Making faces

Philip Horne

  • The Grimace by Nicholas Salaman
    Grafton, 256 pp, £13.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 246 13770 3
  • Playing the game by Ian Buruma
    Cape, 234 pp, £13.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 224 02758 1
  • The Music of Chance by Paul Auster
    Faber, 217 pp, £13.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 571 16157 X

What do coincidences mean? As I was reading Nicholas Salaman’s elaborately-patterned historical paranoia novel The Grimace, in which all the women the cracked narrator encounters are called Johanna, I came across the phrase ‘visions of Johannas’. It gave me a shock to realise that the song ‘Visions of Johanna’, by Bob Dylan, at which Salaman nods just this once, was at the same moment playing quietly on my stereo, which it does perhaps once a year. I didn’t bother to try to compute the odds against this happening, and left it as a sharp earful of what Paul Auster calls ‘the music of chance’.

Salaman, Buruma and Auster are all connoisseurs of the incongruous connection, all adept stringers-along of the reader into tantalisingly incomplete networks of significance. Salaman is a practised psychological construction-man, a builder-up of considered trifles into impressive delusional systems that register the mental states of his protagonists. He is good at evoking in us – as when the third and fourth and fifth ‘Johannas’ appear in The Grimace – a creeping distrust of his characters’ accounts of perceptions, which he then escalates from oddball eccentricity to a whole out-of-whack world-view.

Franz Xaver Froberger, the sculptor-hero of The Grimace, is based on the 18th-century Viennese creator of grotesquely expressive heads, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, whose project of cataloguing the possibilities of the human face has recently had a new vogue – a 1987 exhibition at the ICA prompted this novel. The yawning or screaming head by Messerschmidt which appears on the dust-jacket, appeared, indeed, three years ago on the cover of this paper, with a note inside about the sculptor’s double appeal: ‘Some art historians ... emphasise connections with the long artistic tradition of physiognomic studies, while psycho-historians point out resemblances to the work of patients suffering from psychotic disorders’ (LRB, 21 January 1988).

As usual with Salaman, the research, which follows both these trails, is enterprising and entertainingly presented. We get a lively account by Froberger of his meteoric (up then down) career: of his bigwig and imperial patrons, his many amours, his rivalries, his travels to Rome, Paris and London, where he brings himself up-to-date with art and anatomy. We get a cameo of Mozart, whom Froberger admires, and more than a cameo of Dr Mesmer, under whose sinister influence he falls. Through all this, Froberger gradually reveals to us his grand Promethean scheme to become ‘the Magellan of the face’, to capture the spectrum of facial variations (69 of them) and penetrate to some hidden order of truth. ‘I believe that if I can catch the exact gamut of all my expressive possibilities – then I can free my spirit from its house for I will have undone Nature.’ It is characteristic of the book’s joky, jerky address that he then grabs the reader’s lapel with a creepy insistence: ‘What do you think of that?’

What we are to think of it is not altogether clear from Salaman’s arch way with his story. Froberger’s sanity is evidently impaired: he hears voices and strange music, thinks the busts he creates are alive, and turns into a serial killer. But in a rather knowing ‘Postscript’ we are left with the corny warning that not only will one of Messerschmidt’s busts be worth a lot of money, ‘there could be more to it than that’ – a showy pretence, it seems, of sharing Froberger’s belief in the magical powers of his heads. Unless, that is, ‘more to it’ refers not to the magic but to the ideas Salaman’s arty thriller appears to be using his counterpart of Messerschmidt to expound: the mystery of self – that human identity is radically unstable and not to be located, if it exists at all; and the madness of art – that, as the 1988 note in this paper uncontroversially put it, ‘madness combined with creativity is comparatively common among artists.’

Froberger spends his time in front of the mirror trying on expressions, ‘looking once again for that singular oneness that was myself’, but what he starts by projecting as ‘my Me-ness beginning to stir’ threatens to turn out as a multiplicity of discrete elements, an aggregation of dispersed wriggling bits, of which ‘he’ is the passive object (and ultimately, in his fantasy, the rapee). His Frankenstein-like quest for the Ideal Proportion which will uncover Nature’s secret detaches him from reality and puts him at the mercy of his inner darknesses: perhaps because the quest is divinely prohibited, but more likely, the novel seems to say, because its object doesn’t exist, and the quest simply dissolves the specious coherence on which socialised human beings normally get by.

