Shakespeare the Novelist

John Sutherland

  • The Vision of Elena Silves by Nicholas Shakespeare
    Collins, 263 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 00 271031 5
  • Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow
    Macmillan, 323 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 333 51376 2
  • Buffalo Afternoon by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
    Hamish Hamilton, 535 pp, £12.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 241 12634 7
  • The Message to the Planet by Iris Murdoch
    Chatto, 563 pp, £13.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3479 8

According to news reports, Peru is crumbling fast. The unfortunate country’s latest – and possibly terminal – woes began in 1980, after 12 years of military junta, with the installation of civilian rule under President Bealunde Terry. It was a false dawn. Since then, Peru has been afflicted by the hemispheric curses of debt-driven inflation and insurgency. But the violence which is currently destroying Peru is all its own and quite different from narco-terrorism in Columbia, CIA-Contra terrorism in Nicaragua, strong-man terrorism in Panama, or the urban guerrilla terrorism of the Tupamaros. Peru is under siege from a wholly anachronistic but apparently invincible Maoist revolutionary army, Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path. This purist faction sees itself in conflict with the ‘parliamentary cretins’ of the Peruvian Centre-Left (who have had the lion’s share of power in the post-junta years) and the revisionist ‘dogs’ of Moscow, Albania, Cuba and – above all – China as it has backslidden under Deng Xiaoping. The Senderistas own no allies, hold dialogue with no one. According to Nicholas Shakespeare, they accept no funds from abroad and their weapons of choice are stolen guns and hand-made beer-can bombs hurled from slings made of llama hair. Theirs will be one revolution without the AK-47.

The elusive and wholly intransigent character of Sendero Luminoso is embodied in its leader, Abimael Guzman: ‘President Gonzalo’, his followers proclaim him, and ‘the Fourth Sword of Marxism’. A former professor of philosophy at the university of Ayacucho, Guzman was converted to Maoism in the Sixties. Virtually nothing else is known about him. No one apparently recalls him making a speech or taking part in any street demonstration. He has never given an interview to any journalist. He has spent a few days in prison but since the late Seventies his whereabouts have been entirely unknown. That he has a skin complaint is one of the few physical facts recorded about him. There are no clear photographs. He may no longer even be alive. Nevertheless, according to the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, Guzman is ‘the object of religious devotion’ to his Senderista followers and of holy terror to Peru’s middle classes.

Nicholas Shakespeare’s fascination with Sendero Luminoso expressed itself in a remarkable journalistic essay, ‘In Pursuit of Guzman’, published in Granta in 1988. Shakespeare had travelled to Peru the year before to track down the Kurtzian guerrilla leader. ‘I knew I wouldn’t succeed. I didn’t,’ he confesses in the first paragraphs. But he did discover a lot about Peru and its current love-affair with violence (‘we are discussing a new birth and new birth is always produced in blood,’ a Senderista blandly told him). Shakespeare the journalist concluded that ‘Guzman’s secret was his invisibility.’

Shakespeare the novelist uses the techniques of fiction to continue the pursuit of Guzman and to render him finally visible. The Vision of Elena Silves has a narrative which flits back and forward over Peru’s apocalyptic years, from 1965 to 1986. At the starting-point a philosophical young revolutionary, Gabriel Lung (he has Chinese blood), falls in love with Elena Silves (she has Portuguese blood). Elena has a religious vision and performs a confirmatory miracle. She is imprisoned by the authorities in a convent. Gabriel becomes a Senderista. The main strand of the narrative recounts what happens in 1986 when Elena escapes from the convent and Gabriel from prison. Guzman dominates the climax of the novel barely fictionalised as Presidente Ezequiel, pustulent with psoriasis and abstract hate. Other actual terrorists and acts of terrorism described in ‘The Pursuit of Guzman’ reappear under thin disguise in the novel. The love story – which is entirely fictional – explores the mixture of Catholic mysticism and revolutionary rationalism which Shakespeare discerns at the core of the Senderista cult.

One might have expected Shakespeare to draw on the examples of Conrad, Greene or Paul Theroux for his fantasia on violence and evil at the headwaters of the Amazonian jungle. Instead he borrows the fluid, elliptic techniques of Latin Americans such as Fuentes, Marquez and – above all – Llosa. The Vision of Elena Silves seems in one of its aspects a homage to Llosa’s earlier exploration of the Guzman mystery, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and in places Shakespeare echoes the Peruvian novelist’s words. But Llosa’s ‘X-ray of Peru’s misfortune’ is more engaged – as indeed is Llosa himself (he has indicated an intention to stand as president of his country and this January was the target of a Senderista dynamite attack). Shakespeare’s meditation on Peruvian violence has a quality of fascinated ambivalence, almost a swooning into its depths. It’s a luxury which only the outsider can enjoy.

