Strong Meat

John Lanchester

  • The Bellarosa Connection by Saul Bellow
    Secker, 102 pp, £11.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 436 19988 2
  • The War Zone by Alexander Stuart
    Hamish Hamilton, 207 pp, £11.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 241 12342 9
  • A Touch of Love by Jonathan Coe
    Duckworth, 156 pp, £9.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2277 3
  • Do it again by Martyn Harris
    Viking, 220 pp, £11.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 670 82858 0

Harry Fonstein, one of the four main characters in The Bellarosa Connection, is a now-prosperous American-Jewish businessman who was saved from a Fascist prison and smuggled to America by Mafia types acting at the behest of Billy Rose, the famous Jewish showbiz figure (‘Damon Runyon’s pal’) whom he had never met. This is Harry:

Fonstein’s type was edel – well-bred – but he also was a tough Jew. Sometimes his look was that of a man holding the lead in the 100-metre breast-stroke race. Unless you shot him, he was going to win. He had something in common with his Mafia saviours, whose secrets convulsed their faces.

And this is the man who saved him:

... it was Billy acting alone on a spurt of feeling for his fellow Jews and squaring himself to outwit Hitler and Himmler and cheat them of their victims. On another day he’d set his heart on a baked potato, a hot dog, a cruise around Manhattan on the Circle Line. There were, however, spots of deep feeling in flimsy Billy. The God of his fathers still mattered. Billy was as spattered as a Jackson Pollock painting, and among the main trickles was his Jewishness, with other streaks flowing toward secrecy – streaks of sexual weakness, sexual humiliation. At the same time, he had to have his name in the paper. As someone said, he had a bug-like tropism for publicity. Yet his rescue operation in Europe remained secret.

Fonstein repeatedly tries to get in touch with Rose to thank him for having saved his life, but Rose simply doesn’t want to be thanked, a fact which obsesses Fonstein, his wife Sorella and the narrator, also Jewish and prosperous – he runs the Mnemosyne Institute, which teaches memory techniques to business and government. The narrator and Sorella speculate about Rose’s refusal to see Fonstein:

   ‘Why, do you suppose? Afraid of the emotions? Too Jewish a moment for him? Drags him down from his standing as a full-fledged American? What’s your husband’s opinion?’

   ‘Harry thinks it’s some kind of change in the descendants of immigrants in this country,’ said Sorella.

The narrator broods over this. ‘My advice to Fonstein – given mentally – was: Forget it. Go American.’ This is what he himself has done, converting his talent for memory into a marketable asset (‘As I used to say to clients, “Memory is life.” That was a neat way to impress a member of the National Security Council whom I was coaching ...’) At the same time, that Americanisation extracts a heavy cost in terms of identity – specifically, a cost in terms of Jewishness. Sorella sums it up:

The Jews could survive everything that Europe threw at them. I mean the lucky remnant. But now comes the next test – America. Can they hold their ground, or will the USA be too much for them?

The narrator comes to see Rose’s action as a symptom of Americanisation – a Hollywood-inspired fantasy of secret courage and virtue, dreamt up by watching The Scarlet Pimpernel – and comes to see himself as a casualty of the same process. ‘There was no way, therefore, in which I could grasp the real facts in the case of Fonstein. You pay a price for being a child of the New World.’ He has dreams about being trapped in a pit, aware of having made ‘a mistake, a lifelong mistake’. A final sour irony wraps the narrative up, when it transpires that Fonstein and Sorella’s son, Gilbert, an outstandingly gifted mathematician in childhood, now expends all his energies on gambling: his parents were killed in a car crash on their way to bailing him out of trouble in Atlantic City.

The Bellarosa Connection is a very fine novella, and it is also very strong meat, flirting as it does with the idea that cultural assimilation outranks the Holocaust as a danger to Jewry. This position is a logical outcome of the premise, increasingly vital in Bellow’s writing, that things of the spirit come first – and therefore that danger to the soul outranks danger to the body. This is, obviously, a recipe for conservative politics: in Bellow’s case, it also seems to be the recipe for some extremely good writing, characterised by attention to the variety of human types. Perhaps that is because Bellow doesn’t just believe in the soul, he is interested in pursuing the consequences of its existence, and is uncomplacent about what the consequences might turn out to be, so that the reader of his fiction – even, or perhaps especially, the reader who finds his premises discomfiting – has the sense of there being a great deal at stake.

But even if every single assertion Bellow had ever made was demonstrably wrong, he would still be an important figure in the history of the novel. With The Adventures of Augie March, published in 1953, Bellow set out ‘to break the mould of the Flaubertian novel’ – the mould from which his own first two books, The Victim and Dangling Man, were set. Augie has its flaws – any deliberately rambling and unstructured novel will have its flaws – but it did a great deal to displace Flaubertian assumptions about the formal working of the novel. In their place has come the novel based, as Augie is based, on voice: the novel in which the main character is the voice in which the story is told.

In Alexander Stuart’s second novel, The War Zone, the storytelling voice belongs to Tom, an adolescent whose family has just moved from London, which he liked, to Devon, which he hates: ‘the people down here don’t know they’re alive.’ He misses the intensity of London life – an intensity to which he himself contributed by, for instance, trying to burn his school down – but soon starts to find equally strong sensations in the country. For one thing, his mother has another baby; for another, he discovers that his father is sleeping with his (older) sister, Jessie.

