Rites of Passage

Anthony Quinn

  • The Elephant by Richard Rayner
    Cape, 276 pp, £13.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 224 03005 1
  • The Misfortunes of Nigel by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
    Peter Owen, 176 pp, £12.95, June 1991, ISBN 0 7206 0830 9
  • Famous for the creatures by Andrew Motion
    Viking, 248 pp, £14.99, June 1991, ISBN 0 670 82286 8
  • Double Lives by Stephen Wall
    Bloomsbury, 154 pp, £13.99, June 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0910 7

Richard Rayner's new novel, his second, opens with a nervous exhibition of rhetorical trills and twitches, buttonholing the reader like a stand-up comic on his first night:

     My name is Headingley Hamer.

     Absurd, I admit, but this statement is true, and it’s not that I don’t want to tell this story, nor that l feel impelled to do so and am trying to stop myself, just that I’m having trouble getting going. Bloody British stories – never start first time. I’ll try again, and this tune it’ll be the whole truth. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this turns out to be a style Rayner rather likes, busking and bantering his way through a non-stop routine of digressions, interposals, asides: here is a narrator constantly at your elbow, so it would help if you could get to like him. He is the aforementioned Headingley Hamer, and his story is one of a Yorkshire boyhood spent on the edges of Bradford’s tenebrous underworld. At its centre is his father, Jack, one-time RAF ace, part-time undertaker and full-time profligate, a man with one eye on the main chance and the other on any woman who isn’t his wife. His major obsession is cricket, which explains his son’s unfortunate name (Headingley is Yorkshire cricket’s HQ) and his spectacular coup of transporting a pavilion, plank by plank, from Scarborough to Bradford.

The Elephant explores the vexed relationship between Jack and Headingley, whose first memory is of his father popping out for a pint of milk and returning three weeks later with two pints, ‘just to be on the safe side’. Headingley plays wide-eyed stooge to the egregious parent as he tangles with provincial gangsters, rivalrous undertakers and runaround women. The latter he judges on their aptitude for ‘going to see the elephant’, a phrase which Headingley elucidates at the close of play as ‘the fear, the excitement, the strangeness, and even the charm of battle’, but for the purposes of this novel means getting laid. ‘That’s it, old fellow, cork them all,’ is the father’s deathbed advice to his son. This offhand machismo would be less worrying were it not for Rayner’s apparent collusion with Hamer pére and fils. He does not put himself at a safely ironic distance from their locker-room bragging, which includes a particularly scabrous litany filched from Berkoff’s East. That, together with ill-disguised references to a Yorkshire ripper known as ‘Mr Hyde’, is something of a points-loser.

Jounced along by the narrator’s lapel-grabbing style, the book seems to carry a tremendous kinetic charge, cutting quickly from scene to scene as it pursues the rakes’ progress. An orgy, an attempted parricide, a cameo appearance by the Devil all flash past – it almost qualifies as a romp. Yet there is hardly any pressure of theme beneath the bustle. Its energy is actually quite empty, an impression reinforced by the lazy time-shifts, absence of plot, unconnected blocks of narrative and inexplicable abandonment of characters (I’d forgotten by the end that Headingley had a wife and son).

Rayner works hard to orchestrate a galloping comedy of sexual hysteria, but can only manage a rather smutty slapstick. Detectable here is the influence of Martin Amis, whose gleeful nastiness in the bedroom has become quite a touchstone for many youngish male novelists. The book is elsewhere littered with sentences that are straight Amisian repro: ‘Then there was money: it seemed money had taken a look at Bradford and decided somewhere else was the place to be.’ Fatally, however, Rayner’s performance as erotic farceur just isn’t all that funny. A few jokes have a fizz (I liked the two kids ‘walking on tiptoe like a cartoon burglar’), but too many punchlines are thrown away without timing or wit. In a comic novel, that’s a serious deficiency.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley has written her first novel, so the question of her much-disputed talent can be examined from a fresh angle. The publishers have blazoned their author as ‘Britain’s most controversial poet’, though this accolade does not appear to be founded on anything more than a paraded obsession with sex and a penchant for titles like ‘Blow Jobs’ – her legoeuvre, if you will. The Misfortunes of Nigel shares with Richard Rayner’s novel a loose, picaresque structure and a highly resistible main character. Like Rayner’s Headingley, Nigel Hughes is an arrant chauvinist who fancies himself a Lotharian hero, the difference between them residing in the crucial area of authorial sympathy. Rayner is clearly on Headingley’s side; nobody, but nobody, could be on Nigel’s side, for Ms Pitt-Kethley has stopped up all access to sympathy in this poisonous portrait.