The Grimace is a gripping read, jumping with ideas about the face and the self, and not a little disgusting and horrific, but its cleverness is cumulatively dispiriting. Its agile manner is passionless and uninvolving, and the shadows of Amadeus, Hawksmoor and Das Parfum raise the suspicion that it has been assembled more than created. There is also a problem with its language, which skips away from the toils of pastiche: the writing doesn’t feel properly risky, not the result of a full imaginative surrender to the world it purports to represent.

Froberger lives his life and thinks his thoughts in German, and in the second half of the 18th century, and yet The Grimace collars us with what is for the most part the vernacular English of the 1990s, an idiom of thought and feeling of a quite other historical period and national culture. Salaman lacks restraint; he even aggressively puns in English on German names, so that when a youth is decapitated ‘Jellinek did seem an unfortunate name for the boy.’ And the fizzing ideas look flashily topical – for us, not Froberger – when he compares his artistic search for the immortal soul with Mesmer’s reductive animal magnetism and wonders if he will find within ‘a mere Cast or Proportional Representation’. This seems to wink at Salaman’s present rather than attend to Froberger and his past, but the framing of the book allows no sense to be made of the anachronistic twinkle.

Salaman might have been wiser to invoke a more documentary, mediated distance between his present perspective and the peculiar, tragic Viennese past he wants to call up. The imagined translation, after all, is a mode modern readers (like Chaucer’s) can cope with. Fictive immediacy may short-circuit by obliterating the mysterious distance of other lives and times. The carefully invented document, on the other hand, the slightly faked and not implausibly revealing memoir, can, when rightly framed, hold moral and formal satisfactions. Such a fabricated record is the splendid centrepiece of Ian Buruma’s wonderfully subtle and authoritative first novel, Playing the game, which re-creates and reflects on a not quite vanished world which has echoes in our own.

It’s called a novel, but in our age of confidently intuitive biographers this lightly fictionalised account of the legendary Indian prince and England cricketer K.S. Ranjitsinhji, who died in 1933, may seem to qualify as that mainly by its frankness. Much more is known about the recent and world-famous Ranji – from Alan Ross’s 1983 biography, for instance – than about the obscure and long-gone Messerschmidt, and Buruma, an old hand in Japan and the rest of Asia, draws creative sustenance from the odd and suggestive things which happened in Ranji’s life, from the odd thing his life was.

Playing the game has a Dutch-English narrator (like Ian Buruma, one assumes), for whom Ranji, ‘that great Imperial symbol’ as Rowland Bowen called him, has always been an imaginatively attaching figure – as a co-foreigner who became a perfect English gentleman and English national hero (‘Ranji Saves England’). The paradoxical condition of Englishness is seen here, convincingly, as most pressing for those who aspire to it from some outside – the book mentions Kipling, Disraeli, Wilde, Koestler and Naipaul, the last two as foreign writers wearing ‘loud tweed jackets’ on the jackets of their books (Buruma himself sports one on his). National identity matters most at the borders, or on the fringes, and the narrator here, collecting expert testimony and seeking permission to see Ranji’s death-chamber, goes through an India of brilliant, English-educated intellectual dandies, profoundly ambivalent about the English inheritance which has made and unmade them.

The pervading melancholy of the book is partly due to the fleeting nature of great sporting achievement. The long autobiographical letter Buruma invents for Ranji to have written but not sent to his England colleague and friend C.B. Fry laments the transience of the medium: ‘what mark is left behind by a fine late cut or a handsome cover drive, except some dumb cipher on a yellowing scorecard lost in the drawer of an ageing lover of the game?’ Playing the game does its bit towards saving Ranji’s feats from oblivion. But the larger melancholy derives from modern England’s betrayal of those its historic image has inspired.

An aggrieved Ranji is driven to write his unsent letter by a snub from the Prince of Wales in 1921, when a royal visit calls off a stop at Jamnagar in spite of the fact that Ranji has built a palace for the occasion. He blames ‘the cads sent out to administer our Empire’, making himself one of ‘us’ in a manner which may be seen both as a conscious tribute to the ideal and as a way of calling Britain’s bluff on the rhetoric of empire as community. And in the present, in the aftermath of empire, the great exponents of the value of the British vision are fine old men from India and the Caribbean, Nirad Chaudhuri and C.L.R. James, both of whom appear in affectionate portraits here (as Nayan Dasgupta and K.C. Lewis). The narrator visits ‘Lewis’ in Brixton. He has ‘the cultivated accent of an English gentleman’, and speaks for the Caribbean blacks: ‘You see, the thing is this: British attitudes, behaviour, all that ... We have retained them far better than the British, who are vulgar and commercialised.’ And a parallel claim is made by Nayan Dasgupta: ‘British editors ask me, an Indian, no, a Bengali, to write these articles, for British writers can’t make the connections any more. Tocqueville, Macaulay, Gibbon, Bacon, they don’t know – I, a babu, whose accent was laughed at by the British in my youth, I have to teach them about their own literature and history.’

