Palimpsest History

Jonathan Coe

  • Ulverton by Adam Thorpe
    Secker, 382 pp, £14.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 436 52074 5
  • Kicking by Leslie Dick
    Secker, 244 pp, £13.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 436 20011 2
  • Frankie Styne and the Silver Man by Kathy Page
    Methuen, 233 pp, £13.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 413 66590 9

In her recent collection Stories, Theories and Things, Christine Brooke-Rose was casting around for a generic term under which to classify such diverse novels as Midnight’s Children, Terra Nostra and Dictionary of the Khazars, and came up with ‘palimpsest history’. What all of these books have in common is their interest in the recreation of a national history: a history which, in each case, has been erased or fragmented, subsumed beneath layers of interpretation, forgetting, writing and rewriting. If the genre has up until now seemed somehow alien to our own traditions, very much the product of something called ‘World Literature’, a kind of superleague of writers; whose work is, above all, thoroughly (and enviably) internationalised, this may be because we have so far lacked a really distinguished English entry in the field. We have been dogged, perhaps, by an assumption that English history and the English landscape do not in themselves offer a broad enough canvas (rather in the way that whole generations of film critics have allowed themselves to be persuaded, on the basis of Truffaut’s throwaway remark about the uncinematic qualities of this same landscape, that Britain can never produce films of world stature).

But here, anyway, is Adam Thorpe to prove the assumption triumphantly wrong, because his first novel is indeed a ‘palimpsest history’ of exceptional resonance and scope, even though its focus rests entirely on a single (fictional) English village, viewed over a period of some three hundred years. There are 12 sections, each one working as a self-contained short story while also forming part of a larger narrative which is constantly looking back upon and adding to itself. These stories are meaty, dramatic, suspenseful: they deal in issues of betrayal, secrecy, discovery and deception, two characteristic examples being ‘Improvements’, set in 1712, in which a farmer conducts a clandestine affair with his parlourmaid, and ‘Wing’ (1953), in which a writer’s downtrodden secretary decides to sabotage his egomaniacal bid for immortality. An extreme instance of details overlapping from one story to the next occurs when the central unresolved mystery from the first section – what happened to the treasure brought back by a soldier returning from Cromwell’s army, only to be murdered by his newly-remarried wife? – is solved almost in passing during a brief scene in the last section, 350 pages later, when the same soldier’s skeleton is finally dug up on a building site.

The risks and technical difficulties involved in an enterprise such as this are enormous. As far as his pastiche of earlier styles is concerned, Thorpe exudes confidence: he’s well up to the standard set by Barnes and Ackroyd, say. (Not that judgment is really possible by non-specialists in the relevant periods: it wasn’t until a particularly unconvincing passage in the modern section – a conversation between three ‘youths’ who are required to mouth inarticulate platitudes like ‘Well I mean we en’t gonna save the world and all the dolphins an weather and suchlike just by standing around’ – that I began to wonder whether the sense of trust I’d felt while reading the earlier sections had as much to do with unfamiliarity as anything else.) But there’s also a more deep-rooted problem which arises when any work of fiction makes an implicit claim, as Ulverton eventually does, to historical authenticity. It becomes especially pressing in the closing pages, when the heritage business closes in on the village and we begin to catch a whiff of authorial polemic. Clearly we are meant to recoil at the thought that a sepia photo of Ulverton’s youngest and finest lined up in the square en route to the trenches – a poignant reminder of the tenth section, ‘Treasure’ – is now being used as a bar-room decoration in a revamped pub. There is an outraged sense, here, of amnesia, of falsification, which depends upon our feeling that we, by contrast, know the ‘truth’ about Ulverton’s history after watching it unfold in the author’s hands. It therefore becomes vital for Thorpe to impress this sense of authenticity upon us, and yet in doing so he cannot avoid getting caught up in one of the most intractable of literary paradoxes: namely, that the more devices he employs in an attempt to create verisimilitude, the greater is our awareness of his own controlling – and inventing – presence.

We cannot shake off our knowledge, in other words, that the fragmentation of the history laid before us – the breakings-off in mid-sentence (mid-word, even), the rows of dots, the ellipses, the lapses of memory – are the result not of random damage inflicted by time itself but of conscious decisions made by an author in possession of absolute power over his material. This is unfortunate, because it means that at those very moments when the book is straining its hardest to be authentic (particularly in one farmworker’s lengthy and militantly incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness monologue) it does little but signal its own fictionality. Nonetheless Thorpe seems to be aware of the problem, and does his best to minimise the damage by introducing himself, in the character of a subversive writer, into the last section of his own novel. If this sounds like a ploy reminiscent of Julian Barnes’s History of the World, with which Ulverton shares many formal characteristics, it has to be said that Thorpe on the whole scores higher, not only in the sense of including 1½ more chapters but in his general policy of letting the characters’ voices speak out loud and clear, not muffled by a cushion of authorial knowingness.

The most impressive achievement of Ulverton, finally, lies not in technical bravura, or the intelligence with which it grasps the nature of history, but in its core of emotional truth. We might single out the humour (‘Last night,’ an 18th-century diarist writes of his wife, ‘she hit me with the stick we keep for this purpose beside the bed’) and Thorpe’s gift for making it shade into seriousness (a few pages later we learn that the stick is there at the husband’s request – his wife nearly died in childbirth and he wants her to use it every time he makes sexual advances towards her). But the portrayals of poverty and rural deprivation are also commendably unsentimental, and the novel impresses with its insistence – which never descends to mere pro-feminist point-scoring – that the bitterest hardships, over the centuries, have been visited upon Ulverton’s women. These hardships can either take the form of small indignities (the secretary who finds that her boss, putting together a strongbox of contemporary relics for the benefit of future historians, has classified her Tampax under ‘Vogues & Luxuries’), or severe physical cruelties such as forcible confinement or an agonisingly protracted delivery. Ulverton is, of necessity, a very physical book, full of blood, sex, food and shit (‘you on’t eat nowt wi’out it come out some place,’ as one character wisely observes), because one of Thorpe’s abiding themes is the inseparability of the physical and the emotional: it’s for this reason, after all, that the exhumation which concludes the novel is able to cast such a revealing light on a crime of passion which had baffled villagers more than three hundred years earlier.

