Memories are made of this

Patricia Beer

  • Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement? by Giles Gordon
    Chatto, 352 pp, £16.99, August 1993, ISBN 0 7011 6022 5
  • Yesterday Came Suddenly by Francis King
    Constable, 336 pp, £16.95, September 1993, ISBN 0 09 472220 X
  • Excursions in the Real World by William Trevor
    Hutchinson, 201 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 09 177086 6

I was well into Giles Gordon’s Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement? before I noticed that other readers were taking the book seriously, often to the point of denunciation. Up to then I had been assuming that it had set out to be an ingenious spoof, a sort of hoax or parody which had failed to make its intentions thoroughly clear; and that was nothing to be censorious about. But all leg-pullers have to declare themselves eventually otherwise there would be no point, and as I read on it dawned on me that Gordon was not going to declare any such thing. But there is so much to support my original impression that I have still not been able entirely to give up the idea that the book is a spoof.

There is a kind of innocent absurdity about it which belongs to the very nature of a good spoof. To begin with, having firmly introduced his book as an autobiography, Gordon puts on a consistent act of not being able to remember a thing, which in the circumstances seems a ‘smidgen’, as he would say, foolish. He cannot recall the name of the funeral parlour where Tennessee Williams lay in state nor can he remember the venue (‘some pub in Fleet Street’) where he was to meet Gore Vidal. Probably it had been so with us had we been there, but we might not have thought it necessary to say so, especially if, like Gordon himself, we had not in the event bothered to visit the funeral parlour or actually speak to the live celebrity. The motif of forgetfulness is heard throughout the book. Gordon held an umbrella over Judi Dench on her way ‘to I think it was Heal’s in Tottenham Court Road’. He made some changes to an article by Ronald Harwood but as to what they were: ‘I really can’t remember.’ This motif could be a useful technical device in another context but in this case it can only be a motive: to cut the great and famous down to size.

It is difficult to catch the intended tone of this book partly because Gordon presents himself as essentially a man with a keen sense of humour, and you never know where you are with people like that. He laughs in the wrong place at a friend’s poetry reading. He giggles at names like Rees-Mogg, and splits his sides at the list of those who supported Count Tolstoy (ha ha) in the recent painful court case: Prince Dmitri Galitzine, for instance, and Princess Tatiana Metternich (ho ho). He finds his jokes good enough to repeat, like the one about Sue Townsend: ‘creator of Adrian but no mole’. Confronted with such a merry madcap I see that I have no sense of humour at all, and am rather glad about it. On the other hand, in reading this book, I must be missing a lot of jokes. When Gordon speaks of other writers, ‘including he who was to become Lord Archer’, and a little later tells us that he was employed to teach Prince Andrew to write grammatically, I am at a loss. I feel there must be a joke in there somewhere.

Of course it is a perfectly acceptable ploy for a writer to be deliberately silly but I simply cannot decide whether or not this is what Giles Gordon is doing. When he speaks of syllabics as ‘a briefly fashionable, and easy, way of writing verse by counting syllables’ is he (I am assuming he knows better) being naughtily provocative or is he inventing a comic pigignorant character, the Alf Garnett of the world of literature? When he reveals how ‘Prince Harry even let my baby daughter Lucy sit on his horse’ is he lampooning people who talk like that, or is he talking like that? And then there is the mystery of his sneering. He mocks the writer of the farming column in Private Eye who, he says, ‘eager to reveal his pseudonymous identity at one of their parties, introduces himself as Old Muckspreader’. (A natural and friendly thing to do, I would have thought.) Does he forget, or is it meant to be funny, that he himself is extremely eager to make sure that we all know about his own contributions to the Eye?

Any autobiographer who has a well-defined role, even at a lowish level, in any particular environment can reasonably be expected to give an interesting and informative account of it. We really can learn a lot from Giles Gordon about the British literary scene of the present and the recent past. The facts are there, rather too many of them sometimes: his article, as it must be called, on PLR, which is embedded in the text, contains material which deserves to be known but could more easily be acquired from a reference book. Length rather than depth is his object and many of those who would read the book might expect the latter and not need the former. It would make a splendid present for a visiting Martian. Gordon deigns to remember enough to provide a great many personalities to look out for – or to mention, should they have died. He gives an accurate portrayal, for instance, of Edith Sitwell and her ill-bred public manner. But here comes a drawback. He makes no real suggestion as to the quality of her work or the possibility that it might be good enough to counterbalance her arrogant rudeness. I do not think for a moment that it was but some do and an alien might and should be given a chance. Gordon’s portraits, of course, have to be highly selective as to detail; but his choice in this respect is often unsure. Having described, quite relevantly, Arnold Goodman as ‘physically a dauntingly large and hairy man’, he adds that there was a Goodman brother who ‘was smaller in stature’. Now I come to think of it, though, that might interest an alien.

