On the Salieri Express

John Sutherland

  • Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury
    Secker, 343 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 436 20115 1
  • The Promise of Light by Paul Watkins
    Faber, 217 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 571 16715 2
  • The Absolution Game by Paul Sayer
    Constable, 204 pp, £13.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 09 471460 6
  • The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernières
    Secker, 388 pp, £14.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 436 20114 3
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
    Cape, 190 pp, £13.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 224 03587 8

Britain’s two leading campus novelists have long broken out of the small worlds mapped in Eating people is wrong and The British Museum is falling down. David Lodge’s latest, Paradise News, crosses at least ten time zones from Rummidge, over the Pacific Rim, to Hawaii. Doctor Criminale clocks up fewer frequent-flyer miles, but short-hauls hectically. The narrative opens in London, flies to Vienna, boards the Salieri Express for Budapest, then chuffs on to Milan, from where it cruises to a luxurious island on Lake Como, then to Lausanne. A brief interlude on Lake Geneva is followed by a long jaunt to Buenos Aires. A climax is reached in Brussels, ‘the heart of our brave new Europe’. An epilogue follows in ‘Schlossburg’, Southern Germany, site of one of the four conferences that feature in the novel. At Schlossburg, Henri Mensonge, scheduled to speak on the totally deconstructed self, fails to arrive: Bradbury loves a donnish joke. It all winds up with a postscript set in Norwich. At a staid University Teachers of English get-together George Steiner, Frank Kermode and Seamus Heaney do their party pieces and a novelist – the author of Doctor Criminale, we must suppose – reads from his upcoming work, ‘whose ending he seems not to know’. The publisher’s blurb laconically informs us that Bradbury lives in Norwich and ‘travels a good deal.’

In form, Doctor Criminale is an old-fashioned quest novel. Francis Jay, a young British journalist – trained in deconstruction and cultural politics at Sussex – is left high and dry when his paper (evidently the ill-fated Sunday Correspondent) folds. Following a disastrous Booker ceremony at which he comports himself on camera ‘worse than Howard Jacobson’ (‘impossible,’ someone interjects), Francis is recruited by Nada Television to research a European man of letters with a mysterious past and a desperately unconvincing name – Dr Bazlo Criminale. The aim is to produce a series, ‘Great Thinkers in the Age of Glasnost’. Criminale is a Post-Modern novelist, critic, political theorist, and privy adviser to the world’s great men. Roger Scruton has done the eminent Doctor for Frank Kermode’s ‘Modern Masters’. Alas, Criminale reflects no credit on that worthy series. He is revealed as the most treasonable of clerks, a compound of Waldheim, de Man, Harry Lime and Lukacs. Thematically, Doctor Criminale shapes up as a kind of post-Maastricht version of Henry James’s international theme: English ingenuousness discovers corruption beneath the seductive surfaces of European civilisation. For all his postgraduate knowingness about Barthes and other purveyors of the higher froggy nonsense, Francis is revealed to be a Forsterian liberal humanist at heart. He learns that you must go beyond the text into history, without expecting to find anything nice at the end of it all. Doctor Criminale’s very topical message is that Europe is a more dangerous place than the innocent English imagine: ‘an ugly twisted growth, hung about with deceits, obscurities and betrayals’. (The blurb informs us that Bradbury is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire: he can now wear his decoration with a Thatcherite pride).

Doctor Criminale is not a campus novel. But Bradbury’s literary origins are evident in the frequent flights of high-literary pastiche: The Magic Mountain, the search for Corvo, Kafka (Francis Jay temporarily becomes Franz Kay) and Borges are alluded to. Magic and dirty realism are invoked. There is much virtuoso play with modern critical theory, in which Bradbury exhibits prodigious expertise while at the same time suggesting that it’s all something of a con. The narrative hops from literary conference to literary conference, allowing Bradbury the familiar bag of campus novel tricks which he handles so well. The central action (and the first encounter with Criminale, who is artfully withheld for the first half of the novel) takes place at the international conference centre Villa Barolo on Lake Cano. Here the brightest intellects in the world gather to discuss ‘Literature and Power: The Changing Nineties: Writing after the Cold War’. In addition to Bradbury’s invented personages the conferees include Martin Amis, Günter Grass and Susan Sontag (she skips one of the later conferences in the narrative, on the grounds that there is something more interesting going on in Northern Italy).

