Prolonging her absence

Danny Karlin

  • The Wimbledon Poisoner by Nigel Williams
    Faber, 307 pp, £12.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 571 14242 7
  • The Other Occupant by Peter Benson
    Macmillan, 168 pp, £12.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 333 52509 4
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt
    Chatto, 511 pp, £13.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3260 4

Henry Farr is – or, as it turns out, is not – the ‘Wimbledon Poisoner’ of Nigel Williams’s title. He is a Pooterish solicitor, middling and muddling his way through life; the plot concerns his repeated farcical failure to murder his awful wife, bumping off (he thinks) other innocent people instead. Then, as the plot unravels and a real poisoner shows his hand, Henry discovers that his wife is not so awful after all. Two kinds of decision mark the outset and outcome of this sequence of events, in the course of which Henry moves from tentative dimness to self-possession. In the book’s opening words, ‘Henry Farr did not, precisely, decide to murder his wife. It was simply that he could think of no other way of prolonging her absence from him indefinitely.’ But when the book closes, Henry faces this very prospect of indefinite togetherness with equanimity: ‘He thought about Elinor, and why he was still with her and what it would be like in the weeks and months and years to come ... Killing her would have been a very stupid thing to have done. There was, he decided, as he turned over to address himself to sleep, quite a lot of mileage in her yet.’

Williams is a clever writer, as this neat framing device suggests, and the book has ambitions to be more than a protracted joke at the expense, or on the side, of a hen-pecked cack-handed husband. It has literary pretensions – epigraphs courtesy of Voltaire, W.S. Gilbert and Pirandello – and there are suggestions of a darker, more astringent fable shadowing the good old-fashioned satire of suburban life. When he reveals himself, the real psychopath turns out to have madder and nastier ideas about poison than Henry’s, which seem by contrast inconsequentially domestic. ‘There’s the Paki poison, isn’t there? There’s the Jew poison and the Arab poison and all the other poisons that flood in and change the chemistry of the country. So that Wimbledon isn’t Wimbledon any more but somewhere else ...’

It’s hard, though, to see the book in terms of an intellectual black comedy when so many of its routines are so unthinkingly comfortable and familiar – the approving image of Elinor as Henry’s old banger, for example. The whole book is marked by an empty ornateness and jocular colloquialism (‘prolonging her absence from him indefinitely’, ‘address himself to sleep’, ‘quite a lot of mileage’).

Williams has chosen safe targets and a chortling style quite at odds with the intelligence and sophistication he seems to be claiming in other respects. The pecking of Henry, needless to say, is done by a feminist hen who attends a therapy group – the subject of much male cackling. Elinor leaves notes around the house for Henry – ‘Why do you not understand my needs as a woman? ... I am afraid of the male violence that is in you ... my rights as a woman are violated by your obscene masculinity!’ – and Williams clearly expects us to find these ridiculous, not realising that they show up the parodist more than the target. Other stock characters creak wincingly about the stage: the ignorant physician (‘There was no chance that Donald would diagnose thallium poisoning. Donald couldn’t diagnose a common cold’), the lumpish child (‘She went to piano. She went to ballet. She went to drama classes. She went to lessons in drawing, ice-skating, junior aerobics and many other skills which she had absolutely no hope of acquiring’), even the Man with a Funny Name (the salesman who sells Henry his ignobly sensible Volkswagen Passat is called Frobisher-Zitgermans). Perhaps it is unEnglish of me to find all this unfunny.

After Williams’s poison-brew, Peter Benson goes down like dry white wine. Yet The Other Occupant is a lesser book than the novel he published last year, A Lesser Dependency, both in the sense of being less ambitious and less well-written. A Lesser Dependency set out both to document and to imagine the dispossession of the Ilois inhabitants of Diego Garcia when the island was sold to the American military (by a Labour government), and did so with a striking combination of sober facts (dates, names of ships, transcripts of Congressional hearings) and indignant feelings. Held in a solution of facts, the feelings were never precipitated into sentimentality: but The Other Occupant has no such protection. Its pathos does not convince, because it is rendered with self-indulgence and a writer’s self-regard. The change from A Lesser Dependency, which was the more eloquently on the side of its characters for being narrated from outside, is marked by the appearance of a first-person narrator, Greg, who tells the story in what is meant to be a deceptively blank or casual manner. The deception is terribly flimsy. Greg’s cool-but-warm style (as character and narrator both) can’t hide the fact that the story he tells is rich in opportunities for corniness, all of which get reaped.

