Lucky Brrm

John Sutherland

  • Brrm! Brrm! by Clive James
    Cape, 160 pp, £12.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 224 03226 7
  • Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler
    Chatto, 337 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3787 8
  • Faustine by Emma Tennant
    Faber, 140 pp, £12.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 571 14263 X

Recently in this journal C.K. Stead explained the dilemma of being a popular Australasian performer in England: ‘He can only be fully understood at home: but there he’s likely to encounter sullenness and resentment, which is overcome, paradoxically, by the irresistible force of a fame earned where the comprehension of what he is doing must be less than complete.’ It is not easy to get this paradox straight. If I understand him, Stead claims that for the Australian or New Zealander to make it in England – as many of his generation have – more than reverse migration is required. An exhausting oscillation is imposed on these ornaments of the post-Sixties British scene – a generation of exiles who seem not so much lost as culturally over-extended. Stead was writing in the LRB about his friend and fellow Antipodean, Barry Humphries. Humphries is nowadays primarily a West End and small screen entertainer with his largest viewing constituency in Britain. The same – but more – could be said of Clive James. James has earned himself reputations as a television host, reviewer, newspaper columnist, songwriter, ‘metropolitan critic’, versifier and novelist (Brrm! Brrm! is his third published title). He is the master of many trades and must be envied by more varieties of hack than anyone in England. Envy is sharpened by James’s being so ostentatiously an outsider – still as aggressively Australian as the day he landed on our shores, thirty years ago.

Clive James introduces himself in passing into Brrm! Brrm! as ‘an Australian in lamentable physical condition’ who specialises in poking fun at Japanese game shows for mass-audience British television. These programmes feature witless orientals stuffing lobsters down their trousers for a few minutes of fame in Japan and side-splitting ridicule in the West. When it suits him, as on these public occasions, James projects himself as a bald, fat, Oz, Jap-basher and all-purpose xenophobe. In his latest, and very, funny, New Year’s Eve revue the running gag was bumbling Clive’s pathetic attempts to chat up his glamorous French co-hostess, who consistently squelched him as a total creep.

This self-caricature is no more Clive James (who by his own account is clearly as attractive to foreign ladies as the next celebrity) than Edna Everage and her remarks about tinted gentlemen is the sophisticated Mr Humphries. One of James’s most effective tricks is to switch personalities on his audience. You are solemn and straight-faced, he smirks and wisecracks; you slap your thighs, he is suddenly vulnerably sensitive and very cultivated. May Week was in June, the last instalment of his on-off autobiography, discloses that for years he has been laboriously studying Japanese in a spirit of anything but racist superiority. The volume ends with a carpe diem in James’s hyper-sensitive mode. The buffoon of the earlier pages – popping his biceps and washing under his armpits in a vain attempt to lure Germaine Greer into bed – is suddenly transformed into an artist gravely contemplating his oeuvre, cherry blossom and death. Inside the fat Australian, we discover, there is a slim beautiful Japanese poet struggling to get out:

Now [i.e. 1990] I can hear the clock. As I bring this slight manuscript to an end, in the 50th year of my life, and the first year of the Heisei era, the swags of blossoms on the cherry trees in the many cemeteries of Tokyo are falling softly apart under their own weight, covering the asphalt walkways with faded pink petals. The year before last, at the cemetery in Aoyama, when there was no hint of a breeze, and I saw the petals change their pattern as if driven by the sad cry of the chestnut vendor, I could already feel the texture of what I will one day write. It will be frail, but as the surface of the sea is frail. The transparency which is all that I have ever been capable of will have at last justified itself.

Anyone remembering this envoi might reasonably expect James’s Japanese novel of 1991 – the second year of the Heisei era, whatever that may be – to be frail as the surface of the sea is frail and tuneful with the haunting cry of the chestnut vendor. Anyone would be disappointed. In shape, Brrm!Brrm! reverts to a form James has somewhat over-used in the past. It is an ingénu’s progress like ‘Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World’, ‘The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media’, ‘Britannia Bright’s Bewilderment in the Wilderness of Westminster’, et al. If Voltaire still had the patent on the Candide plot Clive James would be a poor man.