Bradbury’s Villa Barolo is funded by the American Magno Foundation – offspring of an empire enriched by pharmaceuticals, oil and, one guesses, corporate crime. Magno’s sexy chairperson flies into the conference by private 727, which is smile-worthy but not plausible from an aeronautical point of view. Barbed description is lavished on the appointments of the Villa Barolo. Martin Amis is Martin Amis and Sontag is Sontag, but Barolo – the ‘smiling face of American capitalism’ – is transparently the Bellagio Study and Conference Centre, also known as the Villa Serbelloni, handsomely located on fifty acres of wooded promontory on Lake Como. The Centre is run by the Rockefeller Foundation and offers facilities for its scholarly visitors only slightly less mouth-watering than what young Francis Jay describes, as their brochure (available from the Bellagio Centre Office, Rockefeller Foundation, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, NY 10036) will confirm.

I admire it, but I have a number of problems with Doctor Criminale. The book’s persistent one-upmanship is upsetting after a while. For all his satirical disparagements, Bradbury seems constantly to be putting on record that he has seen more of the world and its five-star places than his reader has. One finishes the novel feeling distinctly bested. I would, for instance, bet that Bradbury has been one of the privileged visitors to Barolo/Bellagio (whether, after Chapters Seven to Ten of Doctor Criminale, he can look forward to further invitations is something else). I laugh, and discover in my laughter a faint tinge of green. I, after all, have never been invited; nor, probably, have you. Another problem is Bradbury’s scatter-gun humour. There are many sublimely funny moments in Doctor Criminale, but also some jokes that the makers of Airplane 2 would regard as beneath their dignity. Bradbury cannot resist poking fun at how hilariously foreigners mangle the English language. The novel is full of it. We are invited to smile at a fire sign in Vienna which reads: ‘Do not evacuate in the lift.’ A bank is called ‘Crédit Mauvais of Lausanne’. There is an Italian Professor of Obscure Signs at the University of Nemi who instructs the ‘distinguished guestsa’ at Barolo to ‘pleasa follow the behinds of Miss Belli and Uccello’, his two pneumatic assistants who in turn do hilarious violence to Bradbury’s mother tongue. We meet (again) Professor Rom Rum, Minister of Strange Trade of the former People’s Republic of Slaka. The hero becomes heavily involved with a Wagnerian German Euro-spy, who wears black_leather trousers and threatens to ‘ejaculate’ him from the conference they are attending. Bradbury likes this joke so much that he repeats it several times: eventually, after some devious turns of plot, it is Francis who ejaculates vigorously into the German, having first taken the sensible precaution of evacuating the lederhosen. Europeans, it seems, are either unfathomably sinister, like Criminale, or side-splittingly comic buffoons straight out ofAllo Allo. It seems a rather schoolboyish attitude to the outside world, and one has to wonder whether Bradbury might not himself be slightly amusing to native speakers if he ever tried to twist his tongue round some perverse Romanian argot.

