Dry Eyes

John Bayley

  • Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer
    Bloomsbury, 257 pp, £13.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7475 1020 2
  • Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood
    Bloomsbury, 247 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 7475 1019 9

A Jane Austen of today is barely imaginable: but it one nonetheless imagines her, and locates her in South Africa, how would she be exercising her art? Could she find any subject other than the one Nadine Gordimer writes about? A great, even a good writer does not find his subject, it takes him over: he becomes it, and the world it has brought with it. But there exist situations in which this is necessarily not the case. Not only the subject but the way to treat it is handed to the talented South African writer in the most unambiguous terms. His success must be measured, not in terms of the world he has made by his art, but by what his art reveals of a particular world.

Jane Austen’s sense of the society she lived in is subject to a variety of interpretations. D.W. Harding detected her ‘controlled hatred’ for it, while most of her fans regard her as supremely at home in it, using it as a vehicle for amusement and perception and something like comfortable fantasy. She repels and attracts; she can be attacked and defended. Nadine Gordimer, on the other hand, can only earn a chorus of dutiful praise. It must exasperate her sometimes to read that her novel or story is ‘not to be missed’ by anyone who cares what has been happening in South Africa; or that by revealing what has happened she has ‘earned herself a place among the few novelists who really matter’. An honourable place, of course, and earned by the demonstrational sympathy and intelligence of Burger’s Daughter and My Son’s Story and The Conservationist. But her real talents are compromised by this style of celebrity in a way that does not reflect on them, yet imprisons them; and that seems not to happen to a novelist like Amos Oz, whose subject is not so much Israel and its future as some vision of his own about human beings and their spiritual insides. This is not the same as ‘intertwining the personal with the political’, and delineating ‘each shift’ in the African situation ‘as a literary keeper of records’. With fans writing that on the dust-jackets of Nadine Gordimer’s books, who needs depreciatory critics?

The success of the story or nouvelle stands in particular need of an equivocation the art of the form brings into being. A real masterpiece like The Aspern Papers reveals James’s own fascination with the phenomenon of greed and power: the greed of the narrator for possession of the papers, whose ownership is poor Miss Tita’s only weapon in her struggle for power and for possession of him. Every touch in James’s evocation of Venice, like the statue of Colleoni, the indomitable warrior and ruthless mercenary, makes its ambiguous undercover point: and yet the touchingness of the tale itself seems not to be aware of what is going on, just as the governess-narrator in The Turn of the Screw is not aware of what is going on in the children’s private world. This is the freedom of the story form, and it is a freedom sadly withheld from Nadine Gordimer’s searching talent and narrative skill. ‘Safe Houses’, one of the best stories in this collection, suffers from the parameters it cannot avoid. A white political subversive, in hiding from the Police in Johannesburg, meets a rich woman whose business husband is away on frequent trips to Germany or Japan. Their meeting on a bus – her car has broken down and she has never been on a bus before – and their subsequent affair is immaculately described; and the end is not betrayal, for she never finds out who he really is, but a succession of less glamorous safe houses and eventual arrest. The donnée of the story is of course the contrast between his own secret dedicated life and her idle and privileged one, but it is not a theme which allows room for manoeuvre, or freedom for the story to surprise us and itself.

And yet it is possible to feel the author willing it to have such a freedom, and putting her skill into two kinds of understanding of the pair. They are representative, emblems of their time and place, but they are also physically realised. Their relation is observed with the tough business-like sympathy Nadine Gordimer has developed over the several volumes of her stories. She is more at home with physical notation than with what goes on in people’s minds. Her episodes are to inform rather than to move us, and this means that a story which explores its own possibilities is more likely to reach our emotional responses than one which indicates a proper way to think and to feel. These stories are trapped inside the nature of their event. In one, a white farmer accidentally shoots his unrecognised son, a black boy whom he favours and who goes everywhere with him. In another, ‘Some are born to sweet delight’, a London family (locations outside Africa are left deliberately vague) acquires a Middle Eastern lodger. The daughter of the family falls in love with him and gets pregnant. She goes abroad to have the child with relatives, and he gives her a plastic toy to take to them. She thinks fondly of the way he watched without taking his eyes off her as she went through the barrier into the passport and security area. The plane blows up in mid-air.

The trouble is that a story can have nothing to add to such an event. Like Mérimée or Maupassant or Somerset Maugham, Nadine Gordimer seems most at home when no commentary is necessary: most of all when even an implicit ideology can be sidetracked. ‘A Find’ is about a man powerful and prosperous enough to have got through two designing wives, and who then goes to take a bachelor holiday on a Riviera beach. Among the sea stones he finds a valuable ring, and decides to make use of it through an advertisement. The dénouement is admirably done, and the author seems rather disconcertingly at home in it, as if easing herself with a holiday from normal duties and commitments. Connoisseurs of the short story will remember the use that Maupassant, Maugham and James all make of the same theme: the jewellery whose value or lack of it gives a quick print-out of individual human reactions. James is of course the one who in his tale ‘Paste’ ponders the notion most effectively, starting from the inheritance of some trumpery jewellery which turns out to be the real thing. The psychology of acquisition then breeds a whole new generation of victims and predators.

