioration. Even terminal illness or desertion are things to be understood and, however imperfectly, managed. This kind of fiction does not deal in mysteries. Its explanatory function is, along with the columns of agony aunts and psychoanalysis, an aspect of social self-regulation. Middling kinds of person suffering from middling strokes of good and bad fortune are observed as they normalise their condition, or blamed or pitied or sympathised with for failing to do so.
Leonora Carrington, on the other hand, writes of terrible things; in her world luck rules, not rationality. It is governed by fates and harpies, marked by the delightful cruelties and horrible transformations, exceptional pleasures and disgusting rewards of the unregulated universe of fairy-tales. Her stories are not exaggerations. The world of nightmares where Bluebeard murders, where children are stolen and wicked parents and monstrous appetites abound, is not a fantasy. Its action is all there in the daily papers. Moreover this kind of tale, as Borges and Calvino have shown, can be told in a narrative style so direct that the novel of gossip can seem, by comparison, over-fleshed. In her introductory essay, Marina Warner mentions W.W. Jacobs, James Stephens, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Harry Graham: a reading-list which suggests a mix of the commonsensical and the fantastical which consorts easily with the insect-headed humans and other macabre juxtapositions of Max Ernst’s collage illustrations – much of what is here was written while Carrington and Ernst were living together in France in 1938. There is a dandified spareness about her prose – and a Harry Graham ruthlessness in the stories. The hyena which the girl wishes to take her place at the ball in her story ‘The Debutante’ is direct:
‘You’re very lucky,’ she said. ‘I’d love to go. I don’t know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.’
‘There’ll be a great many different things to eat,’ I told her. ‘I’ve seen truckloads of food delivered to our house.’
‘And you’re complaining,’ replied the hyena disgusted. ‘Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can’t imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I’m given.’
The hyena hides in the girl’s room. ‘There’s a bad smell,’ her mother says. Then:
The greatest difficulty was finding a way of disguising the hyena’s face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, ‘I think I’ve found the answer. Have you got a maid?’
‘Yes,’ I said puzzled.
‘There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we’ll pounce upon her and tear off her face. I’ll wear her face tonight instead of mine.’
‘It’s not practical,’ I said. ‘She’ll probably die if she hasn’t got a face.’
And so on to an unrelentingly blood-smeared end. Her stories truly strike terror. The one masterpiece in the book – her memoir ‘The House of Fear’, a description of the time she spent in a Spanish mental hospital after a breakdown at the beginning of the Second World War – seems to show the reason. While other Surrealists played at madness, she was intimate with it. Their stories are fancy dress by comparison. Surrealism offered a way of describing the terror of irrationality – ‘The House of Fear’ is a justification of it which makes much other Surrealist writing seem trivial, and even her own a bit fey.
Marina Warner’s essay tells something of Leonora Carrington’s life, and the way it is glossed by her stories. She was born into a well-off family: her father sold the family textile business and became a principal shareholder of ICI. Carrington said he was most like a Mafioso. She studied painting, met Max Ernst. When he left his wife in 1938, Carrington went off with him: see the story ‘Little Francis’, where she becomes Francis, Ernst becomes Francis’s uncle Ubriaco and Ernst’s wife Ubriaco’s daughter. Her separation from him at the beginning of the war precipitated her breakdown, and thus led to the Spanish hospital. Her old nanny was sent by submarine to remove her. She made a marriage of convenience, went to Mexico, and now lives there and in New York. As midwife to this book (its bibliographical history is tangled – parts are translated from the French, parts reconstructed, parts assembled from interviews) Marina Warner has done a great service. Carrington, like Denton Welch (both painters as well as writers) created a world coloured by an invalid’s intensity of feeling. Once tasted, its flavour is not forgotten.