The Vision of Elena Silves is a terrific novel and persuades one that the imaginative resources of the novel are not just useful but necessary to the full understanding of fanaticism. But Shakespeare will have difficulty with British readers like myself – the majority, I suspect – for whom Peru is an unknown country. James Michener could brief us in a heavy-handed tutorial prelude on South American politics. But Shakespeare has chosen an artful form of narrative that cannot carry any great burden of exposition. I wish that Collins had appended ‘In Pursuit of Guzman’ to the novel.

E.L. Doctorow’s last three novels have returned to the period of his boyhood, the Thirties. Each features boy heroes and mingles daydreams of adolescence with the adult disciplines of Modernist fiction. Names are made to carry important meaning in Doctorow’s narratives; in Loon Lake the vagrant hero was given Joseph Conrad’s Polish name; in the more autobiographical World’s Fair the author’s own name was used. Here the hero-narrator is called Billy Bathgate. The allusion is not to the unlovely Scottish mining town but to Bathgate Avenue in Doctorow’s native Bronx. Billy is an eponymous child of the streets. He is the illegitimate son of an Irish, religious-maniac mother and an absconded Jewish father who has not left even the legacy of a patronym. The pot of New York has singularly failed to melt Billy. All he has is a gift for juggling. This skill brings the 15-year-old Billy to the notice of Dutch Schultz – aka Arthur Flegenheimer, the most fearsome of the pre-syndicate gangsters – who adopts him for a year as a mascot and gofer. Billy, ‘a capable boy’, goes on to witness various rubbings-out, learns how the numbers racket works and is seduced by Dutch’s moll. He is the sole living witness to the downfall of his boss, that important moment in gangster romance (‘Mother of God, can this be the end of Rico?).

Although it plays with the motif, Billy Bathgate does not fit the de casibus convention of the gangster genre. Dutch Schultz is the found father of myth, whose patriarchal power the son must eventually steal. Patriarch he certainly is, but as a criminal Dutch is also the last of his line. His brand of pure reflexive violence – bred in the anarchy of Prohibition – is anachronistic in 1935. He is being hounded by two ‘organisations’: by the IRS and by the Italians under Lucky Luciano. Dutch’s accountant – Abbadabba Berman – is a wizard with numbers and foresees a future in which crime is just another American industrial conglomerate. ‘What happened in the railroad business is a perfect example,’ he tells Billy:

You look at the railroads, there used to be a hundred railroad companies cutting each other’s throats. Now how many are there? One to each section of the country. And on top of that they got a trade association to smooth their way in Washington. Everything nice and quiet, everything streamlined.

The massacre of Dutch (and his loyal accountant with him) in the appropriately named Palace Chophouse is just part of that streamlining. Dutch Schultz is a wart on the ass of progress.

Billy Bathgate opens and closes with scenes of great power. The narrative begins with the hero making a Conradian leap into the dark, from the dock onto a boat just setting out into the East River. On board is the unfortunate Bo Weinberg, one of Dutch Schultz’s former henchmen, whose feet are being cast into a bucket of cement for his ritual murder. ‘This scene was so amazing to me I gave it the deference one gives to the event perceived as historical,’ Billy records, and the horrific episode reverberates throughout the novel. No less historical is the climax, when Billy listens to the last numbers death-rattled out by Abbadabba, which – capable boy that he is – he construes to be the combination for the gang safe. He also overhears the final ravings of Dutch Schultz, which he decodes to discover where the gang leader’s millions are stashed away. This leads to happy ever after.

Billy Bathgate is half-fairy-tale, half Puzo-style shoot-em-up thriller. Doctorow taps expertly into the inexhaustible curiosity which America has for its gangster heroes: the same curiosity had the whole country two years ago watching Geraldo Rivera’s exquisitely futile excavation of Al Capone’s vault – what happened to Scarface’s millions, like Schultz’s, is a famous mystery. The novel is wonderfully easy to read and in its last pages gripping. But what makes Billy Bathgate consistently entertaining and yet strangely worrying is its idiom. Doctorow fashions a specifically new prose instrument for each of his novels. Ragtime had a syncopated ‘plink’ to its short sentences. Billy Bathgate starts with a sentence which is 144 words long. Immensely extended syntax is the novel’s stylistic signature and the looping intricately-linked clauses witness to Billy’s skill as a verbal juggler. But there is also a mystery embedded in the diction of Billy’s confessions, something that seems implanted to tease the ear of the reader. In an uncharacteristically brief coda, Billy informs us that, enriched with Schultz’s millions, he ‘made the leap’ to Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan for exceptional students, then the ‘even higher leap’ to an Ivy League college ‘which I would be wise not to name’. He went on to serve his country as an officer in World War Two. ‘Who I am in my majority,’ he concludes, ‘and what I do, and whether I am in the criminal trades or not, and where and how I live, must remain my secret because I have a certain renown.’ It doesn’t ring true. Would someone who had gone through the speech regimentation of Harvard and officer’s training use Runyonisms like ‘the criminal trades’, ‘in my majority’ and ‘I have a certain renown’? This is the eloquence of Nick the Greek and Liverlips Louie. Billy’s constant overreaching for the ten-dollar word and turn of phrase belies the grand CV which he presents to us. Baloney. Billy Bathgate is another Billy Liar.

