Textual Harassment

Nicolas Tredell

  • Textermination by Christine Brooke-Rose
    Carcanet, 182 pp, £12.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 85635 952 1
  • The Women’s Hour by David Caute
    Paladin, 272 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 586 09142 4
  • Look twice by John Fuller
    Chatto, 255 pp, £13.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3761 4

Nervousness and nostalgia mark these three novels. The nostalgia of Christine Brooke-Rose is, surprisingly, for a golden age of character in fiction; David Caute harks back to the Sixties and the heyday of radical hopes; John Fuller conjures a world in which stories can still enchant. But these novelists are all, in their respective ways, nervous about the power of fiction to enthrall, and they live on the frontiers of representation, constantly checking their credentials, never quite venturing into full-blooded fictional territory.

Characters in fiction have fallen on particularly hard times. Modern critics, and some novelists, have tried to diminish or do away with them. Absorbed into textual totalities, shrunken to structural props, dissected into sets of semes, indicted as ideological impostors, dispersed into flickers of false presence, they now seem to belong, in their full, substantive versions, to the heavy plant of the 19th century realist novel, an obsolete industry fit only for a theme-park. Where are those readers now who will feed them the blood of belief, warming them to life as Odysseus warmed the shades?

This need of characters for readers is the germ of Textermination. Brooke-Rose offers, not six characters in search of an author, but several hundred characters in search of readers. E.M. Forster’s image of authors simultaneously at work in the British Museum Reading Room gives way to a vision of a vast range of characters who gather at the San Francisco Hilton for the Annual Convention of Prayer for Being to their Reader-God. They include the two Emmas, Woodhouse and Bovary, real historical figures recast in fiction, such as Goethe, Pastor Oberlin and Philip II, Goethe’s and Thomas Mann’s Lotte, Christa Wolf’s Kassandra, Prince Rama, Rushdie’s Gibreel Farishta, Humbert Humbert, Dorothea Brooke and Mr Causaubon, the Emperor in his non-existent new clothes and Calvino’s Non-Existent Knight. With those characters the reader already knows, Textermination offers the pleasures of both recognition and novelty: we see people we know in fresh contexts. The reader’s self-congratulation may be checked as he encounters characters beyond his ken, but this provokes the humbling and enhancing awareness that the range of texts that might be called literary is now so vast that no one could ever experience more than a fraction of it. The Leavisian hope that one could grasp all the literature that mattered, and thus confirm one’s centrality, is revealed as parochial and pusillanimous, a stratagem of Urizen.

The promiscuous mix of characters in Textermination produces startling, often comic juxtapositions: Emma Woodhouse and Valmont, Madame Bovary and Sir Lancelot, Humbert Humbert and unknowing Maisie, Becky Sharp and Man Friday, Dorothea Brooke and Jude, the Man Without Qualities and the screwed-up governess, Goethe and Oedipa Maas. Mr Causaubon, bemoaning the fact that his wife has always had the lion’s share of critical attention, goes to hear a paper devoted to him – only to find that this Causaubon is Umberto Eco’s, from Foucault’s Pendulum. But other characters are in a worse case: their names fill the Index of Names Forbidden by the Canon. One character realises she can’t go on when she finds in the Index her own name: Mira Enketei. Mira who? Ms Enketei figures in Brooke-Rose’s previous novels, Amalgamemnon and Verbivore, and her appearance here functions as her creator’s wry comment on her failure to enter the canon.

The San Francisco Hilton, where much of the action of the novel takes place, becomes a kind of model of the Post-Modern world. Today’s luxury hotel is indeed the site of contradictions, often rising out of urban decay, providing a falsely personalised service, offering an observation-post which can seem magically invulnerable (as in the bombing of Baghdad), but still exposed to human or natural violence. So the Prayers for Being are invaded by turbaned terrorists who, ‘in the twinkling of a thousand eyes’, are beheaded by Calvino’s Non-Existent Knight. Are they really dead, or real at all? Four of them reappear, heads back on and armed with explosives: the terrorist is everywhere, fluid and fearsome, a Hydra constantly lopped but always reviving.

The investigation into the attack is led by a little inspector in a creased raincoat, who turns out to be the TV cop Columbo, and is the harbinger of a host of film and TV characters, who, excluded from the Convention, invade it to press their claims for representation. J.R. Ewing, as a spokesman for the soap characters, stresses their vulnerability; his plea gains piquancy from the fact that, on English television, he is now reduced to clumsy self-parody in a yoghurt advertisement. The soap characters are among ‘a whole crowd of flat, filmy people’ that floods into the Convention, many of them characters from film adaptations of novels who, in a witty reversal, now represent the actors who first played them. The hotel is filled with fictions, and finally explodes into apocalypse when it becomes a Towering Inferno and then a majestic flop as California splits along the San Andreas fault. But five weeks later, when the rescue teams have abandoned all hopes of survivors, people start to emerge from the rubble – the fictional characters, of course. Like the heartwarming finale of a Hollywood film, the dead turn up alive: but then they were fictional anyway.

