Blooming Symbols

Adam Lively

  • Dr Haggard’s Disease by Patrick McGrath
    Viking, 180 pp, £14.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 670 85195 7
  • Griefwork by James Hamilton-Paterson
    Cape, 238 pp, £14.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 224 03717 X

The Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal recently argued that great literature has no need of symbols: it simply presents life as it is. A symbol in a novel can act like a leech on a living body, sucking the imaginative reality from it. I am talking here not of a smattering of metaphorical language at the micro-level (as in the previous sentence), but of the way in which artsy modernist writers (it’s amazingly easy to start sounding like Sir Kingsley Amis once you start following this line of thought) load their novels with pretentious structures of symbolism instead of getting on with the business of telling stories about ‘life as it is’. The point being that symbols and structures are static, while stories should be in motion.

This irascible voice of scepticism, this voice of Sir Kingsley Hrabal, kept whispering in my ear as I read these two novels, for both are what one might term symbol-dependent. In the case of Dr Haggard’s Disease it is not so much one symbol as a juxtaposition of images – images of, on the one hand, disease and bodily dysfunction and, on the other, of erotic obsession. Griefwork flaunts its symbolism more openly, though in this case the imagery is of a far more rarified and unusual kind: a tropical plant-house somewhere in Europe (like many symbol-oriented novels, Griefwork is short on geographical nuts and bolts) stands for, among other things, Western colonialism. The title, incidentally, is misleading, making it sound like something far grittier than it is: a manual for bereavement counsellors, perhaps. Griefwork is actually a delicate, hothouse kind of a novel; rather beautiful, but highly susceptible to cold blasts of Sir Kingsleyish scepticism.

Both novels are set around World War Two, though Dr Haggard’s Disease has much more of a ‘period feel’. Indeed, McGrath’s motivation for setting the novel in WWII appears to have lain more in a feel for the texture of everyday (and particularly medical) life at that time than in a desire to say anything about the war. The book tells the story of Edward Haggard, a young hospital doctor, training to be a surgeon, who falls in love with the wife of the hospital’s senior pathologist. There are many excellent characters (Cushing, for example, the flinty senior surgeon who is given to whistling arias from the great operas while he works) but none better than Ratcliff, the brilliantly repellent pathologist: ‘He was fat, and he always smelled of formalin. It was a smell that made her [his wife] think of pathology labs and cadavers. He came to her smelling of death, she said, cigars, whisky and death.’

Ratcliff, on discovering the affair, pushes Haggard down the steps to the hospital morgue and bullies his wife into refusing to have anything more to do with him. Cushing, meanwhile, dismisses Haggard from his job. Haggard is physically devastated (the fall has broken his hip, and the pain caused by the pin inserted to keep the joint together has reduced him to a morphine addict) and he is broken emotionally and professionally too. He retreats into a shell of self-absorption and despair. To top it all, Fanny Ratcliff has died of a mysterious, debilitating illness. The outbreak of war finds Edward Haggard working miserably as a GP in Griffin Head, a fictional South Coast town. Then one day there walks into his surgery Fanny’s son, now a Spitfire pilot. This is also where the reader comes in, for the novel is addressed by Haggard to this son, switching from recollection of the affair with Fanny to concern at the strange changes that he perceives to be taking place in the body of the young pilot, who anyway bears a striking resemblance to his mother.

Throughout the narrative, McGrath’s direct, vivid prose takes as much relish in the gruesome details (impressively detailed) of hospital life and Haggard’s hip injury as it does in Haggard’s and Fanny’s adulterous couplings. And much of the power and point of the book lies in the close conjunction of the two:

My mind wandered constantly. Faced with a suppurating abscess, I saw the smooth while skin of your mother’s breast. Removing a dirty dressing, and finding a black patch of necrotic tissue, I imagined placing delicate kisses on her belly. Encountering death, I remembered her clinging to me and gasping with pleasure on a bench at the back of the hospital lobby. Wherever my eye fell, wherever I saw disease, or injury, or death, I also found hints and glimpses of beauty, and the difficulty lay in keeping my attention on morbidity when all my soul cried out to love.

Isn’t this a bit schematic? Does life really spell itself out as starkly as this? The answer, of course, is no. But then Patrick McGrath is not a naturalistic writer. His first book, Blood and Water, was a collection of brilliant gothic pastiches and since then he has edited an anthology. The New Gothic, Dr Haggard’s Disease, like his other novels, contains some of the principal elements of the gothic imagination: bodily decay, drug addiction, obsessional but unstable sexuality and (as is suggested in the closing pages) mental illness. Dr Haggard’s disease, ultimately, is love, and the most intriguing question raised by McGrath’s novel is how exactly he manages to breathe fresh life (or perhaps one should say death) into this most hackneyed metaphor.

