Word-Processing

Stephen Wall

  • Hidden in the Heart by Dan Jacobson
    Bloomsbury, 182 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0981 6
  • A Landing on the Sun by Michael Frayn
    Viking, 256 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 670 83932 9

There have always been novels with a highly developed sense of their own means of production. When, at the end of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen said she’d let other pens dwell on guilt and misery, she was being literal as well as figurative. A pen was what she wrote with. Dan Jacobson’s and Michael Frayn’s reliance on, respectively, a word processor and a tape recorder needn’t be put down to Post-Modern self-consciousness. Novels naturally like to keep up with the technology on which they rely, but an appeal – however disingenuous – to external machinery and allegedly objective documentation is thoroughly classical. In skilled hands, such honesty about the narrative’s status paradoxically enhances rather than undermines its authenticity, although we know, and it knows, that such candour is entirely specious.

At the end of Hidden in the Heart the narrator (female, unnamed) is asked by her kindly machine whether she wants to RE-FORMAT DISK (in which case everything already transferred to it will be wiped), or whether she wants to PRINT. Since we have the book in front of us and have just finished reading it, it’s clear which option has been preferred: she hardly has any choice in the matter. Nevertheless, something more than a merely formal point is being scored. As she says early on, only writers are megalomaniac enough to want to transfer their lives to disk, and this allows them to think that they can avoid the black hole of oblivion which awaits everyone else. But if writing preserves life, the terms on which it does so are likely to be uncertain. Dan Jacobson’s story ends – and indeed turns – on an ambiguity of almost Jamesian force. It isn’t derivative in any obvious way, but the affinities are more than technical. The book has its international theme (with Jacobson’s native South Africa substituted for Henry James’s America), and it raises Jamesian uncertainties about who, in the end, is the victim of whom, and about where guilt truly lies.

Hidden in the Heart isn’t a book for those who don’t believe in coups de foudre, or who think that once the erotic storm has passed everything will be as right as rain. The effect of Adrian Bested’s first meeting – or perhaps we had better say, in view of what happens on her living-room floor, his first encounter – with Diana is lasting, limiting and ultimately lethal. The wife of Rodney Foxborough, a poet he admires and has gone to interview for a student magazine, she is almost twenty years older than he is. (The interview gets recorded later, and is reproduced verbatim.) There’s no question of her leaving her husband, a BBC man of some distinction, and the affair continues furtively and intermittently: neither of them able to give the other up, though both try. Adrian even seeks the advice of Dr Fainman, the Hampstead analyst, who diagnoses Oedipal desires and infantile exposure to the Primal Scene, but then he would, wouldn’t he? By the time Foxborough reveals that he knows what has been going on, Adrian has become so enslaved that he offers friendship to both of them rather than lose altogether the woman he thinks of as his fate. When Foxborough accepts and says ‘Done,’ the irony isn’t wasted on the younger man: he’s been ‘done’ in a sense that James would have relished. No longer possessing Diana, he has become tied to her more than ever; in South African terms, he’s the houseboy. Bested has been worsted. Diana’s subsequent death, for which he holds Foxborough responsible, hardens his devotion into permanence.

Such impotence is the last thing he proposed to himself in his Bloemfontein adolescence, reading Joyce and taking Stephen Daedalus’s intention to fly by the nets of nationality, language and religion as a guide. He is too ambitious to be content with becoming a second-rate writer (which is what the poems included tactfully indicate), and settles for a Civil Service career in, of all departments, the Home Office. But Bested is never at home, although while at Cambridge he has secret lessons to straighten out his Afrikaner diphthongs. Despite his passion for Diana and her submission to him, he can’t forgive her for being so uncommunicative about her past. He wants to be something which in the nature of things – and in view of the discrepancy between their ages – he can’t be.

This feeling has a larger application. Adrian thinks of his South African upbringing as empty: the place has nothing for him. He refuses to have his role defined by politics and simply wants history to leave him alone. One of his grudges in later years, when he’s left the Home Office for a right-wing think tank, is that, because of apartheid, South Africa has denied him the option of being acceptably conservative. As Foxborough overbearingly explains, exploiting a Germanic distinction between ‘historic’ and ‘non-historic’ peoples, the Boers are a ‘small, obdurate, unimportant group condemned to live in the interstices between the races that really matter and to endless self-pity as a result. Adrian left his people because he wanted self-determination, only to become trapped by his private obsession. The ideas of displacement and exclusion in both erotic and international relations are thus linked in a way that shows how ready Dan Jacobson’s novel is to tackle large themes, despite the relative modesty of its presentation.

Its design is intricately suggestive too. Adrian is not the only one to be tormented by the inaccessible past: the narrator is herself similarly haunted. She takes his memories over, and it’s the more natural for her to do so since there’s an age gap between her and Adrian – who becomes her friend and lover – similar to that between Adrian and Diana. Allowing someone else’s past to usurp the living present is his plight then and is hers now. As she observes, the first triangle (Adrian, Diana, Foxborough) interlocks with a second (Adrian, Diana’s memory, the narrator). Her geometry is not as objectionably neat as it might seem. She herself suggests that the ‘sense of displacement and vicariousness’ which she suffers from may be part of a more general condition. It certainly gives her enough motivation to convert her rehearsal of the knowable facts of Adrian’s life into an imagined re-experience of them. It gives the novel’s climax – the revelation that the guilt for Diana’s death may not be Foxborough’s alone – a personal urgency.

