Impossibilities

Walter Nash

  • Saraband by Patrice Chaplin
    Methuen, 216 pp, £13.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 413 63290 3
  • Pious Secrets by Irene Dische
    Bloomsbury, 147 pp, £14.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0835 6
  • City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
    Deutsch, 220 pp, £12.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 233 98661 8

I marvel at how modern authors, almost to a man – or more often, to a woman – can wheedle a reader into a story, working their pitch so elegantly that by the turn of the page you are ready for any tomfoolery, even for the absurd saga of that staunch American couple, Virgil and Laraine, who have a daughter called Sam who is described as ‘feisty’, and a son called Hap who keeps on grinning his slow, rueful grin and quoting thoughtful bits out of the philosophy books he steals from the library. Beware of this boy: he is a psychopath, and on page 243 will pursue his mother with murderous intent through the steam laundry, until Mrs Lobkowitz, their garrulous, gritty, warm-hearted Jewish neighbour, fells him with a coolly-placed rabbit punch.

Here is an opening I find irresistible, like talk overheard from the next table, or confidences caught in a sudden silence on the Underground:

When he said he was having an affair with the young girl she didn’t quit. When her eldest boy went back on drugs she didn’t quit. When the agency said she was no longer young enough to do glamour commercials – in other words her looks like the rest of her life were going downhill – she still didn’t quit. Then one day she went to the sink, started washing up and as she scraped the golden fleece scourer around a blue and white striped cup, she quit.

The resolute non-quitter is Alexis Scott, a chanteuse whose song is ending as she appears in this first paragraph of Patrice Chaplin’s Saraband, a spicy tale of lust and cuisine in London NW1. The book begins splendidly, and it has to be said that any red-blooded gossip must want to know more about an obviously formidable woman – who however, is allowed to throw herself under a train on page five after which the narrative belongs to kay. (Who is Kay? I am going to tell you. Eat your broccoli.)

Kay is a successful woman, a beauty, a cook, a campaigner for justice and a columnist of national acclaim, right? She is erotically equipped with long legs, big breasts, and a Roman nose with flared nostrils, endowments calculated to set men thinking impure thoughts. She herself is contemptuous of thought in any of its manifestations, and puts her trust in impassioned femininity of feeling, rather like Mae West, only with less good humour. Her husband, Joel, is a rich company director, a boardroom gladiator, a bit of a thinker, a man who has his fill of the world’s goods, yet hankers – poor deluded fellow – after an academic career, and keeps inviting professors to his house for a decent meal. Their daughter Sophie has been sent to a comprehensive school, and is in consequence an abominably feisty brat. Their son Tom, a minimally marginal character, is a sad, shadowy introvert who has been ‘shoved into Harrow’, but now cannot pass the examinations that will get him into ‘a top university’. Readers may share my concern for Tom, and will want to advise him to forget about Oxford and look around for an accommodating steam laundry. He owes it to his parents.

Enter, upon this domestic scene, the tempter, the accuser: a gypsy with a guitar, a seductive Spaniard, a man of the people who mops up his gravy with his bread yet tames the proudest beauty with his arrogant gaze. (Recognise him?) This is Angel Lupez, a flamenco artist, and Angel has a sordid past, having once worked in Paris as a waiter eking out his inadequate wage by devising additional menus for wealthy ladies, or for gentlemen, or sometimes for both in tandem. The humiliations of this way of life have turned his soul awry and made him at once fugitive (he dreams, and sings, of flying across the sea on a surfboard, away from it all) and vindictive (he is ingeniously cruel and keeps his nastiest tricks for women). Such a man depresses property values in Hampstead. Kay, of course, falls heavily for this demon, and thereby hangs the whole tale, which includes the sad history of Alexis Scott. Kay herself becomes helplessly obsessed, descends into dark worlds, neglects her children, neglects her cooking, obliges Joel to wear an apron and dish up stuff out of tins – oh the humiliation, he blubbers among the burned pans – professors are of no avail – and finally, appalled at what the intruder has wrought, decides that it can go on no longer and plans to down the diabolical dago by spooning laburnum seeds into his paella. Twice, however, this strategem fails, and our gypsy is allowed to choose his own exit: impulsively seizing a handy surfboard, he puts out to sea and is never heard of again. This strikes me as a rather desperate invention (since surfboards are for coming in, not going out) though perhaps not without grandeur, if one thinks of Angel scudding along, beyond Finisterre, proudly erect, accepting his destiny, an emblem of the liberated soul, albeit a casual hazard to mariners.

