Going to bed with an author on your reading list

Stephen Wall

  • The Trick of It by Michael Frayn
    Viking, 172 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 670 82985 4
  • The Long Lost Journey by Jennifer Potter
    Bloomsbury, 179 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7475 0463 6
  • Falling by Colin Thubron
    Heinemann, 152 pp, £10.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 434 77978 4
  • Coming to Light by Elspeth Davie
    Hamish Hamilton, 191 pp, £12.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 241 12861 7
  • A Careless Widow by V.S. Pritchett
    Chatto, 176 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3438 0

Michael Frayn hasn’t published a novel for 16 years, but it’s immediately clear from his new one that he hasn’t lost the trick of it. After so long a lay-off some self-consciousness might have been expected, but Frayn has turned this potential liability to advantage by making it an essential part of his subject. The Trick of It is, among other things, an essay on itself, but the reflexive element is saved from a merely formal aridity by its comic brio and its uneasy respect for human mysteriousness.

In his early days as humourist – or satirist, as the term then was – Michael Frayn relied heavily on his acuteness of ear and ventriloquial command of voice. The recognisable, betraying tone, the give-away use of current idiom, the patent, clichéd insincerities of the characters in his old Guardian and Observer pieces survive well (as a recent series of broadcasts of them by Martin Jarvis demonstrated) because the words are so alertly voiced; they ask to be spoken. It’s not surprising that Frayn has subsequently written so much for the theatre, both as playwright and as translator. From the ingratiating patter of the likes of Rollo Swaveley (the well-known public relations consultant), Christopher Smoothe (Minister of Chance and Speculation), and the Bishop of Twicester, to the more extended self-justifications of social comedy was a natural progression. Nevertheless Frayn was always wedded to print, and to parody. Towards the End of the Morning (1967), the most substantial of his novels, was about a journalist (admittedly one trying to break into television), and many of his most speakable lines have written antecedents of one kind or another.

The Trick of It is an epistolary novel, and the letters which make it up hover – as letters between close friends do – between the written and the spoken. The narrative voice is immediately engaging: colloquially spontaneous, casually witty, effortlessly audible and therefore readable. Since the hero is a university lecturer he knows about writing, but he is not knowing about it in the Bradbury-Lodge manner. The book is relatively free from the arch allusiveness that academic writers find hard to resist – and their academic readers not to enjoy – and its tone isn’t exclusive. The term ‘Post-Structuralist’ is reserved to describe the narrator’s style of driving. He naturally has some professional habits, such as referring to novel titles in the abbreviated form conventional in footnotes (so that Falling down Duke Street becomes FDDS), and he is predictably paranoid about rival specialists in his field. Since his letters are written to a Germanist chum who has emigrated to Australia to write his great work on Mörike, the Middle Years, a certain amount of academic shop is to be expected, but it isn’t paraded.

Richard’s field is the novelist he refers to as JL, the author of some bizarrely plotted but fundamentally serious novels whom he has long regarded as a major writer of our time – or majwoot, as he comes to call her. He knows everything about her that can be found in the public domain, but has unconsciously resisted the idea of actually meeting her – and, as events turn out, rightly so. When he does invite her down to talk at his university, she seems so ordinary as to be extraordinary. He is as knocked out by her in the no longer young flesh as he was on the much pondered page. At their first strange and fatal intimacy, however, he discovers that she is wearing a peach bra with white knickers. This strikes him as a serious discrepancy, an early sign of the disconcerting truth as opposed to the imagined ideal. Further shocks follow; the closer he gets to her inner life the more unguessable and unglossable it becomes. He has to negotiate the unsuspected modern taboo – brilliantly discovered by Frayn – against going to bed with an author on your reading list.

At first he hopes that their marriage will foster his role as guardian of her genius, but it only serves to underline the separateness of her writing self. It seems wonderful to have the chance of being inscribed in her oeuvre because of his part in the life which must nourish it, but the prospect becomes less enchanting when it becomes clear that that will only be on her terms, if at all. The sense of privilege brought by their association gives way to the bitterness of exclusion. She has never read a word of what he has written about her, and ignores his advice to offset the imaginative extravagance of her new work by adding a distancing element of ironic self-awareness. He even tries to assuage his jealousy of her creativity by starting to write himself, but it doesn’t work. She can and does write anywhere and all the time – London, the provinces, even Abu Dhabi, where they end up. He has, however, to recognise that he hasn’t the trick of it. But if he feels that because of her his life has run into the sand, she equally complains that he has led her into a stony and desolate place. Author and exegete have reached an impasse about which it is no longer possible to be amusing.

What JL hoped to get out of the marriage isn’t and can’t be made clear since she has no independent narrative presence, but it hardly seems to matter what happens to her since she transubstantiates everything through the blue Swan ink in her Waterman pen. She not only appropriates some of Richard’s neglected relations, who become unexpectedly interesting under her unblinking gaze, but even begins to write a book on – and therefore to take over – the life of his mother. His hopes that her work will develop and mature under his care are baffled by her creative intransigence. She has no use for his ‘light ludic touch’. Nothing could be less Jamesian than the tone of Frayn’s protagonist, but in the end he finds himself ‘sold’ in a thoroughly Jamesian way: his attempt to intrude the critical intelligence into the creative life has become entirely self-defeating.