There is another and more vexing problem. More than Lodge, Bradbury has been suspected of introducing personal satire into his fiction. Some of the attributions, such as the folkloric ‘Howard Kirk is Laurie Taylor,’ are discredited: Bradbury himself wittily derides this once ubiquitously offered key to The History Man in his collection of squibs, Unsent Letters. But other identifications are not as easily laughed off. Anyone who has read Eating people is wrong and who knew the late Arthur Humphries (professor of English at Leicester, where Bradbury got his first degree) must suspect that the novel’s hero, Stuart Treece, is a portrait from life. Nor could one believe that the portrait (although it is not at all malicious) furnished its original with many laughs. In_Doctor Criminale, the issue is more pointed. The narrative contains a series of prominent and very specific time markers which locate the main action as taking place in November 1990. On a number of occasions Bradbury even has his journalising hero give us the precise day of the month so as to synchronise the story with such public events as the fall of Mrs Thatcher on the 22nd. Doctor Criminale’s extended prelude is a description of the Booker ceremony in the autumn of this same year, at the Guildhall. The big night is evoked with much detail, and walk-on cameos by ascertainably ‘real’ 1990 guests – John Major, Richard Rogers, Neil Kinnock and, of course, the richly despised Howard Jacobson. Francis Jay gives an impromptu television interview in which, with all the authority of one who has studied deconstruction at Sussex, he dismisses the shortlisted candidates as writers of despicably ‘sentimental, parochial, traditional’ works of fiction – ‘granny novels’. Who are these granny novelists? one may ask. Although it is free enough with the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns present at the Guildhall on the night of 16 October 1990, Bradbury’s novel is overcome with amnesia when it comes to the names of the half-dozen Hamlets at the centre of things or the titles of their works. They nonetheless come in for some sharp satirical stick. ‘As I expected,’ Francis tells us,

they were mostly elderly ladies, though one was a very young girl just learning the granny trade, another a male author from the Antipodes suffering from jet-lag. Some of the ladies had permed their hair, though most preferred to leave theirs in a state of gay disorder. Some carried plastic shopping-bags, one was already weeping a little, another complaining she had taken more orange juice than was good for her. All appeared bewildered, as if no one had properly explained to them why, just for this once, they had been let out. The only way they resembled writers was that all of them were sulky and spiteful, and clearly detested each other.

After some farcical proceedings, ‘the oldest, untidiest, and baggiest of the bag ladies’ wins. The hero goes off to drink himself stupid at Groucho’s in the company of (or at least in the same room as) Melvyn Bragg, Umberto Eco and Gore Vidal. Amnesia has gone away and names are being profusely dropped again.

Bradbury has never had much luck with the Booker, and I would guess that he’s blown it for 1992. But what is intriguing about the description of Booker 1990 is how lavish he is with peripheral names, and how parsimonious with those that readers, with a little effort, can supply for themselves. Everyone who reads Doctor Criminale will recall that A. S. Byatt won the prize that year for Possession, a novel which some advanced thinkers certainly characterised as traditional, if hardly sentimental and parochial. And there were strong complaints at the time about the advanced years of the short-listed candidates: the Sunday Times wondered why the judges could not have come up with ‘just one callow writer under 50’. But the physical description of Byatt is plain wrong. Her worst enemy would not describe her as the 1990 winner in Doctor Criminale is described. Why then did Bradbury not take out the minimal insurance of either neutralising the description entirely (the bag lady joke is not so funny as to be indispensable) or drawing on fictional licence and inventing a winner who in no respect (sex, age group, type of novel) could be construed as a slur on Ms Byatt – the jet-lagged Antipodean, for example?

Bradbury can mount a number of defences and might well think the matter not worthy of defence. This is, after all, only a novel and only a plodding literalist would hold it to historical truth, even if the narrative does insist that this is Booker 1990, does throw around a surplus of authenticating detail to clinch that historical identification, and even if a woman writer of a virtuoso traditional novel did win the prize that year. ‘What is history to me?’ the epigraph of Doctor Criminale asks, quoting Wittgenstein. Another obvious line of defence is that Doctor Criminale’s narrative is deviated through the puppyish Francis, who is certainly not formed in the image of his creator. As he has often told us, the great coupure in Bradbury’s history is 1956, the year in which humane liberalism went under. Francis is a ‘Nineties person’, the product of ‘Sixties by the sea’ Sussex University and the age of Deconstruction. He is ‘one of the great brood of Thatcher’s children ... born just before the year of the Moonshot ... someone for whom anything before the invention of Word Perfect is retrospect’ and writers of Bradbury’s and Byatt’s generation dinosaurs who don’t have the decency to be extinct. Francis writes reviews of South American fiction for the London Review of Books. Such a powerful young mind might well see any writer over the age of thirty as indistinguishable from a bag lady.

