Dreams of Avarice

Patrick Parrinder

  • A Closed Eye by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 255 pp, £13.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 224 03090 6
  • Underwood and After by Ronald Frame
    Hodder, 246 pp, £14.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 340 55359 6
  • Lemprière’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 530 pp, £14.95, August 1991, ISBN 1 85619 053 6

‘The rich are different from us.’ ‘Yes – they have more money.’ Though it is Hemingway’s riposte that sticks in the memory, Scott Fitzgerald’s belief in the difference of the rich has one thing to be said for it: it makes far more sense of the history of the novel. The rich and their doings are clearly over-represented in the house of fiction, and access to wealth almost invariably affects or confirms a fictional character’s identity. It may do so for the better or worse, and either way it tends to act as an enticement to readers.

We like to think of the wealthy as enjoying their wealth, but we also like to be told that they don’t always enjoy it. In fiction the rich and the rest of us can change places. Anita Brookner’s new novel shows Harriet, who is married to a rich businessman much older than herself, travelling out of London on the Brighton line. The suburban houses by the tracks strike her as ‘poignantly homely, beautifully unassertive’. She pictures herself in one of the houses, sitting by the French windows with a cup of tea and ‘listening to a serial on the radio’ – though why not ‘reading a novel by Anita Brookner’? But, alas, Harriet is marked now, both by affluence and by dissatisfaction’. When, after painful experiences, she is finally able to live her own life, she chooses to spend her days in Switzerland (‘Your holiday would be entirely at my expense,’ she writes to her god-daughter), doubtless to the relief of the suburban reader.

In a great deal of fiction the attraction of the wealthy is that they live near the dangerous edge of things; this is true in Balzac and Dickens, and in two of the three novels under review. Making and spending money, means exercising power, shouldering responsibilities, taking risks – and, often, getting caught up in plots and conspiracies. The novelist, it might be said, is properly concerned with the rich, since it is they who are most able to control things and influence people. And there is a long tradition of investigative fiction probing the façade of wealth and money-making, and showing that credit and commerce may be no more than a cover for crooks and criminals. But there are also the silver-fork novelists who make no inquiry into how money is made: it is there simply to add to the hero’s fascination and to the heroine’s spending power. Of the three men who count for most in the life of Brookner’s protagonist, one is described as ‘pleasantly wealthy’, another is ‘discreetly wealthy’, while the third – a television journalist has ‘no money’ but is, we are told, a wonderful lover.

Has any of Anita Brookner’s heroines ever married for love, rather than for material comforts as Harriet does? Born in 1939 and with a birthmark on her cheek, her future husband’s wealth (this is some time in the Sixties) is described by her mother as ‘the best dowry her daughter could possibly have’ – a rather confused perception, one would have thought. The husband, Freddie, is one of her mother’s contemporaries, but ‘it was not as if their way of life cast young men into their daughter’s path.’ Harriet in turn emulates her mother’s sheltered existence, but such things are too good to last, and in the next generation Imogen or ‘Immy’, Harriet’s daughter, goes to the other extreme. Immy takes no time to acquire a bachelor flat, a job in advertising and a string of boyfriends, and the next thing we hear is that she has come to a swift and brutal end.

She is not the only character in A Closed Eye to die young, but most of the survivors are preternaturally elderly. Harriet’s parents choose to retire to Brighton almost immediately after their marriage – they are, it would seem, still under fifty – and soon Harriet is thinking of them as being on ‘the path that led to the final decrepitude’. It is a long path, however, since a quarter of a century later they are still hanging on and are likely to outlive Harriet, who is now 53 and feels ready for death. Her husband and daughter have preceded her. Jack, the television journalist, and his daughter, who is a budding novelist – there is always one of these lurking somewhere in a Brookner novel – are the only characters credited with any lasting vitality.

But Jack, in Harriet’s eyes, is pure Mills & Boon. Thanks largely to his jeans, his leather jacket and his flat in Bloomsbury (the others all live at easily verifiable addresses in SW3), he comes on in this genteel context like the rough-trade hero of romantic fiction. Jack treats his wife, Harriet’s schoolfriend, as no gentleman should, but soon the wife dies of cancer and it is Harriet’s turn to try her luck with him. Regular readers of Brookner will anticipate that Harriet’s chance comes only once, that its approach makes her dreadfully anxious, and that Jack is merciless towards feminine weakness and self-denial. Harriet is a moderately literary person who responds to the gloomier aspects of Jane Eyre and Little Dorrit, and who, as she sets out alone for Jack’s apartment, realises that it is April, ‘traditionally the cruellest month’. Beautiful people are always cruel, so far as Harriet is concerned, and she has no defences against beautiful people.

