Drabble’s Progress

John Sutherland

  • The Gates of Ivory by Margaret Drabble
    Viking, 464 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 670 84270 2
  • Happily Ever After by Jenny Diski
    Hamish Hamilton, 245 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 241 13169 3
  • Of Love and Asthma by Ferdinand Mount
    Heinemann, 321 pp, £13.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 434 47993 4

Some readers do not much like Margaret Drabble’s later novels because they are so different from her earlier successes. She may have lost one public and not as yet entirely won over another. Her novel writing career began brilliantly and precociously with A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), published when she was 24. Since then, the preoccupations of her novels have generally kept pace with what one assumes to have been her personal progress from Cambridge graduate, through marriages, pregnancies, growing children, marital complications, and high professional achievement, to what in 1980 – her 40th year – she memorably called ‘The Middle Ground’. The novel of that title – her ninth – marks a reflective moment in Drabble’s evolution. Between The Middle Ground and her next work of fiction there was a seven-year pause (partly taken up with her immersion in the revised Oxford Companion to English Literature). The Radiant Way (1987) inaugurated a trilogy which continued with A Natural Curiosity (1989) and is now concluded with The Gates of Ivory.

Drabble’s progress has been marked by a widening perspective on things. Her first five novels chronicled individual struggle – typically a struggle where the traditional strengths of English provincialism, in the shape of a woman of about Drabble’s age and background, were tested by collision with metropolitan values. Her faintly Biblical and hymnic titles harked back to not-quite-lost Nonconformist certainties: The Millstone, Jerusalem the Golden, The Needle’s Eye, The Realms of Gold. Physically the novels were stylishly slim. A sense of loss permeated them, but not pessimism. The struggle availed.

Even by the time of her eighth novel, The Ice Age (1977), Drabble’s fiction was clearly spreading, both in bulk and range of subject. Collective crisis now overshadowed individual struggle. The term increasingly applied to her fiction was ‘sociological’. ‘I don’t care’ was her response when the new tendency was regretted by some of her readers. In The Ice Age for the first time she used a male protagonist (he turns up on the fringe of The Radiant Way). Still chilled by the power cuts of 1973, the novel projected a vision of the decade as a ‘Terrible Time ... a huge icy fist, with large cold fingers, was squeezing and chilling the people of Britain, that great and puissant nation, slowing down their blood, locking them into immobility, fixing them in a solid stasis, like fish in a frozen river.’

With her subsequent trilogy Drabble’s perspective has spread still further and is now cosmic: the human condition, not just England’s, is the novelist’s concern. The influence most frequently invoked is not her early idol Bennett but Conrad – although a Conrad with whom Drabble has certain quarrels. (‘There is plenty of confusion in real life, without inventing more of it,’ the heroine of The Gates of Ivory snippishly thinks, as she ploughs through Victory.) The Radiant Way, the first novel in the sequence, was something of a mess. It seemed as if Drabble were auditioning a huge cast with the specific aim of deciding later which of their lives it might interest her to pursue. It began with the chaotic end-of-decade party in Harley Street which is, I’d guess, the longest scene in all Drabble’s fiction, running to 46 pages of the Penguin reprint. There are some two hundred guests – many of whom flit past the bemused reader’s gaze, never to be seen again. Specifically, the party introduces three ‘highly-selected’ and self-made women – all contemporaries at Cambridge in the early Fifties and now middle-aged. One, Alix Bowen, wants to ‘change things’. An evangelical Leavisite, she teaches English to prisoners. Alix buries herself in Northam ‘that figurative Northern City’ (Sheffield, I assume) which has served in a number of novels as Drabble’s Five Towns. Alix’s husband labours unsuccessfully to write the great English working-class novel. Like her, he seems strangled in roots. The second of the trio. Esther Breuer, wants to ‘know things’. She is a Jewish émigré art historian and connoisseur. Liz Headleand is a psychiatrist who wants to ‘make sense of things’. Liz is London-based (although Northam-born). Of the three, she most clearly comes through, in the Lawrentian sense.