One feels, reading the novel, that these characters in search of readers are also in need of narrative. At one point, an Interpreter, a figure for the reader in the text, reflects that the Convention has been a

long series of frazzled our crises ... one helluva set of noun-events and non-persons. Some will say nothing happens in this novel, in this, Convention, and they’d be dead right. It’s not about events but about characters and their discourse. That’s the way we read books or the world, thoroughly involved then nothing, a mist of shadowy figures, Dead Souls. Perhaps that’s the way God sees us, if he exists. The Implied Reader.

This sounds like a pre-emptive strike to disarm criticism. It does, however, draw attention to Textermination’s substantive themes. The novel is a magnificent celebration of the power of literature to create characters who can – as Brooke-Rose vividly demonstrates – have a life beyond their texts of origin. But it is also, in no portentous way, a warning that the power of literature depends for its continuance upon readers, and readers are not what they used to be.

More broadly, Textermination explores what Brooke-Rose has elsewhere called the ‘representation crisis’ – the difficulty of adequate aesthetic and political representation and the effacement of the distinction between truth and semblance. The protean, elusive presence of Rushdie’s Gibreel Farishta in the novel is a vivid sign of that crisis, of the potentially fatal confusions of fiction and reality.

If the luxury hotel is one model of the contemporary world, the university is another, and in David Caute’s new novel it provides the setting for an exploration, partly comic but with serious and sometimes savage implications, of Britain in the 1980s. Sidney Pyke is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Mercia – an institution whose retreat from Sixties radicalism is symbolised by its swimming-pool, a ‘vast Post-Modernist empire of light’ paid for by the Benzin oil company. Sidney himself is a Sixties survivor, a lead actor in battles long ago – tearing down the LSE gates, sitting in at the Sorbonne, taking over the President’s desk at Columbia. But time has taken its toll. He can still show some of the old spirit – most notably when he stands up, amid a crowd of sycophantic colleagues, to a Thatcherite Minister of Higher Education. But he has moved from red to green: he now holds the casting-vote in a hung council and conducts a vigorous campaign against canine pollution which has made him the bête noire of the district’s dog lovers. But Sidney is a dirty dog himself where women are concerned, still hooked on the Sixties sexual fix, and still trying, though a long-married man, to seduce his colleagues and students. The novel plunges him up to his neck in the consequences.

‘What really happened in the Benzin Swimming-Pool?’ This enigma drives the narrative in The Women’s Hour. As in the Marabar Caves, it is rape that is in question; the alleged victim is Sidney’s feminist colleague Bess Hooper. As in A Passage to India, the enigma remains unresolved, but serves as a means to focus and dramatise the cultural and political clashes. In contrast to some of Caute’s earlier novels, these clashes are not on a colonial site – or, rather, the colonial site has become England itself, under the imperial writ of late capitalism. The broadness of the caricatures of Hans-Dietrich Swindler and Mr Al Sabah Al Masri Al Fatah, the representatives of international capital in the novel, suggests the elusiveness of the enemy: the possibilities of global resistance raised by the anti-colonialist struggles which Caute earlier dramatised have fragmented into local disputes, often at their most vehement between those who might once have made common cause. In Caute’s novel The Occupation (1971), the protagonist’s office, or perhaps his mind, was occupied by militant students, crying coward; in The Women’s Hour, Sidney’s garden, or perhaps his mind, is occupied by militant feminists, crying rape.

Both of these novels are topographies of paranoia. But Caute is now also concerned to portray clashes among women themselves, and he marshals a range of types to this end, from the militant Bess to the dog-loving Tory Councillor and chairman of the local Mother’s Union. The critical question is: do the types become stereotypes?

Ian Carter’s recent study of post-war British university fiction, Ancient Cultures of Conceit,[*] suggests how women have, for a long time, been classed among the barbarians threatening the traditional university, and how such fiction subjects them to what Mary Jacobus ‘has called, felicitously, textual harassment’. Feminism has given new fuel to the sense of threat, and the response, not only in male writers, has been to resort to stereotypes. Caute’s novel echoes this pattern. It seeks to pre-empt such a criticism by building it into its text.