And it is hokum, even though some interior, episodes, some subordinate strands of narrative, suggest a perceptive author with subtle or trenchant things to say about ordinary human affairs. And even though the writing is here and there very witty, the verbal force often degenerates into unintentional comedy – for instance, in the recurrent figurative linkages between Kay’s perceptions of the world and her activities as a cook: ‘Kay averted her eyes from the overcooked vegetables,’ ‘She gave an overdone shrug,’ ‘Kay looked pale, almost floury, like an undercooked meringue,’ ‘Kay felt her face crumbling like a badly-made piecrust.’ We get the point. The kitchen rules, OK, even in the dirty bits, as when poor Joel is driven to desperate measures: ‘Maddened with frustration, he unzipped his trousers and shoved his erect penis into a carton of cream.’ (Well, to be sure, there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, but I do not think Ms Chaplin has wholly grasped the problems, mechanical, physiological and gravitational, inherent in what she proposes here.) On the whole, I think, if the book’s higher pretensions are ignored, it reads well enough as a bouncing black farce or a randy old romantic romp.

On the other hand, passengers awaiting the departure of British Airways’ morning flight to Malaga may like to be reminded that for the purposes of fiction Aristotle recommends a convincing impossibility in preference to an unconvincing possibility (say, a libidinous encounter with a carton of cream). Convincing impossibilities abound in Pious Secrets, a quirkily imaginative, witty, wry, touching book with an opening that sets its unremittingly mordant tone:

God wanted us to study disease by His own freely available light, said the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City. He designed the City Morgue’s autopsy room with two-storey high windows and a skylight, the dissection tables as tiny beds below. Within weeks the panes were so filthy that natural light went elsewhere. Summer came, the summer of the early Fifties, without air-conditioning or two-storey screens. The flies took advantage each time some poor stifling pathologist inched open a window. The flies vandalised the morgue. One night the glass in the skylight crashed down into the autopsy room. That was shortly before Connie Bauer began spending time there, but the lesson resounded long after a steel plank was hammered over the skylight: God doesn’t like theories about Himself and dissection.

The lesson that God doesn’t like any sort of theory about Himself and His way with His creatures resounds throughout the book. The dissection of cadavers becomes a gruesome metaphor for a decent inquiry into human destinies – it tells you nothing the corpse would prefer you not to know, whereas the knowledge you acquire by other means may be an offence to living and dead alike. Then do not ask whose histories, livelihoods, photographs, neuroses, sins, moustaches, misadventures these were: let the dead keep their secrets, that their griefs may not be recovered in the experience of the living. And avoid mischievous hypotheses: for although Almighty God assuredly does not play at dice, we should be the last to know what He is actually playing at. This is the serious burden of a book written with an ironic polish and stylistic precision that make it agreeably unburden-some. I lost count of the number of sentences that tickled me with the precision of their wording, or with the elegance of their rhythm, or with a hyperbole that takes on the shine of a particular truth. ‘The flies vandalised the morgue’ will do for an example – a minor case, incidentally, of the convincing impossibility.

Connie Bauer’s husband, Stanislav – a Nobel laureate and a man as furious in his chemical vocation as she is firm in her pathological faith – has left her, quite by accident: they are aboard a train, they quarrel, he alights at an unscheduled stop and stomps off into a field to cool his rage, the train goes without him, his wife assumes that he has left her. (You will not find in Aristotle a more convincing impossibility than that – but it is all in the writing.) Connie and her two children – funny, fetching, and altogether unfeisty – then move in with her father, Carl Bauer, an authoritarian, irascible old man, a ranting all-American who spicks with a Chairman ex-cent, dislikes Jews, has a pious Catholic housekeeper called Gerda, cherishes a collection of disciplined clocks, is notably reluctant to talk about the past or even acknowledge its existence, and sports a toothbrush moustache of the kind that forty years ago would have suggested only one person apart from Charlie Chaplin. Connie’s eight-year-old daughter Sally, prompted by tabloid speculations that Adolf Hitler is alive and well and living in the USA, decides that her grumpy, gloomy, broken, child-chiding old wretch of a grandpa – who has a dog called Happy – is the very man for the part. Unfortunately, she confides this notion to Connie’s colleague, Dr Hake. (Who is Hake? Hake is a cold cerebral fish who feels the old corporeal warmth for Connie. So do I. Eat your Kartoffeln).

