Back to the future

Julian Symons

  • The Children of Men by P.D. James
    Faber, 239 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 571 16741 1
  • A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr
    Chatto, 336 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 7011 4553 6
  • Spoilt by Georgina Hammick
    Chatto, 212 pp, £13.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 7011 4133 6
  • The Death of the Author by Gilbert Adair
    Heinemann, 135 pp, £13.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 434 00623 8
  • Jerusalem Commands by Michael Moorcock
    Cape, 577 pp, £15.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 224 03074 4

Versions of the future (1). The year is 2021, human life is dying out. The last human being was born in 1996, and has just been killed outside Buenos Aires in a pub brawl. Infertility is world-wide, but we are not concerned with its effects in North or South America, Africa or India, or anywhere but Britain, where the apparently benevolent authority of the Council is ruled or guided by the Warden, Xan Lypiatt. Interest in sex is waning, although substitutes in the form of various massages are available on the NHS. Lady Margaret Hall is the massage centre for Oxford, and in Oxford lives the diarist-narrator Theo Faron, cousin and boyhood friend of the Warden and teacher of history (‘the least rewarding discipline for a dying species’) to the last generation born, the beautiful, hostile Omegas.

Faron, divorced and childless after killing his own small daughter by accident when reversing his car, is approached by a tiny group of dissidents who believe that sinister things are happening in the Pen Settlement for offenders on the Isle of Man. They are also disturbed by the voluntary group suicides called the Quietus, organised by the Special Security Police and approved by the Council. Faron agrees to approach the Warden, although he is sceptical of the complaints. He defines ‘sound government’ in 2021 as ‘good public order, no corruption in high places, freedom from war and crime’. Concern for individual lives? ‘We may have the best that is possible in the circumstances. There was wide support for setting up the Man Penal Settlement.’ But still he talks to the Council and the Warden, and is told by Xan that he desires the end but closes his eyes to the means.

P.D. James has two themes here. One is about the baneful effect of a hedonistic eugenic tyranny where those who don’t go voluntarily to their Quietus are delivered to it by force, and the other, developed in the book’s second half, about human redemption through religious faith. One of the dissidents is pregnant, and a determination that the baby shan’t fall into the Warden’s hands leads them to go on the run, accompanied by Faron. The book’s two halves are very different. The first offers a subtle, finely argued case against an easy hedonism whose ultimate resort is force, and a system of eugenics leading eventually to the extermination of the unfittest. Asked by Faron why the state’s compulsory sperm testing is confined to healthy selected males, the Warden asks: ‘Why breed from the stupid, the feckless, the violent?’ What may be called the up side of the story, the birth of a child and the conversion of indifferent Theo Faron to religious belief (in the last line he makes the sign of the Cross on the child’s forehead), seemed to me much less interesting. In parts, as when the little convoy is trapped by the Painted Faces, Omegas who have turned to violence, it becomes a straightforward adventure story. And altogether too much is left out of this parable about a dying world possibly rejuvenated through faith – how one male child is going to set about re-peopling it, for a start.

Versions of the future (2). In A Philo sophical Investigation the year is 2013, and life hasn’t changed much from 1992 except in such matters as the development of 42 cable channels and no-speed-limit car lanes. And, as happens in 1992, a serial killer is on the loose. Or several serial killers. Is the latest female victim a mark against the Hackney Hammerer, the Motorcycle Messenger, or as Inspector Jake (otherwise Isabel) Jakowicz believes, the Lipstick Man? Such facetiousness is characteristic of Philip Kerr’s uncertain tone. In the moment after this jokiness, Jake flushes with anger at the callousness of her fellow detectives, who fail to recognise that the victim ‘had once been a beautiful young woman with her whole future in front of her’. But where else would her future be?

Another minor technical innovation has seen the development in 2013 of soundless gas guns (one used by our killer), about which Jake is oddly ignorant. With the aid of an expert able to elucidate breaches made in the security of the new Lombroso computer, Jake discovers that the victims are all figures with a disposition towards criminal violence. They have been given code names in the computer, names relating to literature and philosophy, so that one is codenamed Charles Dickens, another Bertrand Russell. The killer is one of these: code name Wittgenstein. The trouble with such dead-clever stuff as this is that it wavers between seriousness and farce, and also that the cleverness makes more jarring the frequent lapses into clicéhe, as when another detective says to Jake: ‘That’s a hell of a hunch you’re playing.’ But Philip Kerr’s ingenuity is unquestionable, and the first person mock-philosophical speculations of ‘Wittgenstein’, which seemed to me pretentious, may be regarded by some as profound. This is probable the crime story of the year for computer buffs, amateur philosophers and would-be time-travellers.