The difference in Brrm! Brrm! is that the hero is a Japanese. Akira Suzuki (‘Brrm! Brrm!’ to his yobbish British acquaintances) is a promising young Japanese executive on a career fast track. He is slim, beautiful, a poet and a superb athlete. The antipodes, one might say, of a certain Australian. The young man has come west as to a finishing school. In London, by a series of comic misadventures, Suzuki (who is blessed with a penis hard as Mitsubishi steel) ends up in bed with a string of luscious Englishwomen and earns himself a ton of money through shady city deals which he innocently facilitates. An accomplished martial artist, he thumps sundry skinheads and other home-grown oafs on his progress through London’s lower life. Having thoroughly plundered the West, and been himself seduced by its inscrutable mysteries, Suzuki returns first class on JAL with enough loot to buy himself an apartment in Tokyo. Oh lucky Brrm.

The plot is perfunctory in the extreme. The novel’s interest lies in its set-pieces on the quaintness of England as others see us, and of English as others hear us (James has a wonderful ear for the strangeness of idiom – on hearing the snooker term ‘an in off’, for instance, Suzuki suffers ‘a sudden, sharp attack of the fear that he would never make it with the English language’). Suzuki’s internally-vocalised wonderment and comic disgust is exactly what Clive James has made his stock in trade in his years of fame. But in Brrm! Brrm! the Jamesian wit is palpably duller than usual.

Even slightly off form, though, James is very good value. Brrm! Brrm! will probably not go down well in America at the moment, where pro-Japanese fiction is no more popular than pro-Japanese anything. But the novel should hit the spot in James’s other home market, Australia, where Japanese penetration is both further advanced and (for desperate commercial reasons) more welcome. Any traveller to tourist and business areas of Australia must perceive that the continent is being filched from the white Australians as they, 200 years ago, filched it from the Aborigine, and as the Aborigines presumably filched it from the lizards. The mails of Queensland’s Gold Coast have signs in Japanese first, with English subtitles. Presumably a whole generation of Australians, like Clive James, is painfully learning the language of their new masters. In one of his more portentous moods, James has promised that ‘one day, if I am granted life, I will write a book about what happened in the Pacific when two nations, Australia and Japan, strange to each other in every conceivable way, met and fought, and about what has happened since, in the long, blessed peace which by some extraordinary stroke of good fortune has coincided with my own life. If I have an important book in me, that will be the one.’ This is not the one. But Brrm! Brrm! will keep readers amused until the real thing comes along.

Anne Tyler’s stories are set in Baltimore, a city which many readers will neither know nor feel guilty about not knowing. That there will be many readers of Saint Maybe, however, is a certainty. It is Anne Tyler’s 12th novel, and she has a loyal and growing band of admirers. Her last effort, Breathing Lessons, won a Pulitzer and the title before that, The Accidental Tourist, was made into an Oscar-nominated film in 1988. Flattering comparisons with Eudora Welty are now routine.

On the face of it, Tyler’s subject in Saint Maybe – what is a good life? – is as unprepossessing for a novelist as her favourite Maryland setting. Novels about inconspicuously good men – Dr Primrose, the Rev. Robert Elsmere, Sorrell Sr – are not much imitated by today’s fashionable writers. But Saint Maybe is told in an artfully off-hand way which teases the reader into close engagement while suggesting that Tyler herself is only just this side of sarcasm. (One of the few facts she has released about her life is that she was brought up in a Quaker commune and didn’t much like enforced sanctity.) The control of tone in Saint Maybe is masterly, and apparently effortless. So, too, is the control of a difficult chronology. The novel covers twenty-five years in a self-consciously spotty way. Unlike most contemporary novelists, Anne Tyler likes titled chapters which could stand if they had to as independent stories. The technique gives the impression of a narrator dipping into the primary narrative pudding, almost absentmindedly, yet always coming up with a plum.

