- Francesca by Roger Scruton
Sinclair-Stevenson, 236 pp, £13.95, February 1991, ISBN 1 85619 048 X
- Slave of the Passions by Deirdre Wilson
Picador, 251 pp, £14.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 330 31788 1
- The Invisible Worm by Jennifer Johnston
Sinclair-Stevenson, 182 pp, £12.95, February 1991, ISBN 1 85619 041 2
- The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré
Hodder, 335 pp, £14.95, January 1991, ISBN 0 340 54381 7
There are many Roger Scrutons and it is not easy to reconcile them: barrister, aesthetician, champion of Senator Joseph McCarthy, teacher at Birkbeck College (an institution with a tradition of proletarian outreach), editor of the ultra-Tory Salisbury Review foxhunter. And novelist. Fortnight’s Anger (1981) was hard-going – a murky tale of adolescent sexuality full of sentences like: ‘Her hands trembled on his face and neck. Slowly the agony of appeasement wormed through him, and his grief, unlocked at last, crawled out and shook itself on the surface of his face.’ That is, he wept. Scruton’s second novel, Francesca, is less overdone in its writing – although it too deals with the toils of adolescence. The ten-year interval has usefully congealed some of the Scruton parts. His prejudices seem now to have permeated all the fibres of his mind and sensibility, like smoke into well-cured bacon. Everything he writes now seems thoroughly Scrutonised. One feels a sense of gratified expectation at the snide allusions to the New Statesman, the Guardian and ‘Dr Leavis’ on page one of Francesca. This is the Roger Scruton we know and love to hate – Britain’s favourite ‘token reactionary’, as he sometimes calls himself.
Francesca recalls Great Expectations. The grammar-school boy hero, Colin Ferguson, is the son of a self-improved, atheist, socialist, environmentalist schoolmaster father. The characterisations are as easy to take apart as lego, each piece a pet Scruton peeve. A sensitive youth, given to swooning when his problems press, Colin falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the lord who lives on the hill (soon to be developed – to the lord’s profit – into a housing estate). One track of the story is the comedy of Colin’s adventures with a sharply-observed set of upper-class twits and the upper-class bitch he hopelessly pines for. Another track – more interesting to Scruton watchers – is the drama of Colin’s ideological conversion. Love and the irresistible magnetism of English aristocracy induce him to disown his father’s values – based as they are on ‘resentment’ (a key word in the author’s vocabulary of social analysis). The moment of conversion occurs as Colin stands in the dock accused of drunken misconduct on Primrose Hill. If ever he should resent the class system it is now, but instead – like a sinner in the hand of an angry God – Colin submits:
The fact was that he could not share the schoolmaster’s [i.e. his father’s) vast resentment. In his heart he believed in the legitimacy of institutions: he believed in law, in ceremony, in the colourful nonsense of condign punishment. He believed in the ruling class, in privilege, in heredity and customary power. He believed in the rights of Lord Shepton, of Nigel de Litham, of the spoiled and impossible Francesca. He believed in it, as Tertullian believed in the incarnation, because it was absurd. Through Francesca he came face to face with the madness that lies at the heart of all legitimate order – the boiling core of contradictions, upon which the volcanic crust of stability incongruously rests.
It’s not an exalted credo. Scruton’s aristocrats don’t have beautiful houses, magnificent works of art, fine manners or high culture. They do not hold the true England in trust. This is not Brideshead. Scruton’s aristocrats get beastly drunk, honk, bray, bully, drive offensively expensive Rolls-Royces, and flaunt their other nice things in the faces of those who cannot afford them. Their very nicest things are beautiful women like Francesca. – much preferable to the Guardian-reading drabs and West Indian whores who would normally cater to Colin’s needs did he not nurture ideas above his station. The only social justification for the English aristocracy is the thin ‘crust of stability’ they provide. Take them away and you unplug the British volcano. The ‘morons’ (as Scruton at one point calls the British working class) will erupt in all their natural ugliness. Scruton’s glum sociology gives us a choice of louts and he prudently chooses the louts in dinner jackets.
Francesca is set in the Sixties and Colin Ferguson must be a contemporary of young Roger Scruton. It is tempting to turn the novel on its author as his testament on the necessity of lordolatrous conservatism. But Scruton is not that easily nailed. Francesca is written in an edgy enigmatic style, which borders on, but never quite achieves, satire. Nor is it ever clear where the author stands. The curiously affectless tone of the narrative – even in its tragic climax – may be something aimed at, or it may indicate some failure to achieve the exact tone Scruton wants. Whatever, Francesca leaves the reader stimulated, mildly infuriated, and seriously baffled.
