Downhill Racer

John Sutherland

  • Lying together by D.M. Thomas
    Gollancz, 255 pp, £13.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 575 04802 6
  • The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole
    Viking, 162 pp, £12.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 670 82908 0
  • Solomon Gursky was here by Mordecai Richler
    Chatto, 576 pp, £13.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 394 53995 8
  • Death of the Soap Queen by Peter Prince
    Bloomsbury, 277 pp, £13.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0611 6

Lying together marks the end (one hopes) of a sequence of novels D.M. Thomas began in 1983 with Ararat. Now called in its entirety ‘Russian Nights’, the sequence has been a fluid thing. At various points Thomas projected a trilogy and a quartet. In the event, ‘Russian Nights’ has turned out to be five novels long. Five novels too long, some might say. Thomas admits in his preface that ‘I kept changing my mind about whether the work was finished. I should have realised that an author does not decide this; the work itself decides, by suddenly letting go – as it has now done.’

It would have been convenient for Thomas’s career if the work had let go earlier. He began the ‘Russian Nights’ enterprise on the crest of a wave. The White Hotel (1981) catapulted him to international fame. It was a novelist’s fairy-tale: ignored or ridiculed as high-falutin’ pornography in the UK, Thomas’s Freudian fantasia sold only a few hundred and seemed destined for oblivion. But it was unexpectedly picked up in America, where enthusiasm for it became a rage. Pocket Books printed a million copies in paperback and sold them as fast as they hit the bookshop shelves. The novel was put on syllabuses in every forward-thinking English department in the country.

Ararat came out in the wake of The White Hotel’s triumph and was minutely examined by British reviewers, wary about being caught napping again. But the new novel was not easy to applaud or even to comprehend. Summarising any Thomas plot is like trying to stick soap bubbles in a stamp-album, but Ararat is exceptionally elusive, even with seven years’ hindsight. It begins with the resonant sentence: ‘Sergei Rozanov had made an unnecessary journey from Moscow to Gorky, simply in order to sleep with a young blind woman.’ He is a poet, she is a student of his work whom he has never met before. It is a hot October night in the early 1980s and after copulation (‘acrobatic but lacking in finesse’), Rozanov and his partner find themselves unable to sleep. He might drop in on the exiled Sakharovs, he thinks. Instead, Olga suggests he improvise a story to while away the night. What theme? he asks. ‘Improvisations,’ she gives him.

So begins the long ‘Russian Nights’ invention. Improvising, Rozanov imagines three writers themselves improvising stories one sultry October night. From this, there unravels a baffling tangle of tales within tales and dreams within dreams. Connection is Thomas’s obsession in the sequence: ‘the mysterious way in which a word, an image, a dream, a story, calls up another, connected yet independent’. Reading the quintet, one is unsettled by a reality for ever melting into fantasy only to harden back into new reality. And in Lying together we learn that the original point of departure – the writer leaving for an assignation with a blind interpreter – was itself only a metaphor for creativity.

Improvisational novels are risky from a market point of view. Most readers want firmer anchorage than Thomas is willing to supply. In other ways, he has squandered the huge public which he inherited with The White Hotel. ‘Russian Nights’ presupposes that the Anglophone reader shares Thomas’s obsession with things Slav. Few do. It also requires that the reader grasp a running and subtle allusion to Pushkin’s fable of improvisation, Egyptian Nights. Thomas helpfully inserted the whole of his translation of the text of this unfinished work into Ararat. Even so, the majority of readers who don’t have Pushkin at their fingertips must read the sequence with a nagging sense of cultural inferiority. (‘Idiot Brits’ is a phrase Thomas likes to throw around.)

Over the years of the quintet, readers and reviewers have turned against Thomas in droves – on both sides of the Atlantic. Having endured Swallow (1984), which conceives an improvisation ‘Olympiad’ in Finland, one reviewer (Alfred Corn) instructed that ‘fans of Thomas’s earlier work should do him the favour of not buying this book. Small royalties might wake him up to the fact that this kind of nonsense cannot be continued.’ Fans certainly defected and royalties doubtless shrank. But Thomas perversely continued his nonsense with Sphinx (1986). The central improvisation here is the KGB’s despatching a ‘swallow’ – the luscious agent Nadia – to seduce the Pope. Nadia’s husband turns up in Lying together, having tried (I think I’m right in this) to blow up London with nuclear missiles from the Soviet submarine he commands. He rapes a version of Rozanov’s blind student (now a blind film-director) who – with her handicap – fondly thinks she is merely being made forceful love to by a version of Pushkin’s Charsky (now an actor, who may have a part in the blind director’s Dr Zhivago, if his penis pleases). Meanwhile the rapist is being buggered by a young thug with Aids. All this lying together gets very complicated, especially as just a few pages ago Charsky was scaling the North Face of the Eiger.