The long narrative could have fixed on any of these three lives. With frequent detours, The Radiant Way chooses mainly to chronicle Liz’s making sense of her life. The process begins with her second divorce and the painful memory of being abused in childhood by her father. The worst of it is that she had liked it. Life, we gather, is no radiant way (Drabble’s title refers to the simplistic imagery of a popular child’s reading book in the Thirties). Subplots multiply around Liz’s voyage into her past and there are swarms of peripheral characters. Some (like the Dutchman with whom the young Liz made love on a Channel ferry in a force nine gale) cross the novel several times, but one never has the sense that this is a small world. Like the novel, it sprawls. Each of the leading trio of heroines has a brush with the dark side: madness, child abuse, suicide, drug addiction and murder lurk on the edge of their well-ordered bourgeois lives. Running alongside the five years of The Radiant Way’s panorama is the career of the Horror of Harrow Road – a serial killer inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper – whose trademark is to decapitate his victims (the severed head is a recurrent motif in the trilogy). Alix comes within a hairs-breadth of being one of the Horror’s victims. He is eventually discovered to be a rather mild fellow living in a flat above Esther. After he is put away, Alix visits him regularly to advise on such things as vegetarianism and his Open University degree.

Drabble’s style is artfully disintegrated. There are abrupt turns on the reader, mid-page changes of authorial mind, loose grammar, and an addiction to descriptive montage which recalls Dos Passos’s USA trilogy. There are broad streaks of faction. And the scholarly bibliography on South-East Asian history appended to The Gates of Ivory is probably only the second of its kind in fiction. (Clive James, as I recall, made the breakthrough a few years ago.) There are chunks of roman à clef, and at least one recurrent character whose description verges on the libellous. Most of it works, with the exception of some of the more portentous utterances about world affairs (‘Superpowers smouldered’). One senses at all points Drabble’s impatience with realistic technique, but also a final reluctance to go over to Modernism. The mood is chronically depressed. Watching the 1984 miners’ strike on TV – there is a lot of News at Ten in the trilogy – Alix discerns in herself ‘a kind of terrible grinding disaffection’. It’s an apt description of Drabble’s own lowered view of things. Gone entirely is what one critic called the ‘self-confident jauntiness’ of the early novels. Perhaps the struggle no longer avails.

There was, apparently, no original intention to continue The Radiant Way. But on reflection, she felt that the novel ‘was in some way unfinished, that it had asked questions it had not answered and introduced people who had hardly been allowed to speak.’ Although this seems to promise another diffuse panorama, A Natural Curiosity is a much tighter effort, covering only a few months in 1987. The focus is firmly on Alix, whose sleuthing uncovers the something nasty in the woodshed that made young Paul Whitmore the Horror of Harrow Road. The novel – which is the first of Drabble’s to exploit suspense – climaxes with Gothic revelations of bestiality and sexual perversion that suggest a raid on Joyce Carol Oates’s market.

The allusion in The Gates of Ivory’s title is to Penelope’s declaration in the Odyssey about false dreams (or fictions) coming through gates of ‘traitor ivory’ while true dreams come through gates of horn. There is, as it happens, a lot of horny fact in The Gates of Ivory. Drabble’s first words concede that it may not be a novel at all, but some as yet unnamed literary form. However it is categorised, The Gates of Ivory is another unexpected extension of Drabble’s range. The narrative centres on Liz Headleand’s Marlovian quest into the heart of Cambodian darkness. Her Kurtz is Stephen Cox, a Booker-winning novelist, with whom she had a pregnant conversation at Bertorelli’s in January 1985, recorded long ago in The Radiant Way. Liz’s obsession with Cox is triggered by an enigmatic parcel of his literary and possibly human remains (in the form of a shrivelled finger). Why he went to Cambodia is a mystery: to research a play on Pol Pot is his unconvincing ‘alibi’. And why Liz should choose to follow him into the interior of the most dangerous country on earth is another mystery. Their connection was never close. Liz’s chronicle is intercut with (dead) Stephen’s journal, which introduces what I think must be the first wholly comic figure in Drabble’s fiction – the Asian beauty-queen entrepreneur, Miss Porntip (‘Britain is poor country ... You senile now,’ she amiably tells Stephen). Another strand is the journal of Stephen’s trollopy agent, whose complaint that Liz Headleand ‘is too fucking nice’ may strike a sympathetic chord in some readers. In general, however, The Gates of Ivory is targeted on atrocity. The reader sups full of blood. Descriptions of torture and mass killings abound. One account of eating live monkey brains (unsevered heads) will put the reader off variety meats for a day or two. More blood is spilled in protracted and detailed descriptions of menstruation. This is a novel which does for those unmentionables, the used tampon and sanitary pad, what Portnoy’s Complaint did for self-abuse. And there is a rather confusing episode in which the supposedly post-menopausal Liz contracts toxic shock syndrome. It is all worlds away from the West End party that started it. And who, reading The Garrick Year in 1965, would have anticipated Miss Drabble one day putting on paper the description of an audience (at a deconstructionist Coriolanus, no less) gaping ‘like a ripe cunt’?