It is not only in terms of this central metaphor that McGrath flirts with the second-hand. What is striking about the novel is the clarity with which McGrath recycles some of the most potently familiar images of the war: the smoke trails across a summer sky; the young Spitfire pilots sunning themselves in deck-chairs outside their hut, waiting to scramble. With such vividness, we are given not the war itself, but a B-movie of the war. The characters and their relationships, too, are often presented in terms of cliché: ‘When was it,’ cries Dr Haggard, ‘that I became such a fool of love?’ And near the beginning, as the young pilot reflects on the death of his mother, he remarks: ‘I suppose I feel she left without saying good-bye.’ The reason for the clichés – and the reason they work – is that what we are looking at is a representation not of life but of other representations, other distortions. A less (or perhaps more) sophisticated writer would surely have avoided such used sentiment.

For an example of a less (or more) sophisticated writer who would not dream of soiling his work with the kind of vulgar solecisms that McGrath deploys, one need look no further than James Hamilton-Paterson. It is a measure of Griefwork’s self-consciousness that it luxuriates with potential artistic mottoes and self-descriptions: ‘stylishness starts in the heart and may, nurtured, expand outwards into fantasy, intrigue and powerful worldly gestures’; ‘a sanctuary for the delicate and fugitive, a bright glass bulwark against the brutish and drear’. One comes away from the novel remembering its heavily subtle, languorously decorated language, rather than its story or characters. Above all, one remembers the loving evocation of the tropical plant-house, which miraculously and symbolically survives through freezing winters, invasions and bombings.

But symbols don’t make a novel. The story of Griefwork is that of the head gardener at the plant-house, Leon, who was born in a desolate fishing town and whose mother is killed in a bizarre accident (hence the grief of the title). He is a lonely child and his main memory of adolescence is of a crush on an Oriental girl whose mother works as a servant. He leaves his home town and comes to the city, gets a lowly job in the botanical gardens, and discovers his green fingers. (Leon’s vocation gives Hamilton-Paterson the opportunity to lay out some interesting botanical lore – all exquisitely expressed but not always convincingly integrated into the narrative.) Having seen his beloved tropical plant-house safely through the war, Leon opens it up to a carefully selected public of aristocrats and diplomats after dark, when his visitors may savour the charms of his more exotic, night-flowering blooms. These nocturnal scenes inspire some of the novel’s most effective passages of description, and also some of its plummiest: ‘yet still the flowers drenched the air with their languorous frustration, filling his lungs with the perfume of endless possibility.’ Among the visiting élite is an Oriental princess (cue memories of his adolescent obsession) who seems to offer Leon not only a job in her homeland as curator of – in a nice reversal – a ‘cold house’ for temperate plants, but also a new world of sexual possibilities. The question on which the reader hangs in the book’s final part is: will he go or will he stay?

There are a number of narrative weaknesses and distractions in Griefwork, stemming mainly from Hamilton-Paterson’s indecision about Leon. At the beginning, and in the remembered scenes of childhood, he is psychologically weightless, an emblem of pure experience and suffering rather like the eponymous hero of J.M. Coetzee’s bleak Life and Times of Michael K. But this portrayal – a peculiarly modern, existential version of an older tradition – is muddied later in the book by some obscure complications. Leon starts engaging in some seedy liaisons in the compost, and having saved a young man, a Gypsy, from racial attack, he keeps him in the boiler-room for the purposes of sexual gratification and humiliation. (The Gypsy later takes his revenge, providing a crashing conclusion for the plant-house, for Leon and for the novel itself.) Leon fails to cohere as a convincing character, and the flashbacks to his childhood seem to detach themselves from the immediate problems and dilemmas he faces concerning the future of the plant-house and the princess’s proposition. The different parts of the novel begin to float off into their own spheres; and things are not improved by the plants having a rather twee chorus-like role: monologues in which they comment on the action and meditate on the relationship between man and plant.

Endings are difficult to achieve in symbol-dependent novels. Conclusive gestures require fluidity and room for manoeuvre, while an over-dominant symbol can prematurely impose its own sense of completion. For all its engineered climax, Griefwork ends with a sense of energy having been dissipated. The aesthetic force of the book (and I would hate to understate this, for all Sir Kingsley’s scorn) lies in the image of the plant-house. Once this structure is complete in the reader’s mind, it seems there is little left for the novel to do but let it collapse. Dr Haggard’s Disease, on the other hand, achieves the near-impossible by drawing a non-linear, symbol-dependent narrative to an explosive conclusion.