Summit (1987) was the fourth work in the sequence. This ‘mind-bogglingly miscalculated’ novel (as a typical reviewer called it) was set in Geneva against a meeting between the Russian premier Grobichev (sic) and President O’Reilly – a bumbling former movie actor. The novel was taken to be a coda to what was then entitled by Thomas the ‘Russian Quartet’, now concluded. The venture was generally rated a wretched failure. It had been downhill all the way from The White Hotel. Thomas’s novels no longer even made paperback. But with jaunty bravado, Gollancz’s publicity material for Lying together concedes that still worse was to come: ‘D.M. Thomas’s reputation,’ they tell us, ‘reached its nadir with his last book, titled Memories and Hallucinations (1988) ... “transfixingly embarrassing,” wrote Literary Review, “a masterpiece of male egotism,” said the Sunday Telegraph, and the Evening Standard recommended that “a free dirty mac should be supplied with every copy.” ’ Some publicity.

To any but the most obstinate writer it would have seemed time to change course – if not profession. Extraordinarily, Thomas decided to resuscitate the ‘Russian Nights’ sequence. In Lying together the setting is London 1988 and an International Writers Conference sponsored by the Guardian. ‘Don Thomas’ – making his first unveiled appearance – meets up at the Hyde Park Regis with three (fictional) storytellers from earlier segments: Sergei Rozanov, Victor Surkov and Masha Barash. The conference they are attending is an appalling affair. Stuffed shirts like ‘Kington Aimes, the humorous novelist’ rub shoulders with monstrous feminists and Third World demagogues. Thomas’s quartet – true artists that they are – occupy the warm October evenings of the conference boozing and improvising.

Thomas is nothing if not surprising. Lying together is very enjoyable – even if, like me and two million others, you gave up on the sequence half-way through Swallow. Most surprisingly, the tone of the narrative is wryly comic and often self-mocking. It’s an unexpected treat after the sledgehammer jokes of Summit and the lecherous self-pity of Dreams and Hallucinations. Thomas’s comedy begins with his fictional characters demanding equal billing as authors of ‘Russian Nights’. Thomas demurs – his contract with Gollancz won’t allow it. The poet Victor Surkov (alias Pushkin) has always been the most exuberant of Thomas’s troupe. Here – with his hair dyed an outlandish lemon yellow – he runs away with the novel, wholly overshadowing his lugubrious ‘author’ Rozanov (just out of a punitive mental hospital). A lover of Mrs Thatcher, about whose taut nipples he rhapsodises (‘she loves having them sucked. It drives her wild’), and of Raisa Gorbachov (‘she was terrific in bed’), the unspeakable Surkov is an incarnation of Russian randiness. He condones child abuse: ‘Why should a father stroking his daughter’s tits create enormous problems?’ He knocks a stuck-up Times hackette off her high horse by the old-fashioned Slav expedient of raping her. He gets off the charge when a besotted Prime Minister fixes things with the Police.

Surkov’s finest moment is an interview on breakfast TV, in which – as an appalled presenter tries to gag him – he tells the English about ‘a poem by one of your great writers, Jonathan Quick. This guy in the poem is madly in love with a woman called Celia, but he sees her commode just after she’s had a shit and he can’t take it.’ A broadcast phone call from Mrs Thatcher keeps the Russian monster on the air: ‘If one is dealing with an extremely complex subject, as you were, one is entitled to have enough time to deal with it adequately.’ It’s very offensive and – if you can get over that – very funny. Strange to say, after his long journey from best-sellerdom, D.M. Thomas has emerged as a powerful comic novelist. Kington Aimes must look to his laurels.