Back to the 20th century and middle-aged, middle-class anxieties with the nine stories in Georgina Hammick’s Spoilt. Angus Wilson’s name has been mentioned in comparison, but these pieces have none of the acidity and satiric hardness of Wilson’s early short stories. Their sheen, style and deliberate under-statement are much nearer the New Yorker tadition. In these tales high expectations are disappointed, balloons of hope punctured. They exemplify the remark that it is not by our beliefs we five but by our habits. In one finely rounded story – actually called ‘Habits’ – Nessa wonders why she remains with minor artist and art school teacher Otto, who has quarrelled with their married friends, takes no interest in the Christmas cards she is writing, and indeed has little apparent interest in her alter years of marriage. When a friend tells her that Otto is involved in a long-standing affair with another married woman, Nessa feels it is a moment of crisis. She contemplates confronting him with the story, but in fact goes on writing Christmas cards.

The underplaying that makes this story so effective marks most of the others. ‘Maeve goes to town’ sees Maeve, urged on by her teenage children, going to an art dealer’s smart party where nobody knows her or wants to talk to her, then returning to tell the teenagers that it was fine, ‘had a long talk with Terry Ross, you know, chat-show host’. In ‘High Teas’ old Mrs Peverill learns that the trendy young vicar with whom she had such fierce arguments over tea and fruit cake is off to the Challenge of Merseyside, and wonders what she will do now on Friday afternoons. ‘How would she fill her life at all?’ ‘The American Dream’ examines youthful fantasies about sex and romance through English boy and girl twins in Washington with their parents just after World War Two; ‘The Dying Room’ looks at the emotional barriers between fastidious mother and invertedly snobbish son via the language they use. ‘You can’t use that word any more,’ he says when she mentions the drawing-room. Georgina Hammick’s own use of language always seems just right, whether it is party chat, post-war American talk as it strikes young Britishers, or an out-of-work car salesman pulling a working-class teenager. She is not today’s Angus Wilson nor means to be, but within their self-imposed limits these are immensely enjoyable and successful stories.

‘Enjoyable’ is the word too for Gilbert Adair’s jokey fiction around and about the case of Léopold Sfax, who might be called a philosophical cousin not very removed of Paul de Man. Sfax, like de Man, arrived in America as a young man in flight from German-occupied France. He has a great reputation at New Harbor, ‘perhaps America’s most prestigious Ivy League institution’. His deconstructionist work Either/Either, the title deriving from ‘You say eyether and I say eether’, is followed by essays in The Vicious Spiral advancing the Theory that exposes ‘the utter and terminal in-security’ of any textual reading and ‘demonstrates that is was for language to do the thinking, for the text to “write” its author rather than vice-versa.’ But like de Man, Sfax has a past: while in France he wrote pro-German articles and even one on ‘the Judaisation of European literature’. What can be done to conceal, even eliminate, those early disgraceful days? What else but truly killing the author, ‘his final solution, his elimination from the Text of the world’. The way in which Sfax proposes to do this can’t be revealed (this is a howdunnit), except to say that the plan doesn’t succeed and that the whole story is told, one might say, from Sunset Boulevard.

Michael Moorcock’s Jerusalem Commands comes along with paperback editions of two earlier volumes in the series, Byzantium en-dures and The Laughter of Carthage. A stranger to these works and indeed to any Michael Moorcock, I have dutifully read them all. They are works of evident talent, yet I wouldn’t care to repeat the experience. These are the ‘memoirs’ of Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski, born in 1900, and at the end of the third volume still only 29. Since Moorcock tells us they will end in 1940 there is a good deal more to come. Pyatnitski, Pyat for short, well-known in Notting Hill during the Sixties and Seventies as ‘the old Pole’, died in 1977. Pyat was anti-semitic (possible Jewish himself), a liar, braggart, inventor of aeronautical and other mechanical devices which failed to work. His adventures take him into the thick of the Russian Civil War after the Revolution, into the political confusion of Turkey around 1920, to Hollywood, where he becomes a star as Ace Peters the Sky Hawk and as the Masked Buckaroo in a cowboy series. The current book ends with one of his many air disasters when The Hawk, the plane he has built as Aeronautics Adviser to the Pasha of Marrakech, crashes.

Much of this is extremely lively. The account of chaos in the Soviet Union after 1917 (seen of course from an anti-Red viewpoint) is finely done, the portrait of Kiev where Pyat was brought up marvellously convincing. His inventions, the primitive laser, the birdman with a machine on his back, the car run on steam, and half a dozen others, are entertainingly described. There are good jokes – Pyat writes to what he assumes to be Miss Evelyn Waugh, although when met ‘she was permanently dressing as a man and had grown plumply repulsive.’ But the man himself is the very model of a pub bore, the kind of man one is eager to get away from and never see again, and these are Pyat’s memoirs. Apart from the tedious ranting about being ‘the voice and conscience of civilised Europe’, which in one form or another occupies a good many of these pages, almost everything – Pyat’s love affairs, Hollywood career, Russian activities – goes on far too long. Michael Moorcock’s purpose, suppose, was to offer a picaresque view of history in the first half of this century as seen by a man, by no means a hero, shuttled from country to country. It’s a pity he chose a narrator suffering from logorrhea.