It is an understood thing that to depict the Vietnam War realistically you must have been there. The chronicler of battle should ideally come in like Shakespeare’s bloody sergeant with authenticating evidence of the fight still on him. The truest literary account of Vietnam is generally taken to be Michael Herr’s Dispatches – a work whose title declares it to be a direct communication from the front. The hitherto most-applauded novel of Vietnam, John Del Vecchio’s The Thirteenth Valley (1982), was written by a former member of the 101st Airborne division whose publishers made much of the fact that their author had won a Bronze Star ‘for heroism in Ground Combat’. It is another understood thing about the Vietnam combat zone that it was no place for American women – unless like Jane Fonda they were in the business of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. War is an exclusive male club. Women have their room; men have their battlefield.

All this makes for an initial difficulty in coming to terms with Buffalo Afternoon. It is – in its substantial central section – a realistic narrative of ground combat in Vietnam written by a woman whose knowledge was derived from conversations over a two-year period with members of the Brooklyn chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. One reads Buffalo Afternoon with uneasy variations on Dr Johnson’s dogs-and-women-preachers gibe forming in the mind. The uneasiness has the curiously corrective effect of making the (male) reader examine his automatic prejudices. After all, if Stephen Crane who had never heard a shot fired in anger could write The Red Badge of Courage from 30-year-old newspaper reports, why can’t the definitive Vietnam account be written by a sympathetic woman who has listened carefully to a lot of witnesses over a long time? Nicholas Shakespeare is not a Senderista; Doctorow is not a New York gangster. Why do we apply stricter standards of evidence to novels about Vietnam? It would be an interesting experiment to disguise Schaeffer’s novel under a male pseudonym (‘a searing novel of grace under pressure by former sergeant Jack Schaeffer’): I suspect it would be experienced as a radically different work.

Buffalo Afternoon chronicles forty-odd years in the life of Pete Bravado, a third-generation Italo-American born into working class Brooklyn. Bravado’s early aspirations are stifled by a brutal father and he drifts into juvenile delinquency. At the crossroads of a career in petty crime or blue-collar respectability he volunteers for Vietnam, where he serves his 365 days as a private in a field transport unit. The bulk of Buffalo Afternoon deals with the war. And it is clear that the veterans to whom Schaeffer listened did not mince their words. The novel contains hideous and wholly convincing battle descriptions. We learn the effect of white phosphorus on the human body (the blood boils subcutaneously). Apparently there are problems in conducting a body count after a B-52 raid: many of the corpses are reduced to a mere stain and body parts find their ways to the tops of trees. It is, it seems, very difficult to stuff intestines back through a bayonet wound – the hole is too small and the gut too slippery; and evidently victims live for a surprisingly long period with the whole length of their intestines festooned like washing-lines between bamboo poles. A newborn baby’s head smashed against a rock sounds like a soft melon splitting. And so it goes. No one is going to accuse Buffalo Afternoon of pulling its punches and much of the novel is physically nauseating. Schaeffer’s soldiers swear with a crudity that would satisfy ex-rifleman Norman Mailer.

The third section of Buffalo Afternoon, and the most interesting, covers Pete’s 25 years after Vietnam and his inability to pick up the bits of his civilian life. He becomes a victim of post-combat psychosis. He is randomly violent; cannot hold his marriage together; abuses drink; experiences flashbacks, nightmares and hallucinations; commits motiveless crimes; is committed to an institution. Finally he and a former comrade attain some kind of peace, but it’s the peace of those who have simply lost the capacity to take any more. I’ve heard it said that the North Vietnamese veterans experienced nothing equivalent to post-Vietnam stress syndrome – even those members of the Viet Cong and NVA who spent whole years underground in tunnels and will never again walk upright. Their bodies were twisted but not apparently their minds. This would suggest that what the returned American vets suffered was the effect not of combat but of losing the war; their trauma was the slow mental bruise of the defeated. True or not, Schaeffer has written a novel which is extraordinarily tender and moving in its treatment of delayed casualty.