Malcolm Bradbury is now a veteran novelist, something that makes his deft handling of thirty-years-younger Francis Jay the more remarkable. Ask who the leading young British novelists are and you may well be told Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Julian Barnes. Given that writers typically have long careers and get better with age, ‘young’ is not entirely a misnomer applied here. Like politicians, novelists can be youthful long after the point at which the careers of athletes or pop-stars are over. But at any moment in literary time, genuinely young talents are emerging.

Three British novelists who have made names for themselves and written copiously while still in their late twenties are Paul Watkins, Paul Sayer and Louis de Bernières. Watkins had his first novel (Night over Day over Night) nominated for the Booker, and won the Encore Prize with his second. Sayer won the Constable Trophy for fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award with The Comforts of Madness. He was, as his publisher’s blurb unironically records, ‘catapulted into the midst of a wholly unfamiliar world: nominated Northern Male Personality of the Year, jetting off to Writers’ Conferences, being invited to No 10’. De Bernières won the 1991 Commonwealth Writers Prize for a best first book with The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. If nothing else, the successful launch of these three careers suggests that, whatever Mr Jay’s misgivings about Booker and Possession, the literary prize system is working rather well in Britain.

Paul Watkins has rediscovered Stevenson’s trick of a hundred years ago. He combines high literary aspiration with the raw pleasures of historical romance and far-flung adventure. The Promise of Light starts and ends rollickingly, with fire in America and battle in Twenties Ireland. Ben Sheridan, an American just past boyhood, is called on to give a transfusion to his badly burned father. When the father dies as a result of mismatched blood, Ben discovers that he is not who he thinks he is. He returns to the Old Sod to find his true dad. The boat he takes passage on turns out to be a gunrunner. Death-defying escapades with dastardly Black and Tans ensue. At one point in the story, Ben – having been beaten to pulp by evil Brit interrogators – is marched to face the firing-squad. At the last minute he is rescued when the barracks is stormed by a local contingent of the heroic IRA. With one bound, Ben is free again. Needless to say, a tremendous reunion with his father awaits at the end of it all.

The Promise of Light is Watkins’s fourth novel. All have had strong story-lines and three have had historical settings. His narratives engage with big themes and politics (here, the for ever insoluble Irish problem). But what marks Watkins as out of the ordinary are the primitive narrative skills which he shares with male action writers like Alistair Maclean, Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler. To read Watkins describe a fight is to recover pleasures most male readers left behind with the Wizard and Hotspur.

He grabbed my hair and pulled me to him. He had hold of my throat and made me drop the gun. I cried out and jabbed my elbow into his chest but he held on. He was breathing in my face. I smelled old tobacco. He dug his fingers into my windpipe and blue flashes burst behind my eyes ... I tugged the Webley out of its holster. I swung it up towards him. He grabbed my arm, but his grip didn’t hold. I set the barrel under his chin and for a second I could see the brightness of his eyes in the dark. He spat in my face and thrashed forward and I pulled the trigger. His head jerked up and his jaw shattered. Fragments of his teeth dug into my face like shards of broken glass.

According to Henry James, everything Stevenson wrote was ‘a direct apology for boyhood’. So, too, with Watkins. If he has a contemporary analogue, it is Steven Spielberg in such nostalgic exercises as Young Sherlock Holmes and his homage to Treasure Island, Goonies. Like Stevenson, Spielberg raises the romp to an art form. The Promise of Light cries out for film adaptation. Its Hiberno-American theme suggests that it may have been shrewdly conceived with just that in mind.