The incest novel is rapidly becoming a mini-genre of its own, with easily-guessable themes: abuser, paradoxical emotions on the part of; victim, paradoxical emotions on the part of; relationship between abuser and victim, paradoxical nature of; family life, malign effect on; family life, violence buried within, revelation of; trust, betrayal of. By depicting the incest from the point of view of a third party, The War Zone has an angle on its subject that profitably varies from the standard one, and there is also something unusual in the fact that it is Jessie, and not her father, who is depicted as the instigator of the relationship. ‘I wanted to know what it would feel like,’ she tells Tom. ‘The walls didn’t come tumbling down.’ This makes Tom feel very disoriented, as well it would: the way in which his general feeling of adolescent estrangement blends into the particularly violent estranging factor of incest is very well described by Stuart. It made me wonder if he hasn’t made a technical mistake by showing the reader that the incest is occurring in reality, and not just in Tom’s mind, as early as page 22, and thus letting the reader off a long immersion in unease in exchange for a quick dunk in horror – a dunk which has to be repeated at not-too-far-dispersed intervals if its effect is not to wear off.

Here, the dunking is done by the style, which repeatedly asserts the tension and strainedness of the situation (‘In the kitchen I can breathe normally’), and which makes no bones about its palpable designs on us: ‘ “Right,” I say. My life is over; I’d like to spew up every memory I ever had. What I’ve got now is the thrust of my hate, like a cuddly teddy bear, my pristine vision of the Prick and Jessie as apocalyptic angels rolling around in the shit waiting for me to strike them down.’ This is powerful enough, but achieves its power at the risk of leaving the reader a bit nonplussed – it’s as if Tom is so shocked at what is going on that we feel our own response has been pre-empted. The ending, though, shows some of the subtler corruption spread by incest, and came as a nasty surprise even to someone expecting something unpleasant. It was too nasty, evidently, for some of the parties involved in awarding the Best Novel section of the Whitbread Prize. Stuart was initially told that the prize had been awarded to him, only to discover ten days later that one of the judges and the exhibition organisers had subsequently and successfully exerted pressure to have it awarded to someone else: a manouevre which at a stroke dissipated what credibility the Whitbread has managed to build up.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the novel based on a narrating voice is that having a distinctive voice tell the story is a short-cut to the goal of creating a distinctive version of the world. Luckily, not everyone tries to use the short-cut, and novels which attempt to build up a perspective on le monde extérieur through plot, character and milieu continue to thrive. A Touch of Love is an example: it describes, untragically, the tragic set of circumstances which conspire against Robin, a graduate student at Coventry University. As the blurb perkily describes it: ‘When he retreats from his normal lifestyle into one of silent, morose depression there is one problem: none of his friends can tell the difference.’

The other characters in the book are Ted, an old friend from Cambridge who married a girl Robin was in love with, and whose visit to Robin initiates the action of the book; Aparna, another graduate student whose difficult, Platonic relationship with Robin has recently ground to a halt; Hugh, another graduate, exemplarily lazy and unemployable; and Emma, the solicitor who has to defend Robin when he is arraigned on a ludicrous but ultimately catastrophic charge of having exposed himself to a small boy (in fact, he had been going for a pee). The action of the story alternates with four short stories written by Robin, all of which take a jaundiced, ironic and slightly arch look at male/female relationships.

The stories’ irony irritates Aparna. ‘What people call irony in literature is usually called pain and misunderstanding and misfortune in real life,’ she points out. There is a similar, and very well conveyed, discrepancy between the irony attendant on Robin’s milieu – the milieu of graduate students having a bad time, an experience not easily forgotten by anybody who has been through it – and the pain, misunderstanding and misfortune which descend on Robin through his depression and the lawsuit. The people who know Robin, it seems, find it hard to lose the ironising filter through which they view him, and it’s this which leads A Touch of Love towards its unsurprisingly but still effectively grim conclusion. The novel has a couple of weaknesses – the political background to the book, which makes the Libyan bombing a trigger for Robin’s accidie, is well-meaning but unpersuasive, and Ted is more a dramatised proposition than a character – but it has the virtue, unusual in a young writer’s work, of having set and achieved manageable aims.

Do it again is yet another kind of novel – a jaunty, entertaining, unrereadable sexual comedy with some good one-liners (‘Malcolm was wearing one of his enormous Japanese suits that made him look like a crashed hang-glider’) and a healthy dose of unreconstructed wish-fulfilment. Alex, the main character, is a socialist publisher who has become rich by publishing The Republican Reader, a book which was intended to finish off the royal family altogether, but which, of course, became enormously popular all over the country, especially with monarchists and right-wingers. Every chapter of Do it again begins with quotations from the Reader, which include such gems as the fact that George the Fifth believed the word ‘highbrow’ to be spelt ‘eyebrow’ and so, since no one dared to correct him, ‘remained baffled by its meaning all his life’.

Alex’s friends are still the people he lived with when he attended the University of Wykeham: his wife Susan; Malcolm, who makes a living writing articles and selling bits of gossip to the newspapers, and who has returned to Wykeham to live; Vivien, who now lectures at Wykeham; William, a charming ne’er-do-well antique dealer. Into this small circle intrudes Rachel, a 19-year-old student of Vivien’s, daughter of a Tory minister; she had a holiday fling with William not long ago, but Alex, who has had long-term problems with impotence, meets her and falls in love, at about the same time as Susan takes up with William, and Malcolm starts printing nasty stories about him ... Familiar territory, in short, but not badly done, with some good noticing (‘For many years, in journalistic and political life, there had been only one person who could, without ambiguity, be referred to simply as She’) and jokes. Harris should patent the idea of the Republican Reader, if only to save himself the irritation of seeing someone else do it and make a lot of money.