It’s perhaps a matter of more than literary significance. The idea that, given life’s recalcitrance, it’s not enough to be well-meaning is a recurring one in Michael Frayn’s work. However anxious one is to think and do the right thing – the reasonable, decent, liberal thing – what one comes up against may simply not be amenable to rational argument and good intentions. Such bafflement has obvious comic potential at a sod’s law level, but it can also be a cause for deeper dismay. This underlying apprehension surfaces in a rather melodramatic way in the demonic character in Frayn’s play Benefactors. In The Trick of It the narrator’s life is virtually deconstructed by his exposure to a force that may be ‘creative’ but which is also obstinate, obscure, and even threatening. The book is more of a fable about literature’s ambivalent power than a manifestation of it, and it is too modest to offer itself as a major work of our time, but there is more to it than at first meets the eye and ear.

The Long Lost Journey of Jennifer Potter’s title takes place in the Arabian sands. It’s made in 1910 by Elinor Grace, a lady archaeologist intent on reaching the site of Mareb, thought to be associated with the Queen of Sheba. At first it looks as if Miss Grace is simply an intrepid and eccentric Englishwoman of the period, used to overawing inferior races by upper-class manners and academic intelligence. Outwitting imperial officials is rather fun – the last thing they want, in the ticklish political circumstances of the day, is unchaperoned female nationals wandering about in the desert. As the entries in her journal accumulate, however, she becomes more impressed and even intimidated by the ruggedness and desolation of the landscape, and the barbarity and rapacity of its scattered inhabitants. She becomes increasingly glad of the company of James Fergusson, who insists on travelling with her but whose own mission remains suspiciously undefined. Her efforts to excavate the site according to the correct procedures are literally undermined by his ignorance, deviousness and self-seeking. But by then Elinor has become so sexually enthralled by him that she can’t resist his will, however diabolical she sometimes feels it to be. In the end, he abandons her to the Turks, from whom she is rescued by a quixotic Vice-consul at the cost of his own career. Back in England, Fergusson establishes a reputation as an explorer which the eventually returned Elinor refuses to discredit.

It appears that the main actors in this affair were historical personages whose history was hushed up for diplomatic reasons. Jennifer Potter’s absorbing narrative aims to infer the emotional truth from the known or suppressed facts. The lack of overt authorial intrusion – all we’re given is Elinor’s journal and extracts from official correspondence – gives it an air of authenticity, and certainly the experience of the desert and its people has not only been researched but imaginatively worked for.

The central problem of how to convey Elinor’s self-abasing passion for Fergusson is not quite so securely resolved. The author scrupulously avoids any suggestion of the novelettishness perilously close with such a theme and locale, and the historical Elinor would no doubt have expressed herself with a proper reticence on so intimate a matter. But, as the fictional woman concludes, her lover taught her things she didn’t know about herself and let her demons fly out, and a language adequate to articulate such discovery and release with the appropriate intensity doesn’t sufficiently establish itself.

If Jennifer Potter’s heroine is technically a fallen woman, Colin Thubron’s hero has to do with falling in a physical and, more vaguely, metaphysical sense. Mark Swabey is in prison for a crime whose actual nature isn’t revealed until near the end of this terse tale, but which is connected with his passion for Clara, a trapeze artist of unusual grace and daring.

As a journalist, he is fascinated by the extent to which the circus world is outside normal society and enclosed on itself; he is astonished when Clara says she’s never been in a church. It’s like living in an alien culture, and Clara represents it at its purest, just as the troupe she’s loyal to show it at its tattiest. The arabesque which is the climax of her act, done far above the audience without safety-net, is an act of self-delight. She’s in another world, and when she falls back into this one the result is inevitably tragic.

When he meets Clara, Mark is already in love with Katherine, also an artist but one who designs stained-glass windows. She is having great difficulty in rendering the fall of Lucifer, with whom she feels little affinity. Colour of any kind seems inappropriate to him. Her jealousy and distress over Clara adds to the guilt and pain which Mark feels and which the prison chaplain can do nothing to alleviate. He has to come to terms not only with his memories but with the physical conditions of prison and the involuntary company of his fellow inmates, one of whom escapes via another kind of high wire from which he is in great danger of falling. Such resonances don’t seem to add up to an allegorical scheme, and indeed their co-ordination might be tighter than it is. The interruption of the prevailing first-person narrative by testimonies from Katherine, Clara and others may also be tactically unwise: too brief to persuade as separate narrative identities, they can do little more than corroborate what we have already been told. They do not, however, diminish the considerable momentum that Falling develops. Mark’s release from the Luciferian greyness of prison into the normal world of colour makes a telling final effect.

A substantial part of Elspeth Davie’s Coming to light is not so much modern story as historical infilling. The novel loosely groups a number of Edinburgh characters round a disturbed adolescent and his art teacher, but it often digresses into episodes from and explanations of the city’s past. The changing and unchanging characteristics of Edinburgh, and in particular the quality of its light or lack of it, are dwelt on with sensitivity, so that this material is not at all inert, although tangential. The characters live in a degree of isolation, fictively speaking, which suggests that they might be better-off in one of the short stories for which Elspeth Davie has been praised. The dentist bored with teeth who takes up astronomy, the garage owner who becomes interested in stones, the Italian tailor who (Carlyle-like) interprets life through clothes – such figures are not uninteresting, but in novelistic terms they remain undeveloped. The author nevertheless persuades you that they have been deeply affected, as she has been, by the genius of the place.

A Careless Widow is a collection of half a dozen short stories by the contemporary doyen of the genre. The economy and serenity of V.S. Pritchett’s technique is as great as ever, as is the hospitality shown in his choice of subjects. A hairdresser on holiday runs into a tiresome London neighbour, a widower and retired carpet salesman looks up his old secretary with matrimony in view, an elderly writer is posed by a famous but brusque photographer in a manner not altogether to his liking. Occasionally in these stories a word will surprise by its unexpected exactness, but generally they make their effects with the seamless and unself-regarding sureness characteristic of a master of the form.