Paul Sayer’s The Absolution Game, by contrast, is gloomy, introverted, provincial and old before its time. If Watkins’s latest effort invites big-budget Hollywood treatment, technicolor and Tom Cruise, Sayer’s latest would do well as a morning short story on Radio Wigan on a wet Monday in February after a particularly dire set of trade figures. The author’s first novel grew out of his experience as a male nurse in a National Health hospital (Watkins’s background is Eton and Yale). The Comforts of Madness was a study in the psychological resistance of a patient so handicapped as to be consigned to British society’s scrap-heap – that condition which is paradoxically called ‘long-term care’. The Absolution Game gives a similarly bleak spin to state care and the caring professions. It is another interior monologue, this time by a social worker at the end of his tether. Bob Munro is middle aged, fat, and a long-deserted husband. He hates himself and he hates his clients. His contribution to the cure of society’s ills he sees as no more use ‘than a fart in a hurricane’. Farts are very much to the point. The novel reeks with unpleasant smells which communicate the hero’s despair and exhausted disgust – stale cigarette smoke, old urine, male sweat. He falls in love hopelessly with a woman client who betrays him with no more compunction than she would fiddle her dole. The narrative ends on the brink of homicidal violence – whether Bob’s testimony is to be ‘a suicide note or a catalogue of evidence’ is left hanging. The Absolution Game re-creates the unbearably grimy intensity of its predecessor. But whereas The Comforts of Madness fixed on the horrifically boring routines of chronic illness, this new novel turns to melodrama and crimes of passion. It doesn’t quite work, although ‘failure’ would be putting it too strongly.

Louis de Bernières has published three novels. They are linked by their setting – an imaginary South American republic, evidently inspired by Colombia, where the (British, despite the name) author now lives. The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman has much the same plot as its predecessors. The idyllic town of Cochadebajo de los Gatos, nestled beneath the Sierra, represents all that is wonderful in Latin America. It is a place of magic and harmony, where defrocked priests levitate and preach a Christianity liberally crossed with pre-Conquest animism, where conquistadors frozen in the mountain snows are brought back to life by sorcerers and form friendships with local Communists, where the whorehouse is a respected institution staffed by estimable pillars of society, and friendly jaguars roam the streets. But Cochadebajo is regularly threatened by the madness of the hemisphere. In the first novel it was the military; in the second, Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, it was narcoterrorism. In The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman the threat comes from the Catholic Church – more specifically, a bloody Crusade launched by the mad cardinal of the title. As before, the town is saved from destruction by the heroic and mystical feats of the young philosophy lecturer, Dionisio Vivo.

De Bernière’s fiction is steeped in the Latin American magic realism which Francis Jay reviews so authoritatively in this paper. For British readers steeped in the stabilities of the granny novel, the tales of Cochadebajo will be disturbing: broad sexual comedy (the President’s exploits with his surgically-enhanced penis, for instance) mixes with visionary flights of great beauty and graphic descriptions of the most nauseating torture and rape. Like its predecessors, the novel expresses the author’s Lawrentian fascination with the region and his keen political sense that – like the rain forests – it is on the edge of final destruction.

When Roy Campbell’s wife was seduced by the voracious Vita Sackville-West the poet went to his friend C.S. Lewis expecting sympathy. Lewis’s reaction on being told of the episode was fascinated silence followed by the brutal exclamation: ‘Fancy being cuckolded by a woman!’ Campbell’s male pride never recovered. Sixty years later the idea still seems odd to me. Written on the body takes the most familiar of fiction’s triangles – husband, wife, seducer – but in this case the seducer of the wife is a woman. Despite an overpoweringly confessional manner (the novel is written as the seducer’s intimate journal), she never discloses her name. One says ‘her’ name, but neither is the narrator’s gender clearly specified. The fact that he/she apparently sits down to urinate, and late in the novel is described as wearing a lime-green body stocking and a coronet of artificial crocuses, strongly suggests womanhood. So does Winterson’s general avoidance of male characters. Whoever or whatever she is, she concedes nothing to conventional femininity. In one of her lighter moments she brags about former conquests with a bravado reminiscent of Bill Naughton’s Cockney Casanova, Alfie. This is funny, but unexpected. Unexpected, too, is the scene where the narrator does a Mike Hammer on the weedy, thoroughly unmanned Jewish physician husband:

‘Elgin, you’re a doctor, aren’t you? Then you’ll recall that a doctor can guess the size of someone’s heart by the size of their fist. Here’s mine.’ I saw Elgin’s look of complete astonishment as my fists, locked together in unholy prayer, came up in a line of offering under his jaw. Impact. Head snapped back, sick crunch like a meat grinder. Elgin at my feet in foetus position bleeding He’s making noises like a pig at the trough ... As I propped his crushed face a tooth dropped out. Gold. I put his glasses on the hall table and walked slowly down the steps towards the car.

Put such passages on a Practical Criticism paper and not one examinee in a thousand would guess that the narrator is a woman. Like aggressive cross-dressing, the appropriation of traditional male rhetorics is unsettling, at least to SWM/SWF readers, and, one supposes, calculatedly so. What Jeanette Winterson claims in Written on the body is a new right, a new equality with men – the right of woman-on-woman adultery. More important, Winterson wants that right and no one (particularly not men) to snigger. The lesbian Scarlet Letter is to be worn with the pride of an active service medal.

At one point the narrator reminisces on the subject of what she has done in the sexual way and what it should be called:

We went home to my flat and you brought nothing from your other life but the clothes you stood up in. Elgin had insisted that you take nothing until the divorce settlement had been agreed. You asked him to divorce you for Adultery and he had insisted it was to be Unreasonable Behaviour. ‘It will help him to save face,’ you said. ‘Adultery is for cuckolds. Unreasonable Behaviour is for martyrs. A mad wife is better than a bad wife. What will he tell his friends?’

I’m no lawyer, but I don’t think friends come into it. The law, as it stands, does not admit the concept of adultery between women. Probably because – like the law of rape – it is tied into strict definitions of penile penetration. No penis, no adultery. It doesn’t help that for all the considerable explicitness of Written on the body it never clearly describes the mechanics of the lovers’ love-making. We never know whether it is orally, prosthetically of digitally penetrative; whether one partner takes an exclusively active, the other a passive role; whether it is confined to ecstatic fondling, kissing, smelling and tasting of each others’ private parts. It is clearly not reticence on the part of Winterson, but something on the lines of Fats Waller’s ‘if you have to ask you’ll never know.’

Written on the body comes to publication accompanied by notoriety that has nothing to do with its merits as a novel. Its main strength is the highly-coloured rhapsody in which the narrator expresses her love, interspersing it with broad comic streaks. The effect is Shakespearian (the Sonnets are frequently alluded to, so are the Song of Solomon and Casanovas’ memoirs). Like Woolf’s Orlando, Winterson’s novel contains a wealth of fine writing. But again like Woolf’s novel, it is tempting to see it as nothing more than a soggy valentine to the author’s beloved; less a novel than a love letter. Another weakness in Written on the body is its impoverished and formulaic plot. Girl meets married girl, girl falls in love with married girl, girl leaves her current girl (big rows), married girl contracts cancer (but, as in Love Story, the kind that lets you stay beautiful), girl gives up married girl (great suffering), married girl becomes divorced girl, girls united, girls happy ever after (or at least for as long as the remission lasts). Winterson’s talents are probably better used in works like Oranges are not the only fruit with a strong story-line and a densely re-created social setting, or in highly-wrought literary exercises like Sexing the cherry. This latest novel gives the impression of having been written too much from the heart.