‘Final exams were over.’ Deirdre Wilson’s first sentence snaps at the reader. Anyone who doesn’t know from personal experience what finals are should probably go no further. This novel is not for the unlettered. Slave of the Passions ponders the great question whether there is life after graduation from Oxford. Or, more precisely, after graduating from Oxford without a glittering prize. Grace Ritchie – ‘a doll with teeth’ – just misses a first in PPE. Discovering that you are only worth a ‘good second’ is, the narrative assures us, as awful as being told you have operable cancer. You’ll live, but you’ll never feel whole again. And anyway, there’s no such thing as a good second, any more than there’s a bad first. Wilson spends a third of her novel on the inconsolable grief that lies between the numbers one and two and the horrible finality of finals.
If a tomato had a soul it would feel like Grace when she saw her results. Here I am, a wonderful unclassifiable being, both fruit and vegetable, a unique combination of properties, red and round and soft and friendly, and along comes a botanist and says you can’t be both. But beneath the disappointment was a deeper feeling of shame. Grace was not just a tomato, she was a tomato who had seized the arm of a passing botanist and asked to be classified. No one makes you go to university. No one makes you take university exams. If you choose to play with a loaded gun, you can’t complain if you’re shot.
The shot tomato survives. It is 1962, and Grace’s good second means postgraduate work at London – a ‘provincial’ university in pre-Robbins phraseology. Her subject is animal behaviour – the whole gamut from molluscs to rats. In her exile she pursues a love affair begun in the summer balls of her final year, her last taste of Eden. Andrew, an engineer and semipro rock musician, was initially attracted to Grace because she ‘looked like a person’ (what did he expect – a tomato?). The novel follows a year or so of their courtship, his musical career and her research. Affairs of heart, head and guitar have predictable ups and downs. She suffers under a doltish supervisor, and he doesn’t get his break into the big time. The novel ends with Grace on the brink of a career in linguistics (Wilson’s field) and the relationship gone hopelessly sour. She invites him to come back and spend the night with her, and he yawns. End of the affair. Grace’s being ditched inspires some blunt wisdom from the author, who seems momentarily to forget she’s only writing a novel: ‘An affair like this is normally regarded as a learning experience. In my view it’s about as much of a learning experience as having your legs shot away. It’s not a bar to running a maze but it doesn’t make it any easier to get around.’ I’m no zoologist, but I think that having its legs shot off might be something of a bar to a rat’s running a maze. A plucky rodent might crawl or wriggle a bit but it would hardly run, however many rewards or electric shocks you gave it. And I note a certain trigger-happiness in Deirdre Wilson: a few pages back she was blasting away at tomatoes in the greenhouse and here she is taking pot shots at laboratory animals.
The story which began so confidently ends with tantalising uncertainty, dribbling off the last page with a ‘Yes, well ...’ But for all its headlong turn of phrase and thought, Slave of the Passions keeps the reader gripped. It is a first novel and communicates a strong sense of an author enjoying her writing. I want to know what Grace and Andrew have been up to since then. Does he make it? Does she recover from the double disappointment of a good second and a broken heart? Does she ever become a person? A sequel and possibly a running saga are called for.
Scruton and Wilson are teachers at the University of London and occasional novelists. Jennifer Johnston is a full-time professional who has won, or come close to winning, her profession’s highest prizes (though not the mass readership that sometimes goes with them). The Invisible Worm is a skilled exercise in narrative economy. It must be the kind of novel you can write only if you’ve spent years writing novels. Johnston uses words as if she were buying them with her life’s savings from a jeweller’s. A woman looks out into her garden on the coast of Ireland. She sees another woman running away. It is herself. She is schizophrenic (‘mad’ as her unkind, ‘peculiar’ as her kind neighbours say). The daughter of a senior politician who has just died, Laura is the wife of an EEC official who ‘took’ her for the dowry of her father’s patronage. He is Catholic, she is Protestant. Her husband’s attentions smother and reduce her, as did her father’s, to doll-like impotence. She hates the closeness of men – aftershave, tobacco and hot licking tongues on her cheek. Laura lives ‘in two tenses’. Her mind flits uncontrollably between the present and twenty years ago when something awful happened to her in the summerhouse (it’s not giving away more than the title does to reveal that the something was grossly sexual). With the help of a ‘spoiled priest’ – another of life’s casualties – Laura frees herself from the past and achieves a kind of cure. She and the running woman are one. The novel ends with her looking out of the same window, seeing not the past but ‘my future – an empty page on which I will begin to write my life’. She has discovered a third tense. Whether she will leave the ‘mad museum’ of her marital home is left open.