As it happens, over-ripe vaginas figure prominently in Jenny Diski’s Happily Ever After. Its subject – geriatric sex, viscerally described – is not one which has traditionally held out much appeal to the British comic muse. Daphne, ‘a 68-year-old ex-lady novelist’, conceives an irresistible crush for Liam, her alcoholic, agonisingly cuckolded landlord, a man some thirty years younger than she. While he is paralytic, Daphne straps him to the bed, with intent to ravish. Wisely, however, she has consulted her GP first. ‘I’ve been doing a little reading down at the library,’ she tells Dr Meades, ‘about what happens to the female body after menopause – of course, I got all that over and done with ten years ago. No trouble at all. But I understand from a very good book I found – the Boston Women’s Health Collective, it was – that the walls of the vagina get thin, and that during the act there’s often trouble with lubrication. Too much fucking friction, as it were, dear.’ Doctor recommends a hormone cream, and the rape goes off swimmingly. Daphne wears her floppy velvet ‘bag-lady’s hat’ throughout the act. Liam decides he likes bondage, the pathologically unfaithful wife Sophie moves out, and Daphne moves in, pending the arrival of her customised dormobile, in which she intends to trot the globe. A thesaurus of what Happily Ever After covers in the way of narrative subject reads like Zola at his grimmest: vengeful adultery, child beating, infanticide, homelessness, deviant sex, the bottle. As Diski handles it, the novel is never less than funny. But running across the shiny black surface of her narrative is a tiny flaw, in the geological sense: the recurrent sound of a hurt child crying, echoing from sixty years ago through the lodging-house where it all takes place. Happily Ever After is a very clever novel.

Of Love and Asthma is a novel whose cleverness is achieved by dabs, touches and barbed understatement. On the whole, it is probably more informative about asthma than love. Non-sufferers could usefully consult Mount’s novel for instruction on asthma pillows, inhalers, and the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic conditions of the ailment. Asthma is hell on earth – but not without its compensating excitements. The narrative, which covers thirty years, begins in a postwar sanatorium – with self-deprecating allusion to The Magic Mountain and to asthma as the poor man’s consumption. After some sparring chapters, which seem to promise a conversation novel, Of Love and Asthma settles down instead into a rake’s progress, grippingly told. The asthmatic and charismatic Joseph Dudgeon Fellows progresses from sexual bounder to property tycoon and young meteor in the moral murk of Wilson’s last administration. He is ruined, and flees his creditors to Ireland, where – now an invalid – he has some farcical brushes with the IRA who kidnap him for a ransom almost as mountainous as the debts he has left behind him on the mainland.

Mount could have turned all this to satire. Instead, his scapegrace is dealt with tenderly. We are made to be fond of Joe, for all that he seduces his aunt (despite a spasm while on the job), drives the daughter of his philosophy professor into the lunatic asylum, sleeps with his mistress while his wife has a miscarriage, and even – in a state of advanced paralysis – continues to commit adultery as best he can. There is a very funny episode concerning Joe’s desperate schemes to procure contraceptives as a bedridden lecher in Eire. The novel, Mount tells us, ‘is not quite the English Gatsby, but it will have to do for now’. Mount’s Nick Carraway is simply called ‘Gus’. Although he talks to us confidentially during the whole length of the narrative, we know nothing more about Gus than that he and Joe met as identically aged boys in a sanatorium, and that he continues to love his friend despite a series of Judas-like treacheries. Asthmatics, he says, ‘have cold but tenacious hearts, sticky to the touch, like ice from a refrigerator set at maximum’. Gus’s affectless but incurable loyalty is never explained.