The circumstances surrounding John Kennedy Toole’s fictions are as pure American Gothic as even Flannery O’Connor could devise. Without any of his friends suspecting he had authorial ambitions, Toole wrote A Confederacy of Dunces in the early Sixties, while doing his national service in Puerto Rico. The manuscript was submitted to Simon and Schuster, where Robert Gottlieb, after dickering for two years, eventually turned it down in 1966. By 1969 Toole was an English instructor at Dominican University, working in his spare time on his PhD. A modest academic career seemed likely. But Toole began to behave in a paranoid way, as his colleagues recall. He suddenly disappeared. It later emerged that he had taken off on a three-month automobile odyssey to California. On his way back he called by Flannery O’Connor’s house in Georgia. Then, outside Biloxi in Mississippi on 26 March 1969, he connected some garden hosepipe to the exhaust of his car and gassed himself. He was just 31 years old.

Toole left no will. An only child, he did leave a suicide note for his parents, which his mother read and destroyed without divulging its contents. Among her son’s effects, she found the manuscript of his rejected novel, which she had never read, and his correspondence with Simon and Schuster. Thelma Toole thereafter always maintained that the New York publishers (more particularly, that ‘Jewish creature’, Gottlieb) had effectively murdered her son by first raising then dashing his hopes. More than one commentator has hinted that John’s relationship with his overwhelming mother may have had something to do with his suicide; it certainly conditions much of his fiction.

Although she was 70 and had an invalid husband, Thelma Toole devoted the rest of her life to getting John’s novel published and his genius vindicated. A Confederacy of Dunces was eight times rejected. But after 11 years Mrs Toole, with the help of Walker Percy, induced Louisiana State University Press to accept it. Against all the odds, the novel became a best-seller, and won its author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1980.

Reportedly, Toole’s literary remains comprised a carbon of the rejected A Confederacy of Dunces and the finished manuscript of a novella called The Neon Bible. He had written it for a literary competition when he was 16, just after going up to Tulane University. Apparently Mrs Toole knew nothing about this other work until after her son’s death. It would have seemed logical to publish The Neon Bible in the immediate uprush of Toole’s fame, in the early Eighties. But there were difficulties, most of them originating with the author’s mother. Since he had died intestate, Louisiana law made all Toole’s relatives on his father’s side co-owners of his estate. Thelma Toole – who evidently despised her dead husband’s family as ‘shanty Irish’ – had persuaded them to waive their rights in A Confederacy of Dunces. They were not inclined to part with their shares of The Neon Bible. There was also the complication that Mrs Toole had early on given the manuscript to another publisher, Rhoda Faust, with verbal permission (as Ms Faust claimed) to publish the work. Faust was disinclined to surrender the property. There followed a complicated series of lawsuits during the course of which, in 1984, Mrs Toole died. In her will, she left Kenneth Holditch as trustee for The Neon Bible. He was instructed to prevent publication in perpetuity. Mrs Toole’s resentment at her relatives and Ms Faust now exceeded her desire to get her son’s work in print. Having fought like a lioness to have him published, she now fought even from beyond the grave to have him suppressed.

A reluctant Holditch followed her instructions until the courts finally overruled him in 1987. Thus it is that – literally over Mrs Toole’s dead body – we now have The Neon Bible. It is certainly worth having. The story covers a period from around 1937 to 1953 and is set in rural Mississippi, a landscape of baked clay and shacks with cinder yards. David, the hero-narrator, grows up an only child in redneck poverty. His shiftless father drifts from job to job, beats his wife and lets David get beaten up by young thugs his own age. The family are ostracised by respectable townspeople, because they cannot afford to pay church dues. Eventually the father dies, a GI in Italy. His survivors do not much care. David gets love only from his eccentric Aunt Mae, a 60-year-old floozie. But Aunt Mae resurrects her show-business career for the duration and goes off to Nashville leaving the boy wholly friendless. David’s world is one of mysterious violence, utter solitude and a rock-hard Southern Baptist Church, whose neon sign on Main Street (a garishly coloured page of the Bible) threatens his eventual damnation. The personality that comes through the story is repulsive. At 16, David proposes marriage to the only girl he has ever dated. By way of reply she screams, claws his face and runs away, her hair flying. The novel ends with much blood and some spectacular violence against mothers, all of it filtered through David’s anaesthetised gaze and precocious schoolboy prose.