The title of Playing the game, then, refers not only to cricket and to doing the decent thing, but also to the act of performing Englishness. The Prologue cites Baudelaire on dandyism as a stoical, decadent form of heroism, and the courage required to sustain certain affectations seems highly valued by Buruma. The stance the cosmopolitan Anglicised narrator hypothesises in the noble poseur Ranji, which seems to be a response to a position rather like his own, is not, as it sometimes seems on the surface, sarcastic parody, but is constituted as an ‘ironic distance’ which both isolates and confers a (marginal) identity.

There are some brilliant pages in which the narrator recalls first his childhood in ‘a town on the Dutch coast where to pose as an Englishman was a mark of class’, and then his experiences in Japan. In the first place he has an English grandmother and is bilingual, so is at home nowhere, since correct pronunciation of English words at his cricket club in Holland ‘would have subjected me to ridicule’. The result is extreme self-consciousness: ‘I, mispronouncing the words in Holland, and saying them correctly in England, passing as a native in both countries, felt theatrical.’ Ranji also is presented as an actor, one who believes in his lines and actions but is never unconscious of his audience. The narrator, at one point mistaken for an Indian on the telephone because of his style of speech, self-consciously relishes, as the reader does, the eloquently more-than-English English he creates for Ranji’s imaginary memoir.

Later, grown up and in Japan, the narrator learns Japanese, a language which (as the Japanese see it) embodies a national spirit, only to recognise similar complex ironies: ‘foreigners can mimic the language, but never really speak it ... The Japanese have a natural difficulty with other languages, for to speak an alien language too well is to run the risk of losing the core of one’s identity, to lose the spirit behind the mask.’ For the narrator, born to be bilingual and thus a bit of a stranger everywhere, there may be no ‘core’ – in a more practical sense than for Salaman’s Froberger. An epigraph from Chaudhuri states: ‘To be once déraciné is to be for ever on the road.’ It is Buruma’s wry insight into the comic and destructive paradoxes of cultural and social identity that makes the novel so rich and intelligent an achievement.

Playing the game is, for all its acute analysis and elegiac feeling, a lively and entertaining story, which both places the flamboyant figure of Ranji among notable figures from his own time – W.G. Grace, C.B. Fry, Wilde, Baden-Powell, Lutyens, Paderewski and Chaplin – and suggests continuities with the Indian friends and acquaintances the narrator has to do with in the present (‘the illusions of Empire ... were still with us’). The tragic history of India in the 20th century is glanced at, as in the school match where Ranji is sneakily (but legally) caught out of his crease by the young M.K. Gandhi (‘the very one who is presently causing us so much trouble!’). And some nagging doubts about Ranji find lodging here: about his fondness for practical jokes, which Auden on Iago is adduced to help us see as ‘slightly sinister’; about his involvement with gem smuggling, which he indignantly dismisses as ‘vicious rumour-mongering’, but which the narrator’s penultimate witness confirms (‘he could be a little unscrupulous’); and about the heartlessness which attends his consistently heroic view of things, even in the Great War: ‘There was a smell of death in the air, denoting supreme sacrifice for the common good’.

There is a moment in Playing the game where Ranji’s idolised headmaster enlightens the bumptious M.K. Gandhi as to the true distinction between Gentlemen and Players: ‘The Players included many sterling men who adhered to the highest principles, but to play for the sheer joy of the game, and in so doing refining one’s character, is playing for higher stakes than mere material gain.’ In Paul Auster’s new novel The Music of Chance, the hero, displaced ex-fireman Jim Nashe, falls in with a young professional gambler and goes along to a big game with a couple of eccentric millionaires, where ‘these three were all business,’ where it is ‘straight hardball all the way’. The America of 1990 is a long way from the India of the 1880s, and yet in some ways Nashe is a gentleman, a good loser devoted to fair play and ‘playing for higher stakes than mere material gain’.