The Invisible Worm offers a description of child abuse so affecting and at the same time so tactful that one is tempted to claim that the novel as a genre must be peculiarly privileged in exploring the full awfulness of the crime. But what impresses one most is how effectively – how professionally – Johnston makes words work for her. The narrative is composed of broken sentences, half-repressed memories, tight-lipped dialogue, thought which scarcely dares form itself into language. On the page, with its profusion of white space and ellipsis, The Invisible Worm looks like shorthand notes for a novel. And there are not many pages. These dabs and scraps create a resonantly complete design in the reader’s mind. The narrative pivots on such fine points that by changing about five hundred words (incidental references to the European Community, cars, the radio, and so on), you could convert The Invisible Worm into a New Woman novel of the 1890s. It was not until page 30 that I picked up an unequivocal historical marker – plastic detritus on the beach. The book has a handsomely understated jacket by Craig Dodd whose Edwardian design enhances the historical ambiguity, as does the Blakean title.
The Secret Pilgrim comes out at the same time as the Fred Schepsi-Tom Stoppard film of The Russia House. Le Carré and Sean Connery have both had very profitable Cold War careers. But it’s been a long duration. Connery is now so grizzled and ‘gamy’ (as one unkind American critic put it) that one can scarcely imagine Michelle Pfeiffer giving him a second look. He’s unrecognisable from the shiny action man of From Russia with Love struggling, with not a lot of success, to overlay his working-class Edinburgh accent and talk with a plum in his cruelly sensual mouth. Connery now looks as if the Cold War had been fought on his face and his voice is practically lost in a low-register growl that could be vocalisation or desperate phlegm clearing. At least it sounds natural, if not always human.
George Smiley, on the other hand, has been physically impervious to the forty-five years of the Cold War. This curious fact is noted in David Monaghan’s monograph The Novels of John le Carré (1985). Smiley married his wife Ann towards the end of the World War Two. He was evidently then well into his thirties. In 1960, in A Murder of Quality, he was described as ‘the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation’. In 1973, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley is still ‘small, podgy, and at best middle-aged’. In 1990 in The Secret Pilgrim he remains – as the narrator Ned tells us – ‘a tubby, bespectacled gentleman of a certain seniority ... stockier than I remembered him, and white-haired, it was true, but of a vigour and good humour I had not seen in him since his wife had her fatal fling with Haydon.’ By the calendar. Smiley must be close on eighty rather than (as we are yet again told) ‘middle-aged’. Alec Guinness (to whom The Secret Pilgrim is dedicated) was 68 when he played in the TV adaptation of Smiley’s People, and looked it. But he projected a Teiresian sense of being somehow beyond age, which worked very well and seems true to le Carré’s conception of his hero. Denholm Elliott, at 69, will play a Smiley around twenty-five years his junior in Thames Television’s April production of A Murder of Quality. I expect he’ll blur the age problem as skilfully as Guinness did, and as le Carré has in the novels.
Smiley is a kind of side door through which we enter the narrative of The Secret Pilgrim. The old spymaster has retired, and lives somewhere in North Cornwall. But he keeps his hand in and has switched his attention from the Bear to the ‘thief of Baghdad’ (a nice piece of anticipation on le Carré’s part). He comes down to Sarratt – Britain’s school for spies – to talk to a graduating class. Like other old-boys, his speech-day truths sound pompous and self-important:
The purpose of my life was to end the time I lived in. So if my past were still around today, you could say I’d failed. But it’s not around. We won. Not that the victory matters a damn. And perhaps we didn’t win anyway. Perhaps they just lost. Or perhaps, without the bonds of ideological conflict to restrain us any more, our troubles are just beginning. Never mind.
George Smiley, it seems, has become something of a bore. As he talks, the class instructor Ned – whose surname is one of the novel’s secrets – ruminates on episodes in his own past. These episodes are arranged chronologically as a secret pilgrim’s progress, from the mid-Fifties to the present, and Ned’s own retirement (this is his last class). In contrast with Smiley’s epic duel with Karla, Ned’s career has been conducted largely in the Prufrockian department of the firm. His brilliant classmate Ben, for instance, seems set for great things. But he betrays the whole of the Berlin operation. Like Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy, Ben goes to ground to escape from his vengeful comrades. Unlike Magnus, who was a traitor of conscience, Ben simply lost a set of index cards from his raincoat pocket, cycling around in the Zone. As he confesses his crime to Ned, ‘the appalling banality’ of what he is saying sinks in: ‘you could lose a network as easily as you could lose a bunch of keys or a cheque book or a pocket handkerchief.’ Ned’s last job is to ask an ennobled English industrialist – who can spill some nasty beans about the Circus – to stop sanctions busting: ‘We’re asking you to lay off. You’ve got your knighthood, you’re worth a fortune, you have a duty to your country.’ Sir Anthony’s reply is unyielding: ‘I don’t give a fart.’ Was it for this that they defeated Communism? For a moment, but just a moment, Ned feels ‘as if my whole life had been fought against the wrong enemy’. Two days later he turns in his Head Office pass, and enters civilian life – retired but not entirely resigned. His war is over. It would seem that le Carré’s is, as well. But one can hope for more old soldier’s stories.