In 1965, as Saint Maybe opens, the Bedloes of Waverly Street, Baltimore, have ‘an ideal apple-pie household: two amiable parents, three good-looking children, a dog, a cat, a scattering of goldfish’. American Eden. But the younger son, Ian, makes a spiteful remark to his brother Danny, suggesting that Danny’s wife has been unfaithful. Two suicides and the disorder of the apple-pie family result. Paradise lost. The older Bedloes get sick and cranky. The children are disturbed. We are not told, but presumably the pets also have a bad time of it. Inspired by a chance visit to the Church of the Second Chance, Ian resolves to atone by works with the aim of achieving complete forgiveness. Just 19, he drops out of college to work as a carpenter, takes over the charge of his orphaned nephews and nieces, and generally fights the good fight. Finally, having re-established the Bedloes as a happy American family, the 42-year-old Ian marries blissfully and makes some children of his own. Paradise regained.

Ian is, as the title proclaims, a modern saint (perhaps). His is the good life. But as he thinks when someone congratulates him: ‘There was no call to make such a fuss about it.’ These are the novel’s last words and one has to ask if it’s worth making the fuss that a 337-page work of fiction represents. Does Ian merit this kind of attention? He has no obvious charm, no noteworthy characteristics of any kind. He never says anything interesting or thinks anything profound. He owns six books, all on self-improvement. He is not even a particularly competent carpenter (but then he wonders if Christ was – all that talking he did). As his fiancée tells a friend, he has only slept with two women in his life, ‘his high-school girlfriend before he joined the church and then a woman he dated a few years ago, but he felt terrible about that and vowed he wouldn’t do it again.’ Ian himself does not want to be noticed – or at least not by the kind of woman Anne Tyler is, a smart writer of books. The Accidental Tourist is built round an analogous idea – a travel writer who hates travelling, and whose guides supply a kind of damage control system for those forced into it against their wishes. Ian, we may say, is the accidental hero of a novel – a character who implicitly upbraids his creator for making so much fuss about him.

Emma Tennant’s 28-year-long writing career has produced a dazzling variety of fiction. But all her work is marked by a fascination with how traditional literary forms, ideas and topoi can be stretched, pulled and tinkered with. Faustine aligns itself with what is now a distinct and sizeable Tennant sub-group – the feminist travesties of literary classics. First of these was The Bad Sister (1978), which transposed Hogg’s justified sinner into a woman. Next came The Adventures of Robina (1986), a hilarious transposition of Defoe’s Roxana and Cleland’s Fanny Hill to the Fifties. The Two Women of London (1989) offered a female Jekyll and Hyde, set in a satirised Thatcher’s England. Faustine is what its name suggests, a rewriting of Goethe, Marlowe and Mann, with the usual Tennant transpositions and feminist mischief.

Just as the devil has all the good tunes, Tennant seems to think that men have all the good stories, but that there’s no reason that they should be allowed to keep them. Since the Seventies, she has publicly dedicated her fiction to ‘the subject of the female psyche, whether pubescent or mature’. Faustine is the story of three generations of womanhood, ranging from pubescent, through mature, to senescent. In the just-about-to-swing Sixties a grandmother, Muriel Twyman, conceives a passionate jealousy for her daughter Anna’s lover, Harry Crane. Muriel is domestic and conformist and works as a copywriter on a magazine much like Vogue. Anna is a feminist, and runs a publishing collective. When she takes her TV set in for repair, Muriel is astonished to see her miraculously rejuvenated face on every screen in the shop. The devil offers her 24 years of dazzling youth, Sixties mass-media celebrity, and her daughter’s boyfriend, in return for you know what. She accepts and is reborn as Lisa Crane, superstar. Her daughter meanwhile grows old and dowdy. A baby granddaughter is shipped off to Australia.

The trick in this kind of exercise is to sustain the allusion without becoming heavy-handed or cute. Tennant crosses the Faust idea with one of her favourite plots, the Demeter-Persephone search (elsewhere this plot has led to some fruitful experiments with the detective novel). We never actually meet Muriel. Her image is put together from scraps of memory, glimpses, and clues uncovered by her sleuthing granddaughter, Ella, now the biological age (24) of Muriel’s diabolically preserved image. Tennant’s well-known obsession with doubles has, it seems, multiplied. Faustine has a triple heroine, Muriel-Anna-Ella. Beneath the surface of its very accomplished telling, the novel ponders ‘the change of life’. Men grow old; women metamorphose into age by a series of disintegrating jolts. This novel is as clever, enjoyable and tactfully self-revealing as anything Tennant has written.