Francis King, in his autobiography Yesterday Came Suddenly, writes as straightforwardly as he has always done. Every so often in the course of his long career as a novelist critics have spoken of the detachment of his style, nearly all of them meaning it as a compliment. For most of his formative years and on into middle age, King was an expatriate, born in Switzerland, spending his early boyhood in India, and in manhood working for the British Council in Italy, Greece, Finland and Japan successively. This long exile – and most of it, the British Council part, was voluntary – would affect anyone’s prose style, unless of course it was the other way round, the temperament behind the prose style being the prime mover. It is significant that when he said, half-jokingly, that he felt so much at home in Japan he must in a previous existence have been Japanese, an English friend commented that it was a pity he hadn’t remembered more of the language. When in 1966, at the age of 43, he returned to England he made Brighton, where he settled for some time, sound just like a foreign country, where they do things differently and you have to try to learn the language but not get too involved.

Detachment in an autobiography is a mixed blessing, but the calmness of King’s style is rather welcome when he is speaking of both his own homosexuality and that of the men he met while working abroad. There were a great many. Indeed the reader’s first impression is likely to be that the British Council in the Forties and Fifties was, by way of its staff, visiting celebrities and general contacts, only a few citizens short of a latterday Sodom. This turns out to be not quite true; a closer reading shows that in fact gays were numerically outmatched – just – by staid heterosexual husbands. It is a question of treatment. King almost invariably describes the married couples as kind – a word he cruelly overworks – and not much else. His presentation of the homosexuals, on the other hand, is lively and explicit. He refers to a respected member of the teaching staff as ‘an inveterate cottager’, and recounts how he arranged for Anthony Blunt, who was giving a lecture tour for the Council in Greece, to meet and assess young men (‘That one’s rather jolly,’ ‘I rather like that one over there’) and sometimes paid them on his behalf, a part of the proceedings about which Blunt displayed great delicacy.

He has nothing detailed or penetrating to say about the politics of the countries he lived in while working abroad, many of which were going through periods of desperate re-adjustment. He can give harrowingly vivid descriptions of the squalor that war had brought to many of the towns and cities he knew, but his accounts of governmental politics tend to be cursory. His attention is caught by people. He may not explore their minds and hearts but he sees the full surface.

Back in England he soon assembled and carefully cultivated a kind of floating salon of compatriots, of both genders and varying sexual tastes, most of them known writers such as J.R. Ackerley, Ivy Compton-Burnett, L.P. Hartley. They were nearly all middle-class, by birth or advancement, and middle-aged, and as by now they are nearly all dead as well, the series of spirited portraits which forms much of the later part of King’s book has an intriguing tone which is both racy and funereal. He has already told us that he likes his women friends to be difficult and in London there seems to have been no lack of choice. The sketch of Olivia Manning is one of the best. He presents her irritating, often unpleasant vagaries with something like affection.

It is part of King’s technique that when he has something nasty to say he quotes somebody else as saying it: a device that is several years older than Methuselah but still seems to work. He relates that when at a British Council gathering a newcomer asked it Ronald Bottrall was handsome, Roger Hinks replied: ‘Well, that all depends on whether you’re attracted by men with eyes on the tops of their heads.’ It was perhaps rather unwise of King, after that, to include a photograph of Bottrall which shows his eyes to have been in the normal human place. But the inclusion was probably an oversight for King would certainly not set out to discredit one of Hinks’s sallies, which he admired excessively, as he did those of Maurice Bowra. His appreciative quotation of their spiteful and meaningless quips seems to indicate that he mistook inaccurate bitchiness for wit.

King’s book is mercifully free of the pretence of amnesia which Giles Gordon flaunted and which has been creeping up on the reading public for some time. Penelope Mortimer’s parade of forgetfulness, for example, in her recent biography About Time Too, knows so few bounds that the only fair comment can be Private Eye’s: ‘Every time she says she can’t remember something the reader simply thinks then why on earth am I paying you to say so?’ Francis King permits himself the occasional admission of failure to recall, yes, but not all this disingenuous forgetting.

Knowing as we do that the authors of the three autobiographies under review all write or have written fiction, are all living in England, and have covered much the same period of time, we might expect them to have something in common when they turn to fact. We should be wrong. A tinker, a tailor and a soldier, living in various centuries, might well have more in common when it came to writing their life stories. It could be said, I suppose, that Giles Gordon and Francis King, though very dissimilar, stand in much the same part of the field, but no one could deny that William Trevor in Excursions in the Real World is somewhere else, in a world that seems more real then theirs.