At public school Nigel airs very decided views on the opposite sex: ‘Women are just slags. They don’t know how to behave. They have it easy. They just rip off men and live off them.’ Despite fostering these sentiments into adulthood, he soon becomes entangled in the snares of a charmless hoyden named Gina, daughter of an Italian circus family. They marry, sire a son and quickly discover an implacable aversion to one another. Gina drops out of sight, returning at intervals to demand money from her spouse and give him a clout. Nigel in the meantime enjoys minor success as a novelist and critic, disporting himself at London’s literary parties and chatting up women. His brief affairs are nothing more than a dismal succession of pratfalls and shortfalls, hobbled as he is by a quite monstrous vanity. The blurb hints that Eleanor, a writer of ‘raunchy’ stories, will be a match for him, but even she falls away in the face of his preening self-regard: ‘They didn’t know how lucky they were ... all the hairdressers he’d flirted with, all the travel agents, florists and girls in bars. When he was a famous, rich, literary-establishment figure living in Antibes or somewhere they would all realise it.’

Nor is it enough for Nigel to be a narcissist and a boor and a snob; he is, over and above all, a tightwad. Considerable resource is deployed in his drive to not spend any money: friends’ generosity is battened on when he conveniently forgets to bring his wallet to lunch, editors’ offices are visited simply to save his own telephone bill, girlfriends are chucked just before Christmas so as to avoid buying them presents. Here is one who majors in meanness, a past master of parsimony. If the book already has the razor glint of a roman à clef, its origins were made plain by a recent profile of Ms Pitt-Kethley in the Independent on Sunday: one hopes, for her sake, that the poet Hugo Williams is not of a litigious cast of mind. (The same newspaper, incidentally, gave Richard Rayner space for a memoir of his father, whose resemblance to Jack Haymer was freely declared.)

As one might expect, Ms Pitt-Kethley’s relentless vituperation eventually palls. There are only so many times you can call someone a shit – then even those who agree with you get bored. Could Nigel not have had just one sentiment that wasn’t crass, or vulgar, or contemptible? Alas no, and his creator engineers for him a predictably seedy and ignominious end. Having flashed a schoolgirl (in Perth, of all places), he admits himself to hospital, feigning a ‘mini-breakdown’. It resembles nothing so much as the grotesque pay-off of a cartoon, a level of satire you might find amid the prankish scurrilities of Viz. Perhaps Ms Pitt-Kethley has a whole new career ahead of her.

Famous for the creatures is also a poet’s novel, the second in a projected sequence one could almost call ‘A Dance to the Music of Time and Motion’. The first, The Pale Companion, was a mannered rites-of-passage tale set in 1968, and received fairly mixed reviews – a reception evidently forgotten by Viking, who call it ‘acclaimed’ on the dust-wrapper. Andrew Motion was perhaps compromised in that novel by the uncommon difficulties of hooking our attention while leaving us unsatisfied: he had to whet our appetite for the long haul. This second book should have given him an opportunity to write at a more leisurely pace, and has now given us a more reliable indication of his capabilities as a novelist.

The book operates on a dual time-scale. Ostensibly it is September 1976, and Francis Mayne is sojourning with his retired brigadier father in the country. He is rereading the manuscript of an autobiographical novel he wrote in 1972 as a second-year Oxford student, and records in a diary his responses to this juvenilia four years on. The novel is called ‘Famous for the creatures’ and describes, in third-person narrative, the continuing fortunes of Francis, still spooked by the death of his sister Catherine (emotional centrepiece of The Pale Companion) and now in love with Sylvie, a fellow student. Both are in a garden production of The Winter’s Tale: Francis’s story trades on similar ideas of artifice and illusion.