The English village and the Coming-Out Ball are well-worn sets in the scene loft of the English novel. The country house is another. In Max Egremont’s novel Cragham Castle is not a glamorous backdrop: and even its decay is not half so complete as the decay of the society which once made use of its drawingrooms and bedroom wings and larders. Painted Lives is not the group portrait the title might suggest but more of a still life. The protagonists do very little; the interest arises from seeing the same scene from different points of view. Bob Layburn had a good war, but lost an older brother in it, and thus inherited the family estate, Cragham. He marries Catherine. They have two children, she becomes ill and dies comparatively young. Their friend Philip Bligh has a career as an art historian in which he writes less than he might have done, has affairs with vicious boys and slips into retirement. George Loftus, who comes from the institute where Philip used to work, to clean the Layburn pictures, is too young to have long memories and ponders his unrequited interest in the institute’s red-haired receptionist. The centrepiece of the still life is Bob and Catherine’s marriage. A narrative in the present tense of George’s visit to Cragham gives two views of it – through Philip’s memories and George’s reading of a notebook written by Catherine, which may give her view of it, or may be a piece of therapeutic fiction. Bob Layburn is seen only through the eyes of others. He is, partly perhaps because no interior voice had to be invented for him, the character who arouses most interest. In his life at Cragham – waging war on rhododendrons in the park, watching badgers and foxes, doing estate business in the gunroom, and reading little but gardening books and the Field – one might see an epitome of the decline of the English landed gentry. The trouble is not the leaking roof and dwindling income, but dwindling numbers of gardeners and grooms, keepers and tenant farmers, who would once have been the owner’s allies, or at least his troops. So the central sadness in the book is not so much the arid marriage and emotional retardation, as the decay of a pattern of English living.
Layburn has, it seems, had the life he was bred up to taken away. One wing of Cragham has been divided into flats: Bob hides behind trees rather than talk to the people living in them, for they are not his folk, only the skirmishers of an army of strangers who will make his squirearchical function entirely cosmetic. When his son takes over the castle it will become another heritage industry factory producing its quota of saleable synthetic nostalgia. Egremont’s attitude to this seems ambiguous. The tone of the book is detached – even the rather clumsy device of the discovered notebook does not add much heat to the story – and the parched land of Bob’s emotional life is contrasted with his decent and amiable public face. One reading might suggest that a moral of the story is that the class he represents is as valuable as any of the landscapes it created and adorned.
The belief that what stands between us and anarchy is the kind of social structures which Hocking and Egremont have built, and the habits of behaviour such structures monitor and sustain, are vindicated for the domesticated English reader by American novels about ordinary violent lives in ordinary morally corrupt and physically decaying cities. Out there in the wider world there are men who have become beasts. We had better see that civilisation wins. But only in such mean backstreets, or in a war or wilderness, can a man become a macho hero. Richard Ford’s Harry Quinn has come to the Mexican city of Oaxaca to buy his ex-lover Rae’s brother Sonny out of jail. Sonny has been found in a hotel room with a lot of cocaine. The dealer he was running for believes Sonny was double-crossing him. The moves in the game take place in an archaic world of drug dealers and crook lawyers. It is not the only world in the city of Oaxaca, however. The native poor and urban guerrillas are victims of one another, and of the police and army. American tourists, like visitors to a game reserve, are the occasional casualties of passing violence.
It is the stuff of one kind of modern romance. Rae and Harry’s problem – how to get together again – produces bedroom conversation made urgent by the murders and beatings-up, the gunfire and danger, which follow Sonny’s predicament. The book has something of the gloss of the tough thrillers of Elmore Leonard, but the texture is closer, the writing more artful. Hemingway is father of more than the toughness: Harry has been working as a game warden. ‘But it had all given rise to a feeling he had never had before, even late in the war, down to days, a conspicuous undisciplined fear of enormous injury. A peacetime fear. Sitting out nights in the frozen bass-woods below Elk Lake, listening for trolling motors easing down into the shallows of the Rapid River, sinking steelhead weirs between the first narrow sand shoals, he would suddenly sense something nearby, something that would hit him and blow him to pieces, and he’d pitch sideways in the Scout to miss whatever it was, though it was nothing.’
The references to the woods and the memory of war, the character of the tough man who is also sensitive, and to the wilderness as a place where you refresh the spirit, but also do violence and may have violence done to you, bring to mind, not just Hemingway’s Nick, but James Dickie’s novel Deliverance. In this version of pastoral, danger is the price you pay for moving out of the safe glow of the campfire of civilisation. The reward is freedom Wild places also offer opportunities for macho prose. Ford seems very plain, but often there are phrases which are very hard to put a meaning to – like ‘down to days’, in the extract. The book brings to mind cinematic versions of the romance of urban dereliction – the look of Paris, Texas for example. In this kind of elliptical speech it is another kind of verisimilitude – the half-obscured dialogue of Altman’s films – which comes to mind. In its echoes The Ultimate Good Luck is both up-to-date and oddly old-fashioned. You want Wim Wenders to make the movie, but you want Bogart and Bacall to be in it.