The heroine of A Closed Eye is a rather tiresome person, viewed as such by her husband and her daughter, and also (intermittently) by the novelist, who provides us with an epigraph from Henry James. Harriet in Jamesian parlance is ‘begging off from full knowledge’, and ‘making the experiment of living with closed eyes’. She settles too quickly for material wealth for herself, while doing nothing to shield her daughter from the richness of experience she feels has been denied to her. Imogen’s death is a kind of sacrifice, from Harriet’s point of view. But experience often seems at its richest when seen from outside – through a shop window, or a train window for that matter – and Harriet’s sufferings bear out once again this Jamesian double-blind. The hint of intellectual subtlety is wasted here on an unconvincing plot, predictable situations, and a stylistic decorum verging on self-parody.

No one is ‘discreetly wealthy’ in Ronald Frame’s snappy Underwood and Alter: their wealth is as indiscreet as the narrator’s fascination with it. Ralph Witton lives in a collector’s world of oriental carpets, sports cars and celebrities, with bit-parts (circa 1957) for the Windsors and Princess Margaret. This is the ambience (as in ‘It was one of our loucher social venues, ambience-wise’) of what he calls ‘international moneyed style’. Unsurprisingly to the reader, the members of the moneyed classes with whom young Ralph associates turn out to be big-time crooks. But why has this rather aimless teenager become part of their circle, and what do they hope to get out of him?

These questions are never wholly resolved, and they do not pique Ralph’s curiosity until thirty years later, when – thanks to a series of anonymous letters from an unlikely young woman – he belatedly turns into an obsessed researcher seeking to understand his own past. There is a murder mystery, which is also unresolved, and a reasonably disarming portrayal of a never-very-innocent youth on the make in circumstances he was not meant to understand.

‘Underwood’ is the seaside mansion owned by Anthony Chetwynd, a rich socialite of mysterious origins who first takes on Ralph as a chauffeur, then discovers his potential as a dancing partner for the wealthy ladies with whom he likes to surround himself. A round of dinner parties, night-clubs and country-house visits ensues, but the purpose of Chetwynd’s entourage remains obscure until Ralph begins to stumble on evidence of blackmail. Chetwynd, he finds, has made himself indispensable to any number of decayed aristocrats, closet homosexuals and wives of cabinet ministers and Harley Street surgeons. But Ralph remains incapable of emotional connection with any of these people, a heartless voyeur rather like Chetwynd himself. Eventually our hero begins spying on his mentor in exchange for the gift of the sports car of his choice, which is suitably an AC (Anthony Chetwynd’s initials). Yet he remains unscathed and unhurt, although Chetwynd is implicated in smuggling and possibly drug trafficking. Ronald Frame seems content to entertain without disturbing the reader too much, though the candour with which he evokes Ralph’s charmed, parasitical existence offers some insight into wealth and its corruptions.

Lemprière’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk is an astonishingly assured first novel, stretching across two centuries and much of the known world, with a title reminiscent of Foucault’s Pendulum. Both books construct a web of skulduggery and institutional conspiracy, the one involving the Knights Templars and the other the East India Company, using as their metaphorical and symbolic focus a half-forgotten cultural monument. Pynchon as well as Eco is a presence here, since one character who makes a brief appearance in Lemprière’s Dictionary, and who introduces himself as the protagonist’s rival, is a Mr O’Tristero. The result is a boldly home-grown example of the Post-Modernist sensation novel, following a trail of detection through musty archives, misread documents and huge quantities of real and bogus learning, and offering an example not so much of historical as of anti-historical fiction.

The real John Lemprière, whose Classical Dictionary was first published in 1788, was a Jersey man educated at Winchester and Pembroke College, Oxford. His Lemprière ancestors included a lieutenant bailiff of Jersey during the reign of Elizabeth, and a governor of the island under Oliver Cromwell. John was a teenage prodigy who entered Pembroke in 1785 and completed his dictionary at the age of 23, during a year spent as assistant master at Reading School under another Jersey man, Richard Valpy. Some months afterwards he took Holy Orders, and, still later, he obtained his BA. Of all the books with which a precocious 23-year-old might burst into print, a standard reference work seems the least likely.

Yet Lemprière’s career as a scholar and teacher is a classic case of early burn-out. After 1792, when he became headmaster of Abingdon School and married a local girl, he lapsed into complete inactivity, neglecting his clerical duties and paying an usher to carry out his teaching. His dictionary went through edition after edition while he stayed on as a piece of dead wood near the top of the teaching profession for another three decades.