Motion has learnt from The Pale Companion not to graft historical markers onto the narrative. That book’s references to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia dropped with a slightly desperate clunk. This book confines most of its drama to the heart rather than the headlines, and shuffles some new characters into the pack. Significant among them is Walter, a faded artist who has leased part of his land for the students’ production. An army companion of his father during the war, Walter has insinuated to Francis that the brigadier might not be quite what he appears. This is hardly a staggering revelation, but given the paucity of actual drama it becomes the sort of detail a reader clings to, like a shipwreck to driftwood.

The book has a larger problem, however, unsolved since the first novel. Motion has made his most boring character the narrator, not such a mistake in itself if you think of Nick in The Great Gatsby, or Charles in Brides-head. Francis is (in 1972, at any rate) insecure, petulant, and just a bit dim. He seems unable to judge anybody else’s tone, so frequently ends up taking offence. He’s not much fun to be with, as the weedy rallies that pass for conversation make clear. ‘I am what I am because Catherine died,’ he reflects, so Motion is trying to suggest that his inarticulacy and sulkiness come of feeling too much. He is stifled, fogged-in, by the sadness he hasn’t the words to unload. But there is no other character to come to his aid, not Sylvie, not Jamie, not Walter, not even Adele, his ghastly mother. By making Francis the novel’s single consciousness Motion has unfortunately muted everything else.

It is further hampered by a disjointedness. Francis is not just reviewing his life in 1972, he’s also reviewing his shot at The Student Novel. So we get a whole diaryful of meditations on the problem of writing fiction: ‘These linking bits – they’re hell. Who wants to know about travel arrangements, bloody little toings and fro-ings – that sort of thing?’ Motion is working on the reverse of the principle ars est celare artem, with Francis explaining at every verse end what actually occurred and what was his own invention (‘Like I say, I never met Adele at the non-existent caravan’). This, to my mind, betrays a lack of confidence in the novelist. Because he cannot guarantee our undivided attention to what happens in Famous he constantly shifts the focus to what didn’t or couldn’t happen. Access to the mysteries of composition in a novel may strike the reader as a bold experiment in form or just a steal from Milan Kundera’s notebook: either way, it stalls the rhythm of this book. You get a layout of scaffolding, the foundations, the architect’s designs, but you don’t take away any impression of the house. Even in the supposedly ‘honest’ context of his diary Francis at the last confesses a major distortion of the truth: the unreliable narrator strikes again. The story is to be continued, presumably, but I can’t see this ‘Dance ...’ catching on.

Stephen Wall’s first novel Double Lives is a strange, enfolded book, similar to Motion’s in its use of layering but considerably more subtle in the way it yields up its narrative key. It takes quite some time – nearly the whole book, in fact – for the reader to get his bearings: for one thing, it doesn’t feel like a novel so much as a sequence of variations on a theme. The theme is love, and the consequences of its loss. Each variation unfolds as a lugubrious chamber-piece spun around a desertion or a betrayal, then dissolving – often with a death – and giving way to another. The imagery of doubleness – reflections, resemblances, symmetries – glowers ominously over all.

The animus behind these stories emerges in the book’s closing phase. They are revealed as the work of a single narrator, unnamed and undescribed. We learn that he is an academic living in a small French village in the south while he researches the life of an early 19th-century Romantic poet named Jean-Philippe Laroche. His hunt of Laroche becomes, subliminally, a search for himself, ‘exiled’ in spirit as well as in place. His writing is a means of recovery from a broken affair, though he now recognises that, far from assuaging him, these ‘little narratives’ have crystallised his despair:

It’s not only the absence or loss of the other that keeps recurring, it’s the death in the self, the death of the new life in the self created by love of the other, the real self you never knew about until being in love released it, the true self you found at last, only to lose it again.

Double Lives is crepuscular and morbid in spirit, almost parodically so in the narrator’s contes tristes. It is defiantly humourless, yet merits very high regard for its moving and intimate engagement in love’s fall-out. Wall achieves in its final pages a swooning kind of elegy, beautifully encapsulated in the narrator’s prospective return home, ‘where there’ll always be a chance I’ll run into you, sooner or later, or see you in the distance, where I can at least haunt the streets you tread, that we trod, before you left, before I left.’