‘I think what’s buried in the earth will always, eventually, rise to the surface. Putrefying, but somehow preserved, and returning.’ This observation comes not from Ulverton but from the penultimate page of Leslie Dick’s second novel, Kicking. The thematic connection seems obvious enough, but the exhumations in Dick’s book are exclusively psychological – buried memories pulled up by the root in a willed act of recollection which is triggered by a dream and a suicide. The central character is Connie, a thirtysomething academic, born in America but based in London (like the author), and the novel concerns itself with teasing out a cat’s cradle of relationships dating back to her schoolgirl romance with a gifted painter, Michael Stour. Just as the complex pattern of recurrences and continuities imparted a busy, eventful stillness to Thorpe’s novel, so Kicking is oddly but energetically static, its startling overture and pared-down prose driving the reader onward, not into a conventional narrative and dénouement but into a series of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks, a kind of fast-moving limbo where we remain landlocked for virtually the entire book. The dynamics of the novel are provided, then, not by a flow of events following upon each other in traditional sequence, but by a continually shifting counterpoint of themes, analogies and connections: the title refers to a friend of Connie’s, Iris, who is trying to kick her drug habit; at the same time Connie is trying to ‘kick’ her addiction to the past, specifically her obsession with Michael – an obsession which is itself a sort of death wish, and concretely so in this case, because Michael has always assumed that he would die before he reached the age of thirty, just as his mathematician father did – probably from heart disease but perhaps from horror at the thought of burnout, of losing his magical, unlimited power over a world of numbers – which connects with the enigmatic suicide at the beginning of the novel, and so on.

This structural interest, and the book’s stylistic originality – its lean, oddball mannerisms – compensate for what might otherwise seem to be a rather conventional set of preoccupations. In purely narrative terms, Kicking could reasonably be classified as a ‘Hampstead novel’, one of those indulgent accounts of the emotional ups and downs of a group of privileged aesthetes, with the action relocated to Ladbroke Grove and New York. There are moments – as when Connie casually ‘talked her father into giving her the money to buy a flat in London’, or when she and two friends spend an afternoon baking Christmas tree decorations which resemble vaginas or spell out lines from Keats – when you want to strangle these people (although we should give Dick credit for creating characters vivid enough to inspire the feeling); there are others, as when the narrator makes a reference to ‘the undifferentiated and indifferent little houses of the South London bourgeoisie’, when you miss Adam Thorpe’s more generous social sympathies. But most of the time the novel’s astringent, enquiring disposition and flashes of wit hold the attention: even if the last few pages, where the characters are given a good deal of dry analysis to expound, has the breathlessly explanatory feel of the closing scene in a TV detective show.

Kathy Page’s novel Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is even more let down by its conclusion, which undoes much of the grimly persuasive work leading up to it. The Frankie of the title was once called John: he’s a grotesquely blotched and ugly writer of horror novels who adopted his monstrous nickname while still at school, as part of a strategy of self-protection which also led him to discover the power he could wield by inventing repulsive stories (‘Do you want to know about the maggots that live in my armpits? I eat them’). He now lives in a gloomy row of suburban terraced houses, two doors away from a young couple whose marriage is about to buckle under the twin strains of childlessness and infidelity. In between them lives Liz, who has just given birth, at the age of 19, to a boy afflicted with a rare illness, Spinney’s Syndrome, which renders him completely unable to communicate.

One of the problems here is that the reader’s sympathies, I suspect, are meant to be centred largely on Liz, whereas it is actually Frankie who is at the narrative hub of the novel. Two alarming developments in his career set the wheels in motion: his editor tells him that there must be sex scenes in his next book, and he is shortlisted for a prestigious literary prize. This enables Page both to embark upon one of the novel’s most unsettling passages (when Frankie, impotent and inexperienced, scours a sex shop in pursuit of research material) and to make a telling point about the increasing readiness of the literary establishment to confer respectability on extreme misogynist fantasies.

The scenes between Liz and her unresponsive baby seem lifeless by comparison, not because they are written without energy but simply because there is less happening: and this is even true of another subplot, about Liz’s social worker, Ann Purvis, and her tragic handling of a case involving a child abuser. All eyes remain on Frankie, and the will-he-won’t-he question of his unspeakable designs against his agent: the aforementioned letdown comes when he suffers a most improbable last-minute conversion, seemingly brought about by a single letter from a women’s pressure group and the experience of having Liz cry on his shoulder. Until this point he has been portrayed with sympathy and conviction: all the details of his nastily fastidious personal habits and social awkwardness ring true. Similarly, there is a brief but very piercing sketch of a middle-aged geography teacher, desperately frustrated because he has only ever visited France and Germany, while ‘the kids in his classes had travelled half-way round the world’ and ‘ranked what they’d seen lower than last night’s television’.

I closed the book in two minds, full of admiration for its courage and economy, but confused that a novelist who has previously found herself drawn to issues like rape (Back in the First Person) and illegal abortion (The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley) should turn out – from this male reader’s point of view, anyway – to be so much better at writing about men than about women.