The power of The Neon Bible resides in its descriptions of the small town where David’s childhood is unspent. But, as the reader admires Toole’s writing, questions form. Was he really only 16 when he wrote it? Did he perhaps revise or wholly rewrite the text at a later time? Kenneth Holditch’s introduction is not always helpful. He does not identify the mysterious writing competition in 1953, nor what evidence there is to date the manuscript as wholly written then. The Neon Bible begins and ends with a train journey which strongly recalls Chapter Eight of The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s novel came out in 1951. Was the 14-year-old Toole one of the original readers of the hardback or did he – like most of his generation – encounter Holden Caulfield in paperback later in the decade? Thelma Toole was fanatical on the subject of her son’s genius. As the work of a young man, The Neon Bible is interesting but nothing very wonderful. As the work of a boy, it is prodigious. One would like proof that it is a boy’s novel.

There are gaps in Holditch’s introduction. He does not, for instance, mention Rhoda Faust. But had Ms Faust not had physical possession of the manuscript and fought six years for the right to publish, the work might never have been known about. No one is now going to forget John Kennedy Toole; his mother can rest in peace on that score. He is a legendary figure – a Louisiana Rimbaud. Sooner or later someone will ‘discover’ that like Elvis, Jim Morrison and James Dean he still lives. But one hopes that Kenneth Holditch or someone else who can get at the facts will some day write a full and historical account of the young man’s doomed life, his works and their posthumous career.

Mordecai Richler has published only two novels in the last twenty years. Yet so substantial are they that one can easily believe that fiction has been his main concern all the time. Joshua Then and Now (1980) was a massive autobiographical exercise, coinciding with the author’s return to Montreal after two decades of cosmopolitan life. Solomon Gursky was here is similarly large-scale and takes on Canada and its Jews as subject. Moses Berger, a failed academic and failed human being, devotes himself to a quest for Solomon Gursky (the Corvo analogy is frequently evoked, with much play on crows and ravens). Solomon belongs to a family founded by a patriarch, Ephraim, who mysteriously survived Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the North-West Passage in the 1840s. Cannibalism was involved – or perhaps the ravens sustained him. (As he understates, Richler has ‘put his own spin’ on the Franklin story.) The third generation of Gurskys was enriched by bootlegging and the fourth has become one of Canada’s most respectably great families. Solomon – the most wayward of the Gurskys – flew off in his Tiger Moth in the Thirties and has never been seen again. He may still be alive and may have been involved in Marilyn Monroe’s death, the rise of Chairman Mao and the raid on Entebbe. Ever since he was invited to a birthday party at their mansion as a child in 1942, Moses has had a Gatsbyish infatuation with the dynasty and has spent thirty years of his life investigating them. He has found only tantalising scraps.

Berger’s randomly assembled materials, together with his own chaotic career form the novel’s outline. Some of it – such as the complex play throughout the narrative with various forms of myth – demands study rather than the casual attentions of the novel reader. The reconstruction of Thirties western Canada is dense enough for the book to be set on history courses (Richler is already a mainstay of Canadian literature courses). And, as one of the novel’s many byways, there is an extended analysis of English anti-semitism and Anglo-Semitic supremacism in the person of Sir Hyman Kaplan, a crook turned connoisseur tycoon, who may in fact be Solomon Gursky.

The great pleasure in Solomon Gursky was here is Mordecai Richler’s comedy, still as hilariously tasteless as the mother’s strip-tease at the hero’s barmitzvah in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Moses Berger, drunk, attends the opening night of a dramatised Diary of Anne Frank in London. He dozes off and wakes during the poignant Hanukkah scene.

Suddenly there was a crash from below the attic. The Green Police? The Gestapo? Everybody onstage froze. Straining to hear. For a few seconds there was total silence and then something in Moses short-circuited. Not rising, but propelled out of his seat, he hollered ‘Look in the attic! She’s hiding in the attic!’

As one of the less law-abiding Gurskys puts it, on his death bed: ‘If God exists, I’m fucked.’

I would very much like to see again the television play that was made of Peter Prince’s novel Play Things in the early Seventies. It had a quirky plot about a young man whose initially comical attempt to run a London children’s playground on liberal principles comes to a violent end. Death of the Soap Queen also looks like good tele-novel material. An actress who has become a household name in a television soap opera – The Entwistles – throws it all up to concentrate on parts worthy of her. No parts come and her marriage founders. She languishes in a seaside town on the ‘Kentish Riviera’, where she becomes entangled in the paranoid fantasies of a young man, whose episodes lead her through deception and murder to a new life. What gives Death of the Soap Queen its kick is uncertainty about what kind of novel one is reading. The opening chapters lull the reader into expecting a sentimental study in the woes of show business. By a series of sharp turns, the narrative becomes satire, mystery and thriller.