The Message to the Planet is Iris Murdoch’s 24th novel since Under the Net in 1954. Some of them (like this one and The Sea, The Sea) have been among the longest works of fiction produced in post-war Britain, a period which has generally favoured brevity. Frank Baldanza, who has examined the novelist’s manuscripts deposited at Iowa University, notes that ‘Miss Murdoch seems to have an unusually full idea of what she is about very early in the game; for one discovers very little invention of new material in the course of the writings.’ Reading The Message to the Planet, one has the sense of being in the charge of a narrator who has foreseen all. The whole novel – with its many about-turns and surprises – is set in Murdoch’s mind: she is not composing, but divulging what is already composed, what seems to have been always composed. And divulging sparingly. It is not that Murdoch teases her readers, but she gives the impression of limiting how much future knowledge it is proper for them to have at any point. In a typical case early in The Message to the Planet she tells us: ‘What happened after that, and will be related later, was something entirely unexpected and so awful that Ludens had never spoken about it afterwards to anyone.’ That phrase ‘and will be related later’, with the mysterious implication of ‘awful’, holds the reader until the last twist of an extremely tortuous plot.

The Message to the Planet is not a novel to surrender its meaning easily. The opening sentences seem designed to trip the reader:

  ‘Of course we have to do with two madmen now, not one.’

  ‘You mean Marcus is mad too?’

  ‘No, he means Patrick is mad too.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

It takes a moment to work out that three people are talking about two other people. They are, it emerges, the novel’s five principals; all men and each representative of some mode of knowledge or creative discourse. The central character – through whose viewpoint the narrative unfolds – is Alfred Ludens, a reader in history, on sabbatical from an unnamed London University college. Gildas Herne (the first speaker) is a musician and ex-priest. He represents the weak magnetic force which holds the group together; the novel begins and ends with the main characters joining to sing as an amateur choir under his direction. Patrick Fenman is an Irish poet. Jack Sheerwater is an artist. This quartet revolves around the pivotal figure of Marcus Vallar, a philosopher and mathematician who has travelled beyond knowledge as it is partitioned in academic departments and books. Marcus may be mad, or he may be a new Leonardo on the brink of devising a universal language, a kind of grand unified theory which will deliver a message to the planet. As the novel opens, he is a recluse living no one knows where.

From four of its five points (Gildas serves mainly as a choric figure in both senses) the novel branches out and interweaves itself. The main track is Ludens’s hunt for Marcus and his conviction that the man has some messianic message. At various points a crux from Hamlet is alluded to: does the phrase ‘than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ mean Horatio’s private philosophy or mankind’s? If Marcus does have a message, is it one that has meaning for Ludens alone? Both men have Jewish ancestry, and it complicates matters that the Holocaust is increasingly invoked as the action progresses. Does that calamity have significance for the human race, or just for the Jews?

At the level of plot (an extremely busy level) Ludens becomes sexually involved with Marcus’s daughter Irina, who went to secretarial college and is refreshingly sceptical about her father. ‘Haven’t you realised?’ she asks Ludens. ‘He’s stark staring raving mad.’ Jack Sheerwater, the painter, owes his style to Marcus, who for a couple of years has dabbled masterfully in art. Jack decides he must have both his wife and his mistress live with him and this leads to further sexual complications for Ludens. Patrick – the poet – is convinced that Marcus has cursed him, and as the novel opens, is dying of the conviction. When Marcus is located by Ludens and persuaded to return and raise Patrick from the dead (as it is given out by the tabloids), the reclusive philosopher becomes the object of a hysterical cult.

No less than that of any whodunnit, the plot depends on revelations which the reader may not be told in advance. But it can be said that The Message to the Planet has in abundance that Murdochian duality in which things of cosmic significance (the meaning of the universe, of art, the limits of philosophy, demons) are juxtaposed with the local and the contingent. At one moment the novel will ponder whether mathematics, music or symbolic suffering is the universal language; at the next, the tin of salmon in the shopping bag will be described. The Message to the Planet is also rich in those protracted descriptions of mechanical complexity which are Murdoch’s speciality. There is, for instance, a fascinatingly detailed account of manhandling a divan bed down a flight of stairs. It’s an important bed (Jack’s wife’s) and an important moment, but Murdoch contrives to concentrate the reader’s attention entirely on the practical problems of moving a large awkward object down a sheer narrow space. Eventually the bed falls, ‘making a long scar upon the wallpaper with one of its feet’. Everyone will have had the experience or experiences like it, but in Murdoch’s fiction such accidents resonate as possible messages to the planet, if only we had the art to understand them.