Hake, a scientist and a Yale man withal, is convinced that the orderly procedures of pathology can be applied in questions other than the history of lesions, sarcomas and massive insults to the pancreas; that the soul’s history may also be methodically investigated, a diagnosis established, a prognosis made. The past, he thinks, blooms in us like a tumour, to be searched, to be declared benign or malignant, to be tolerated or treated or excised. When Sally tells him of her conviction that Carl Bauer is Adolf Hitler, he snatches unscientifically at the very suggestion and embarks upon a doggea and dotty investigation, the outcome of which, he hopes, will be a minor scientific triumph, perhaps not as glorious as the Nobel Prize, but nevertheless an achievement to impress Connie. We readers know that Connie is not going to be impressed; that there are things she would rather keep from prying eyes; that Adolf Hitler is dust and ashes, and that the story of Carl Bauer is a Jewish history of surviving, escaping, covering old, unbearable, abominable tracks. Hake is foiled as a scientist, fooled as a human being; the secrets uncovered by the investigation are the little secrets of the investigator’s own nature. ‘It would become Dr Hake’s own little dirty secret,’ says the final sentence, ‘swaddled in layers of piety, his pious secret.’ Thus the last phrase in the narrative presents its title – though I note that the original German text is called Fromme Lügen, meaning ‘pious lies’, or perhaps more idiomatically, ‘white lies’ – like the fibs that Connie invents to keep her family safe from a prying world. Are lies privileged, like secrets? Are secrets necessarily lies? Is there some semantic game in the original which the translation cannot adequately play? Oh, never mind. Drink your wine, and remember that the author’s name is Irene Dische; her book demonstrates the possibility that fiction can be popular and wholly convincing.

Nobody needs to be told that Penelope Lively can deal convincingly with any possibility. I gather, however, that this is an author whose ordinary competence can sometimes flower into magic. For my part, I am always ready to settle for ordinary competence, as something brilliantly preferable to customary ineptitude – but let us see if there is not just a touch, a promise of magical bloom in the opening paragraph of City of the Mind:

Night. Lights on. The lights that glide in jewelled columns, red and white, that make glowing caverns of the windows opposite, that rake the bedroom ceiling in long yellow shafts. And in the sky, the dead and dancing sky, there are a million yesterdays. ‘Why are there stars?’ the child asks her father. He shakes his head, pulls the curtains to, and goes. It is late; she should sleep. And in any case he has no answer.

There it is, in that phrase ‘the dead and dancing sky’, a figure so beguiling that even the author likes it. It appears again on page 144, by which time its prophetic potential is already fulfilled: for this book is largely a meditation on time and the individual experience, on the sense of continuity – collective, particular, echoic, harmonic – that Eliot describes so precisely when he says that time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. (The poet’s ‘perhaps’ is also precise: they are not present in quite the same forms, but their presence is recognised.) Thus the stars are dead – for all we know at this end of light’s journey: but look you, the stars shine still. Or as Ms Lively pertinently says, you cannot step into the same river twice, and yet we do, repeatedly, whether the river is some poignant personal stream, or whether it is the flow of other lives in other times and places.

In City of the Mind there is one river and one place. The river is the Thames and the city is London, whose very stones raise phantoms to the imagination and trouble the heart in dreams. Of such dreams and imaginings the author tells us ‘this is the landscape of the psyche – a coded medley of allusions in which the private and the universal are inextricably entwined. Here the mind creates its own images, a brilliant mythic universe in which there is no chronology, in which the laws of nature are suspended.’ The ‘allusions’ in the novel are to figures, major or minor, from London’s past, recent or remote: to Martin Frobisher, sailing out of the Thames to unimaginable wildernesses; to Richard Owen, a Victorian palaeontologist and student of dinosaurs; and Jim Protheroe, an air-raid warden whose only child is killed in the Blitz, even as another child is being born in an air-raid shelter. Penelope Lively evokes these personalities and their stories with great power and charm, cajoling the reader with her feeling that ships and shoes and sealing-wax have languages, have time-transcending human references. This is very impressive.

Regrettably, what the novel gains in harmonic mass it loses in melodic line; the plot is a little thin. It concerns Matthew Halland, an architect, working in London, preferring the serviceable restoration of old dwelling-houses to the entrepreneurial fantasies of Docklands. Matthew is divorced, and makes do with an efficient mistress while he awaits the advent of a greater love. He has a daughter called Jane, whom he takes to numerous museums; he has one or two almost-friends among his professional colleagues; and he casually acquires an enemy in the form of a Rachmanite property-developer, a rotter called Rutter. In the end he meets the right woman at about the time his ex-wife is meeting the right man and his mistress has decided to make the right move. Look you, the stars shine still; life goes on; quod erat demonstrandum – except that the connections between this paperback theme and its encyclopedic ground are never wholly demonstrated. There is magic in the book, but it hardly gets into the construction.