He’s a town mouse who finds himself in deepest and darkest Dorset, looking after Marjorie, a tough old bird who drives an Alfa-Romeo and dies gamely of cancer. Greg becomes her handyman, confidant, protegé and son. Meantime he remembers his own parents who died gamely of cancer, and fights (literally, in the end) for the affections of a local farm-girl. Benson is good at the funny alien feel of the country to the city boy. ‘Why don’t the fields have anything going on in them?’ Greg wonders on the train down to Axminster. The absolute dark on his first night scares him; the woods scare him even more. But gradually he gets the hang of it; he chops wood, mends fences, puts the place (and himself) to rights. Benson is an economical and evocative writer, spare but not skimpy: the best parts of the book are the ones in which Greg is simply looking at things, places and people, like Mr Kelman the solicitor: ‘He had a grave face, a briefcase, a Saab 900, ginger hair, a dark pin-striped suit and black lace-up ‘shoes with tiny, superficial spots punched into the toes.’

This is just a list, but it is well-shaped; it is right (in the context) that Mr Kelman’s shoes should get a more minute scrutiny than his face. But the moments when Greg is allowed to do this kind of thing are rare; most of the book is devoted to building him up. He starts off at a low point: in the first paragraph he is ‘accused of sloppy work’ and sacked from his job on a building-site; on the next page a woman got on the train and ‘flopped down in a seat away from me, glanced at me once, crossed her legs and closed her eyes’; when, shortly after his arrival in the country, he panics at the hoot of an owl, one of Marjorie’s cats ‘looked at me as if I was less than a plant’. Of course you know Greg can’t be as bad as this; soon the farm-girl, Sadie, is stroking his hair.

‘I’ll see you again,’ I said.

‘Maybe,’ she said, meaning ‘Good.’ I could see it in her eyes.

There are too many embarrassing moments like this, because sloppy, unsexy Greg was always a fake; the story relentlessly ‘reveals’ him to be competent and attractive. The fight in which Greg punishes his oafish rival Nicky (a public schoolboy who drives a Capri – no mercy for him) takes place in a pub, and is also, implausibly, the occasion for Greg to berate the local yokels for thinking of Marjorie as a sinister old bat. This is Greg’s apotheosis: he is heroic and righteous, and in the very next chapter Marjorie rewards him from beyond the grave with £5000 and the Alfa.

Try as he may, Benson can’t avoid falling for Greg as easily as Sadie; nor can he avoid making Marjorie into something a good deal worse than an old bat, a PLOP, or Plucky Old Person. Reading about her past, you realise she was doomed to become one; it is a past filled with the foreboding of PLOP-dom: ‘Once she had nursed in West Africa; at a different time she had motorcycled across Australia, when riding astride was not recommended for women. Aboriginals were amazed. She didn’t mind eating bugs with them, or taking all her clothes off for a ceremony.’ The things Benson does well are swamped by such passages; he has a tin ear for their jarring, self-admiring tone. What should be acute turns into plain cute; it would take a really good actress to ‘play’ Marjorie well, Benson’s prose can’t do it. I suspect we shall enjoy this story much more when it turns up on BBC2 with Claire Bloom or Judi Dench.

If this review were a lifeboat, Benson and Williams would be sweating: A.S. Byatt is about to get in it. There really wouldn’t be room for them. Possession is a big book, a spectacular novel of ideas and intrigue, spectacular both in its shortcomings and its successes; it has vaulting literary ambitions and is unafraid to crash. Moreover it moves decisively away from the familial and social territory which Byatt has been cultivating in her most recent novels, The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life. The oddly-linked hands of George Eliot and Proust lay a little heavily at times on these densely artful fictions. Possession, no less dense and artful in its own terms, has the feel of a writer who has broken bounds.

The book opens with Roland Mitchell, research assistant to the dour Scots Professor Blackadder, discovering a couple of manuscript drafts of letters from the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash in a copy of one of Ash’s books in the London Library. The letters address an unknown lady; they are suggestive of intellectual, and perhaps other kinds of passion; and Roland, from motives obscure to himself but none the less compelling, steals them. He does not tell Blackadder; he does not tell Val, the woman with whom he damply and gloomily cohabits – Byatt is good on the basemental atmosphere of their ‘garden flat’. The person he ends by telling is Maud Bailey, who works on Ash’s fellow poet Christabel LaMotte, from whom she is distantly, she thinks, descended: for LaMotte turns out to be the mysterious addressee of Ash’s letters. Together, Roland and Maud trace the hitherto unknown liaison between the respectably married Ash and the respectably feminist (and putatively lesbian) spinster LaMotte. They find a cache of their love-letters in a decaying mansion: follow their trail to Yorkshire and Brittany; and all the time attempt to evade other followers and predators. Besides Val and Blackadder, who has been working for decades on an edition of Ash (how well I know the feeling!), there is Beatrice Nest, woollily ensconced in the diaries of Ash’s devoted and occluded wife; the comically sinister American professor and collector, Mortimer Cropper; Maud’s exuberant American colleague Leonora Stern; her ex-lover, the lupine Fergus Wolff; and Hildebrand Ash, an heir of very little brain. Others play a part, too, and strange alliances are formed and shift among them. Meanwhile the relationship between Roland and Maud develops into something both less and more than an affair. The prickly and unlikely intimacy between small, pale, secondary Roland, who ‘thought of himself as a latecomer’, and severe, successful, up-to-the-critical-minute Maud is one of the best things in the book, done with more assurance than the equally fraught affair between Ash and LaMotte. For needless to say, the loves and quests and transgressions of the past are connected with, or repeated in, or ironically counterpointed by, those of the present.