Nadine Gordimer wisely leaves her participants without any inner life. In her title story ‘Jump’ this pays off with a Science Fiction setting in which a new black world houses in conditions of privileged nightmare a white renegade, a former ‘supporter’. The awful futility of the isolation is treated inconspicuously and dryly, and the ambiguity of anti-climax has spread even into the concepts of revolt and repression. The image of a jump, a leap in the dark, borrowed from Conrad’s Lord Jim, is neatly turned round, so that it never seems quite time to make the final gesture, the right moment for what was once the dangerous challenge of an assignment, and would now be simply the one to bow out on, to confront extinction. Freedom-fighting necessarily takes place in a slot like the one now occupied for life by the nameless hero, a slot isolated from the other realities of Africa – hyenas on the prowl, a lioness stalking a zebra – which are the subject of the laconic ‘Spoils’. Lamb chops flavoured with rosemary for camp dinner fit together, in the indefinable degradation of a ‘safari park’, with the excitement of watching from the safety of a jeep a carnivore devouring a herbivore.

Shocking contrasts or disagreeable details are today’s stock-in-trade, but the writer’s art is to use them without insistence or inner glee. Talented women like Nadine Gordimer and Margaret Atwood are very good at this. Both have styles that are frostily kind, sharp and dry-eyed, and the Atwood stories in particular remind me of those by an expert in the art from a previous generation, Elizabeth Bowen. ‘Wilderness Tips’, which is about a nice family at their lakeside holiday home, and the city interloper who has married among them, would have specially pleased the older artist. The daughters of the house all have matching names – Portia, Pamela, Prue – and Wacousta Lodge has a touch of the atmosphere of Waikiki, the seaside home in The Death of the Heart – at once funny and threatening. The wilderness that surrounds it is ruined, of course, although at least one of the family dreams, as he chops wood, of ‘Indian Lore’, walking with toes pointing straight forward and all that. Hopefully the lodge is a ‘slice of the past’, together with its innocence, and the story insinuates the pathos of this by making no comment on it.

Dismemberment of time, of place and person, goes with the collapse of any sustaining mythology, even the obstinately cherished Canadian one of the Great Outdoors. The heroine of ‘Weight’ is literally dismembered; and in Margaret Atwood’s vision of the past and future of the new country she is lucky not to get eaten as well. Franklin’s famous expedition in Victorian times to find the North-West Passage is the theme of ‘The Age of Lead’, a tale which turns pollution into a bracing kind of art. Recently dug up from the permafrost, their surprised faces shown on TV, the members of the expedition died, it seems, of lead poisoning from the newly invented tins which contained their supplies. The TV fact moves from this instance of a fatal new technology into the modern world, where everything dies of the new in more complex ways, and on a wider scale. The outdated heroism of Franklin’s men, celebrated in that very Victorian melodrama by Dickens and Wilkie Collins, has no counterpart in the new world of Toronto, falling apart with Aids and the insidious toxins of waste dumps, ‘concealed here and there in the countryside, and masked by the lush deceitful green of waving trees’. ‘Franklin my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ the heroine’s comically sophisticated boyfriend used to remark in high school, and they used to intone together a cosy little chant: ‘No pins, no pads, no odour, no chafing.’ But as a successful designer he will die in his thirties from some newly-activated virus. Atwood’s prose rises to dour heights with her heroine’s terminal feelings about her kitchen gadgets waiting for her departure, ‘in order to assume their final, real appearance of purposeless objects adrift in the physical world ... The sidewalk that runs past her house is cluttered with plastic drinking-cups, crumpled soft drink cans, used take-out plates. She picks them up, clears them away, but they appear again overnight, like a trail left by an army on the march or by the fleeing residents of a city under bombardment, discarding the objects that were once thought essential but are now too heavy to carry.’

Yet a doubt remains, a doubt of the merely factual, on which the story builds. Did Franklin’s men, as they crazily dragged over the ice a lifeboat filled with toothbrushes and slippers and other useless junk, really die of the lead poisoning that looked such a smart solution to the researchers and on TV? The Romans, after all, not only used lead pipes but practically ate the stuff: wine with lead sugar was their favourite tipple. It didn’t do them any good but it didn’t kill them suddenly either. This is the kind of doubt that can filter into our reading of both sets of stories. Has our sense of apocalypse become our own way of being innocent, and is it in the vision even of these toughly unillusioned writers? Innocence is only high spirits, after all, and as they pass from one direly unhopeful exhibit to another their spirits nonetheless remain high. Remember, too, that it was in Franklin’s time, now so hopeful seeming, that Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach wrote of the ignorant armies, and of a world that had neither joy nor light nor life.

Romance, rather than innocence, is the theme of ‘Isis in Darkness’, one of Margaret Atwood’s best. The short story thrives on the gap between the place we have to live in and the Other World that sustains us: in this case, the occasional meetings of a scruffy don from Toronto University with a poetess who means for him what ‘Mysterious Kor’ meant to the heroine of Elizabeth Bowen’s short story masterpiece. Atwood’s modern Toronto is a starker place even than Bowen’s wartime London, and with much less to fight for or look forward to. But even there romance can still flower, it seems, at least still bring up a modern airline’s equivalent of Kipling’s nine-fifteen.