The stoical Indian notion of fate which Ranji feels as setting a limit on human progress and achievement has an equivalent here in Nashe’s preoccupation with chance. Auster has always been interested in doom and bad luck, as in City of Glass, the first part of The New York Trilogy, with its 13 chapters and its deadly, engulfing coincidences. There the unhappy Quinn, accidentally a detective, has to decide which of two near-identical men to follow as they set off in opposite directions: ‘Whatever choice he made – and he had to make a choice – would be arbitrary, a submission to chance. Uncertainty would haunt him to the end.’

Here too, as Jim Nashe notes of Couperin’s The Mysterious Barricades, ‘the piece continued to advance, pushing on toward a resolution that never came’ (this is not to say that nothing happens at the end). Like other Auster protagonists, Nashe is a desolate orphan-type, first propelled by a sequence of accidents into a half-chosen, half-forced state of free-floating solitude, and then putatively rescued by involvement with other people and their projects, only for the projects to threaten to become traps. Events seem to hover on the edge of fable, yet retain all their uninterpretable eventfulness. And as in other Auster novels, the reader has the simultaneously reassuring and unsettling sense that Auster knows what he is doing; that he not only knows in detail what his scheme is, he knows why the scheme is a good one.

In his previous, magnificently conceived novel, Moon Palace, Auster gave a grim Beckettian turn to the epigraph from Jules Verne, ‘Nothing can astound an American,’ giving the deserts of the West an actual as well as metaphorical power to reduce the native zing of his characters. In The Music of Chance again – as, one might say, in Polanski’s Chinatown – an American genre is refelt and rethought from a refreshingly different angle. The experimental nerve and seriousness of a mainly European existentialist tradition – though one should also mention the dark American presences of Hawthorne and Poe – inform the novel with a formal and philosophical austerity which an exciting subject-matter (gambling, violence, madness) would usually bribe us to do without. The danger of pretentiousness is kept down by the hard-boiled practicality of the genre to which the novel isn’t quite conforming; the danger of cliché is held off by the current of fresh thought Auster applies to an action that in summary might start by sounding overfamiliar. Nashe’s sensibility remains at an ironic distance from the hardball motions he lets himself be caught up in: ‘Nashe understood that he was no longer behaving like himself.’

In The Music of Chance Auster satisfyingly finds his own way of fulfilling a prophecy by Samuel Beckett which he quoted in one of the essays in Ground Work: Selected Poems and Essays 1970-1979: ‘There will be a new form, and ... this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else.’ Where he quotes this, Auster has another formulation: ‘There can be no arbitrary imposition of order, and yet, more than ever, there is the obligation to achieve clarity.’ The clarity of The Music of Chance in the face of its potently presented inner and outer chaos is such that one occasionally imagines it could be easily made into a movie (by David Mamet, perhaps, another connoisseur of the disturbing set-up), but then come such wonderful moments as the following, when Nashe and the gambler Pozzi arrive for the big game:

Nashe put the car into neutral, applied the emergency brake, and climbed out to see what should be done. The air suddenly seemed cooler to him, and a strong breeze was blowing across the ridge, rustling the foliage with the first faint sign of fall. As Nashe put his feet on the ground and stood up an overpowering sense of happiness washed through him. It only lasted an instant, then gave way to a brief, almost imperceptible feeling of dizziness, which vanished the moment he began walking toward Pozzi. After that, his head seemed curiously emptied out, and for the first time in many years, he fell into one of those trances that had sometimes afflicted him as a boy: an abrupt and radical shift of his inner bearings, as if the world around him had suddenly lost its reality. It made him feel like a shadow, like someone who had fallen asleep with his eyes open.

Not much modern fiction can muster such authority in third-person narration; Auster’s manner is guarded, but guarded because he is careful to say what exactly he means, and anxious to convey it.

The Music of Chance is a rare achievement: a novel of formal sophistication which is not consciously exquisite or ostentatiously ground-breaking; a novel whose philosophical concerns convincingly arise out of its action and the fates of its characters, without airily rising above them or schematically giving rise to them; a novel in which the consciousness of an all-unsettling uncertainty does not abolish moral urgency about the seriousness of human bonds. Its dramatic meditation on the moments when things are ‘in harmony’ and the other moments when they go ‘out of whack’ gives, rightly, no answers – but it gives clear form to the chaos we sense ourselves verging on when coincidence suddenly shifts our inner bearings.