Sidney asks whether the Tribunal of Inquiry into the rape charge would ‘consider, for a moment ... the strategies of narrative? I am habitually recorded as “saying” things, whereas Dr Hooper “yells”, “shouts”, or “screams”.’ But to admit a fault is not to annul it. The failure is one not of political correctness but of imaginative sympathy. Caute once remarked that he was not so much a didactic novelist as a novelist who was interested in didactic characters; but he shows little interest in, for instance, Bess Hooper’s didacticism. Indeed, does not her surname recall an earlier male barbarian in Brideshead Revisited?

The Women’s Hour draws attention to its own fictionality – it is hinted that the whole novel might be by Sidney and it has alternative endings, one of them savage: Sidney is torn to pieces not by his own hounds – this ecologically aware Actaeon does not own any – but by the local dogs he has hounded. Yet despite lurid moments, this novel has an elegiac, fin-de-siècle quality, evoking, even through its surface energies, the twilight of those hopes raised by the Sixties. The link between older and younger generations which was so important in establishing the New Left has broken down in the Eighties. Sidney has scant contact with his own children, and the younger people he meets are Yuppies and wannabees, the bastard spawn of Thatcher. The sons of Sartre have given way to the strident granddaughters of de Beauvoir, militant feminists who seem to Sidney to deny essential connections. The novel leaves us with a montage of statements that speak of a fading of hope. And it is the combination of elegy and energy, of savagery and gentleness, of laughter and muted lament, that gives it its distinctive quality.

If the sense of an ending marks John Fuller’s latest novel. Look twice also displays an awareness of possible beginnings and of the lure of enchantment. It concerns three men on a train – Rudolf Gromowski, Illusionist Extraordinary, Radim Grosiewski, an artist, and Romuald Grochow, a journalist – and their reluctant travelling companion, who at first seems to be a young man but then reveals herself as not one but several women. The train is the last to leave the Duchy of Gomsza, which is falling into civil and constitutional chaos, in a way that resonates strangely with recent events in Eastern Europe and the USSR, though the novel is set in the early 20th century, in the time of the Tsar and young Einstein. As the train steams towards the frontier, the four travellers tell tales which interweave with the story of their journey. These tales are intricate and compelling, and they set up complex transferences and transformations. They finely evoke desire and loss and provide strong renderings of cruelty punctuated by violence – a dog stabbed with a cello spike, a pianist seared with acid. They are also much concerned with the interplay of illusion and reality.

Like Caute and Brooke-Rose, Fuller is uneasy about illusion. But he is more ready to let himself go, to offer the reader enchantments, while also raising questions about representation and reality. Rudolf, Radim and Romuald are, in their different professions, all concerned with representation, and Rudolf and Radim in particular explore issues of art and illusion.

In one especially fascinating story, ‘The Problem of Pictorial Space’, Radim intertwines the tale of his troubled marital relationship with an intriguing account of his attempt to paint a panorama that would seem wholly to surround the spectator and put him in the place of the artist, who, like a stage illusionist, would disappear from his artefact. Radim’s artistic passion is both compelling and confining, and the panorama he produces becomes a way to enclose and evade the challenge posed by his wife and her lover. In the astonishing finale of the novel, the panorama becomes both a means of posing the possibility of a perfect representation and a means of escape.

The illusionist Rudolf is the most explicit spokesman for the artist. His tale shows the price of his craft: like Radim, his preoccupation with perfecting illusion is bound up with self-enclosure and with the loss of the woman he loves. Indeed, he is literally locked in illusion when she shuts him into the false bottom of a coffin and he is forced to listen, impotent, as another man takes possession of her. Rudolf is concerned to stress that his illusions are the product of trickery, to let us into his secrets, but he nonetheless affirms the necessity of illusions, of magical tricks, as symbols of the transference between our imperfect world and the better one we can imagine. A magical trick

is a sign of that possible miracle. Our desperate attempts to fathom the trick are in fact the precise opposite: we need to assure ourselves that there is, after all, no explanation. We look twice, and we look hard. We need convincing that the miracle can indeed occur.

The priest and the prestidigitator, it is implied, may be in the same business. But is this not special pleading, a pre-emptive strike, like those of Brooke-Rose and Caute, to disarm possible criticism? Look twice is subtitled ‘An Entertainment’ and makes much play with the notion that entertainment and the eucharist may merge. But when the show is over, we may wonder if we’ve been had. Fuller finally hedges his bets, fails to produce the substantial work which he surely has in him, falls, like Brooke-Rose and Caute, into gestures towards a fully embodied art.

[*] Routledge, 336 pp., £30 and £12.99, April 1990, 0 415 03154 0.