In the first place his use of memory, or perhaps one should say his relationship with it, sets him apart. He does not pretend to remember and, more significantly, he does not pretend to forget. He accepts that in this book he must renounce invention. It is an anthology of memories rather than a straightforward narrative but it begins traditionally: ‘My earliest memories are of County Cork.’ The chapters are arranged in more or less chronological order. In his introduction he turns the whole enterprise over to memory, explaining that this faculty alone has chosen the real people he depicts here; in an excellent clause he describes them as those ‘who for one reason or another have remained snagged in the memory’. Later in the introduction he states his approach very clearly by identifying himself as ‘the figure whose memory has been tapped in order to provide these forays from the territory of fiction into that of reality as it was’.

I think it is not fanciful to see this voluntary passivity expressed in Trevor’s syntax. He certainly uses the passive tense or an intransitive verb much more frequently than he does in his fiction. In the schoolroom ‘poster paint was produced,’ ‘errors and aberrations were corrected.’ On holiday abroad, ‘postcards are written.’ And – best example of all – in Venetian churches, ‘lire drop into ecclesiastical boxes’; look, no hands.

Of course, as Trevor says himself, ‘in any record of personal fascinations and enthusiasms, the recorder cannot remain entirely in the shadows,’ and this is certainly true in his case. Not all his fine qualities as a writer of fiction can come through into the new territory of fact – not all fiction’s techniques are appropriate to autobiography – but many do. One of them is what might be called, if it were not too dull a word, decorum. After the outpourings of biographers who insist on deluging us with more than we wish to know, his delicacy is telling. It enables him to deal with sensitive material – the harrowing deterioration of his parents’ marriage, for example – with no loss of eloquence.

Memory could, and presumably did, put forward many important names for him to drop if he wished, but he markedly has not used them. Any writer in search of lost time can exercise his right of veto. Almost the only authors Trevor speaks of are Somerville and Ross; they are allotted a four-page chapter and one of Lucy Willis’s engaging illustrations. He never met Ross; she died before he was born. He might just have met Somerville who lived on to be 91, but he says nothing of it here. Trevor’s memory of them must be attached to something they were or did in their prime, something which made an impression on him later. Perhaps, for him, they represented the fraught theme of Anglo-Irishness whose implications were made even more complicated, one imagines, by the fact that Trevor, too, was a Protestant. Somerville and Ross, daughters of the Ascendancy, considered themselves to be totally Irish, whereas the Irish they wrote about with such patronising mirth did not consider them to be Irish at all. This situation might well snag in Trevor’s memory, though he writes temperately.

One of the most real of the ‘real people’ whom Trevor presents is Miss Quirke, the girl who ‘had been found in a farmhouse at Oola, a few miles from Tipperary, where she’d been vaguely waiting for something to happen’. She was employed to teach William Trevor and his brother at their home before they went to boarding-school; she taught a stimulating hotchpotch of skills and information, not much of it apparently suited to the immediate needs of untravelled schoolboys, like the names of Parisian streets and the history of the electric chair in America. Looking back, Trevor says that ‘learning was never again to be as calm or as agreeable as it was in that upstairs room with Miss Quirke’; and the boys half-suspected this at the time. It is a delightful description; the tone made me think of the ‘lovely Miss’ of D.J. Enright’s schooldays as he evokes her in his poem ‘And two good things’. As with many of Trevor’s fictional characters, Miss Quirke is mysterious, at first because she is seen through the eyes of young boys but at the end because the adult author asks: ‘Did she simply slip back into the County Tipperary landscape?’ Although we are in the real world we feel uneasily that that is exactly what happened. After all she was ‘found’ there.

Now that this new book has told us so many of the facts of Trevor’s life, we can see how time has worked with memory to create episodes and situations in his fiction. In the story ‘Matilda’s England’, for example, surely his distress at the disintegration of his parents’ once happy marriage has surfaced in the feelings of the child Matilda, whose glad though not fully conscious awareness of the harmony her parents enjoyed is broken for ever when her father is killed in the war. Trevor’s ability to represent the passing of time is as keen as ever in this new world. Social mores process in front of us. A man kisses a strange girl: ‘she’d have slapped his face in the Fifties and taken him to court in the Nineties, but in the Sixties ... everybody laughed.’ His dexterity in passing from today to fifty years ago is as marked as it has ever been. In the way we all take through the dark wood William Trevor is one of the few who can look round at the past without bumping into a tree.