This story is not without interest, and it is prefaced to every modern edition of the Classical Dictionary, but clearly Lawrence Norfolk has found it lacking in melodrama. A writer of whom we are told that he himself has helped to compile reference books, Norfolk sets out to dispel the air of drudgery that has surrounded lexicography since the time of Lemprière’s fellow alumnus Samuel Johnson, by inventing for his hero a series of mind-bogglingly lurid adventures. London, not Oxford, is the scene of our protagonist’s literary efforts, and the sinister Nazim, official assassin to the Nawab of the Carnatic – one of the many enemies who dog John Lemprière’s footsteps through the London streets – refers to him repeatedly (thanks to a case of mistaken identity) as ‘the pseudo-Lemprière’. Nothing could be more apt. This Lemprière is descended from a Huguenot merchant who acquired a one-ninth share of the East India Company soon after its foundation, by means of a secret agreement. Not only has John’s family lost its share of the Company’s fabulous wealth, but every one of his ancestors in the male line has been brutally assassinated. The last of these, John’s father, is torn apart by a Jersey landowner’s hunting pack in what his son, who witnesses the event, recognises instantly as a re-enactment of the myth of Diana and Actaeon.

When he arrives in London to hear the terms of his father’s will, every step taken by the gangling, bespectacled young scholar is tracked by the members of a Cabbala consisting of the remaining eight secret shareholders in the East India Company. Like François Lemprière, they are all Huguenots from the port of La Rochelle, which was besieged by Richelieu in 1627. The feud between the Cabbala and the Lemprières dates back to the bloody events of the siege, which John (and the reader) are destined to relive in unsparing detail. Connecting the citadel of La Rochelle and the sea was a secret underground tunnel, where the Cabbala stored gold bullion clandestinely shipped from London, and through which they escaped from the siege after condemning the rest of the citizenry to their fate.

The Cabbala’s ultimate goal is to avenge the memory of their defeat and to return from exile, and so in 1788 they are using the Company’s gold to fund the conspirators plotting the French Revolution. If this seems to anticipate certain late 20th-century political scandals, even more remarkable is the mechanical genius of one of the Cabbala, Vaucanson, who has perfected the technique of human prosthesis. Thanks to this, the lives of his colleagues have been artificially prolonged, while the gold is run into La Rochelle by a robot navy. All that stands against the Company with its limitless wealth and Science Fiction weapons is a supenatural sprite, the legendary Flying Man who also escaped from the siege and John Lemprière.

At first John takes no interest in his father’s researches into the complexities of draught and tonnage, coastal navigation, maritime insurance and an 18th-century equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle mystery. His own introduction into the ways of the Cabbala comes from the sight of Juliette, the landowner’s beautiful daughter, bathing naked in a Jersey stream as his father is attacked by the hounds. The day before, he had received a book with a picture of Diana and Actaeon, imprinted with what he will learn to recognise as the Cabbala’s strange device of a cedilla or broken circle, a shape resembling the mole that Richelieu built to close off La Rochelle harbour. Once installed in London – in Southampton Street where, as it happens, the real John Lemprière was to die in 1824 – our hero is far more interested in writing his dictionary and in pursuing Juliette than he is in recovering the vast riches which may be his by right. Lemprière’s Dictionary offers both the fictive allure of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, and a hero who is completely indifferent to such wealth.

John would, at least, like to save his own skin and to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Cabbala, if only to avenge his father. But the conspiratorial logic of Norfolk’s plot is such that our hero seems quite incapable of acting independently. Not only is Juliette an obvious decoy, but the very dictionary by which he will make his name is not his own conception, but part of the Cabbala’s plan to manipulate him like a human robot. Their conspiracy tries to control everything from the French Revolution to the meanest of John Lemprière’s movements. They also have a weakness for devising hugely elaborate public and private spectacles, based on Classical themes, of which the hunting of Actaeon is only a foretaste. The climactic production, on a Trojan theme, is staged at Covent Garden, and it leads, appropriately enough, to the burning down of the Opera House by the mob.

Lemprière’s Dictionary is an engrossing and wonderfully intricate extravaganza, never more so than when the author sets out to evoke the sounds, sights and smells of his pseudo-historical London. His is a city dominated by its docklands and the wealth they brought in, a lavishly operatic reconstruction of the imperial capital living off its river where the Indiamen came and went, where (to give a sample of Norfolk’s style) ‘an occasional turd bobbled malodorously like a miniature monastic tonsure’, and where the shabbiest and most inconspicuous ship in port might be loaded at dead of night with Classical statues filled with gold. In Lemprière’s Dictionary nothing is decorous or measured, and every rift is overloaded. This blockbusting saga may be less solidly built than the reference work from which it takes its name, but it is far more likely to be read from cover to cover.