All the same, the narrator’s anonymity is symptomatic of a certain facelessness. Details of her own past are supplied, but she functions more as a means of access to the essential material than as a sufficiently interesting and independent presence in herself. At times she seems to write too well for the person she is: some of the novel’s most imaginatively phrased paragraphs (describing, for instance, Adrian’s phantasmagoric return to Cambridge after his first strange and fatal interview with Diana, or the sea in the cove where she drowns) feel like the product of an authorial virtuosity momentarily impatient with her limitations. In the end, though, she is so clearly integral to the logic of the novel that we’re content to take her on the book’s terms, and the more so because she doesn’t confuse her recreation of her lover’s life with omniscience. She makes no claim to understand the nature of the previous actors in the series of which she is the last member, and the reversals of the last pages are as much of a shock to her as to us. Their source is the previously untranslated entries in Adrian’s notebook in which he reverts to Afrikaans. In the shameful language of his abandoned past he can say – whether in fantasy or confession – what he cannot admit to in the language of his adoption. It’s an adroitly engineered terminal twist which turns us back to those questions about love, identity and nationality to which this novel is too intelligent and too humane to pretend to have easy answers.

In Hidden in the Heart Foxborough manoeuvres Bested into becoming his biographer, and the novel’s narrator wonders if her dead lover has in some parallel way set her up as his ‘dutiful heir’. Michael Frayn’s protagonist also develops a strange allegiance to a predecessor, though in his case it’s to someone that in life he knew only slightly and whom he comes to understand posthumously. A Landing on the Sun seems to start as a philosophical comedy set in the Civil Service. When the phone rings on our hero’s desk in the Cabinet Office, he picks it up and says ‘Jessel,’ just as his opposite numbers answer with their surnames – ‘Tite’ or ‘Hurren’ or whoever it may be. The impersonality makes him feel at home. He is further defended by a neatly-cut beard, to be non-committal behind. In contrast, the man he has to investigate – in every sense an ex-colleague – was wildly (and, as we later see, significantly) red-headed in a way not normally found in the Administrative Grade. Summerchild fell from an Admiralty parapet in Spring Gardens, near The Mall, in 1974. There was some fuss at the time over possible security implications, and a television probe is in the making; government feels it had better have the matter checked out.

Jessel starts his enquiries with reluctance, but they take such a surprising turn, and have such disturbing connections with his own past, that he becomes recklessly absorbed in them, and misses his lunch more than once in their pursuit. The suspicion of a defence angle in Summerchild’s case is soon dissipated: he was setting up a ‘Strategy Unit’ to consider the quality of life, not instruments of death. Mindful of a vague promise in the election manifesto, Harold Wilson has invited Dr Serafin, a Russian-born Oxford philosopher, to mull over the question and take a long view. Unfortunately, domestic exigencies prevent her from hearing a vital part of the PM’s call and, confused about her terms of reference, she begins the Unit’s work more or less de novo. This leads the increasingly fascinated Summerchild into deeply unbureaucratic waters. As the transcripts which Jessel discovers in a neglected Whitehall attic reveal, they find themselves bound to face up to the problems surrounding the idea of happiness – an idea which, as Dr Serafin says, ‘is surely the sun at the centre of our conceptual planetary system’. Their ‘insane course of tutorials’ leads them irresistibly to ask themselves ‘what it is to want what we want’. Nothing could be more destructive of Civil Service disciplines than such disorderly notions, and Summerchild’s behaviour becomes more and more unprofessional in consequence. His attempt at a preliminary submission leads into unsettling autobiographical scrutiny; this precipitates confessions of conjugal misery from Serafin; they realise that happiness means their being together. They thus provide their own data. They even develop a kind of domesticity in the garret in a mad defiance of departmental propriety. Its tiny window overlooks the garden of Number 10, but it also has a skylight through which they can emerge, into the sun.

The later stages of the affair have to be deduced from the sounds, and silences, on a cache of tapes which Jessel finds in an old biscuit tin. This only intensifies Jessel’s compulsive need to reconstruct Summerchild’s life and thoughts. The fact that he commutes from Greenwich as Summerchild did, that when young himself he was keen on Summerchild’s daughter (also red-haired), that had he married her he would have been spared his own marital sorrows – all this promotes an involuntary solidarity with the dead man. They become constant companions, at times barely separable.

The imagined life behind the text was, in a different way, the starting-point of frayn’s last novel The Trick of It, but here the idea is less crisply and less successfully deployed. It’s partly because the narrator himself is too dulled by Whitehall, despite his immersion in his alter ego’s enlightenment. It’s also because the conduct of the narrative is sometimes diffuse – the way in which, for instance, Serafin beavers socratically away at Summerchild’s unexamined assumptions is illustrated too lengthily, at least for those without Frayn’s special philosophical interests. No doubt most tutorials, faithfully transcribed, parody themselves, and as we’d expect Frayn’s keen ear catches some academic tones amusingly. But the novel also wants to insist that happiness is a serious matter, and this worthy concern tends to clog its forward movement. It’s not until the final sequence, when we’re on the roof with Summerchild and the various solar motifs fall into place – his name, his and his daughter’s copper coiffure, the sun-warmed bricks, the view of the sky – that the story belatedly gathers momentum, and we understand at last why he was up there.