The book’s genre is hard to pin down – teasingly so, I imagine. Its literary ancestry is richly diverse. The depiction of the small world of literary criticism, in which romance and fairly-tale motifs are intertwined with contemporary academic and sexual politics, clearly owes a good deal to David Lodge; the theme of the lost literary legacy invokes The Aspern Papers; James might be cited again in relation to the book’s punning deployment of ‘possession’ as a term of material, erotic and demonic significance, an association that also reminds you of Dickens; indeed, the Dickens of Bleak House (family romance, Gothic quest, detective thriller) displaces the moral arbiter George Eliot as chief Victorian precursor. Then, of course, there are the literary origins of the two Victorian poets, Ash and LaMotte. Ash descends (swervingly) from Robert Browning; LaMotte is compounded from (but again, not reducible to) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. (Byatt lectured on all these writers in the days when she taught in the English Department of ‘Prince Albert College’ where Roland is a postgraduate – a place instantly recognisable to current members by ‘the pantry where the bulk of the Xerox squatted amongst unsavoury tea-towels beside a tea-stained sink ... in the din and hum of the extractor fan’.) But the name LaMotte leads to an original for both poets: Friedrich, Baron de la Motte Fouqué the German poet and novelist whose fairy-tale ‘Undine’, about the water-sprite who kills her faithless lover with a kiss, was one of the most famous and influential texts of European Romanticism. La Motte gives his name and interest in water-spirits to Christabel, whose major work is an epic poem on the subject of the French water-spirit Mélusine, and his other literary interests (in Norse mythology – his dramatic trilogy Der Held des Nordens was based on the Icelandic Edda) to Randolph Henry Ash, who writes a dramatic monologue called Ask to Embla and a 12-book ‘Christianising of the Norse myth’ called Ragnarok.

The playful erudition with which these invented or quasi-historical figures are conjured up is, of course, a Browningesque trait, and so is the plurality of voices and styles in which the story is told, and which represents in another way its refusal of conventional classifications. There is straightforward omniscient-author narrative; style indirecte libre; poetry and fiction by both Ash and LaMotte, and not in token amounts, either; academic criticism and biography; letters and diaries from characters present and (crucially) past. Ash’s poems are a fair pastiche of Browning, although they make you realise how difficult it is to catch his manner (as opposed to his mannerisms, which are prominent but misleading). Some of LaMotte’s are, by contrast, very good, particularly the Dickinson-like lyrics, complete with stray capitals and eccentric dashes. But the AshLaMotte writings also expose a serious weakness in Byatt’s design, which is nothing to do with whether their period feel is completely convincing.

How could it be, after all? Byatt’s forgeries of Victorian poems and letters don’t purport to be the Turin Shroud, and need not be carbondated in some literary-historical laboratory. They are required to pass muster in a ‘romance’, and generally do so, with occasional lapses and occasional moments of inspired rightness. (I am less irritated by a few false notes or anachronisms in this area than I am by Professor Blackadder still compiling his edition with slips of paper and index cards.) What matters is the use which is made of this material, and here Byatt is too knowing and too coercive. It is fatally convenient to invent your Victorian poets rather than take them as you find them; the temptation is to make them write or do whatever suits your purpose. In ‘Precipice-Encurled’, a story from Byatt’s 1987 collection Sugar, the historical Robert Browning made an appearance memorable for its convincing use of a multiplicity of details gleaned from his life and writings: they were all there, the art was in the gathering and sorting. With Ash and LaMotte, just because they both are and are not their historical originals, the detail can be supplied where it is wanting. LaMotte is required to be too many kinds of writer, for example: some of her poems don’t go well with each other, don’t seem the product of a single mind (as those of her models emphatically do). The Norse and Celtic myths, and other artistic topics in which she and Ash are interested, dovetail together too neatly, a feature of Byatt’s compulsion to make everything resonate with everything else. As a result, the novel’s patterns of association, its networks of coincidence and connection, too often seem forced. Roland and Maud decide to take a day off from their tracking of Ash and LaMotte to visit a beauty-spot not, as far as they know, connected with their quarry. ‘There’s a nice place on the map called the Boggle Hole,’ Roland says. ‘It’s a nice word – I wondered – perhaps we could take a day off from them, get out of their story ...’ But there’s no getting away from them, of course: later on it turns out that Ash and LaMotte have been there too. The ‘significance’ of this episode is overshadowed by its denial of human contingency, a failing for which Byatt rightly criticises literary scholarship but which she does not recognise closer to home, in her own sweeping exercise of the novelist’s providential powers.