Distant Sheep

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Alice by John Bayley
    Duckworth, 192 pp, £14.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 7156 2618 3

John Bayley’s new novel is largely about those who are had on, or taken in, and this may well include his readers, who need to keep their wits about them. To begin with, he conjures up a couple of innocents. There was an innocent, too, as hero in his last novel, In Another Country, published in 1955. But Oliver, a young officer with the British army of occupation, was a worrier and a sensitive, risking trouble for the sake of his German girlfriend, and contrasted with his hideously successful rival. In Alice the two innocents are uncompromisingly green, in the sense that the Vicar of Wakefield, or Daisy Miller, or Crocodile Dundee, are green, their misfortunes illustrating the world’s vanities.

Ginnie, the more important of the two, is round about thirty-five, born therefore in 1960, although it seems to be much earlier (she remembers when people made lamps out of chianti bottles). She is on holiday in Sorrento, an intelligent, unworried, quite well-off virgin with her guidebook. We’re told that she takes bicarb for her indigestion, while her idea of fun is that of a seventy-year-old. ‘To go frankly to bed in the afternoon and have a sleep, instead of feeling drowsy at work; to feel the blessed heat and yet not to lie in the sun; to look forward to her dinner and before that a drink in the café.’ Her fantasies, as she frankly admits to herself, are from women’s magazines. The intensities of love and friendship, as she sees them occupying other people, look like too much of a strain: a quiet life, therefore, for Ginnie. What’s more, she believes she is not exceptional, and that there are ‘really many more people like her than the papers and the television cared to know’. One of them, apparently, is a tweed-jacketed solicitor, Mark Brassey, who asks her out to dinner. Ginnie enjoys a sedately greedy evening. ‘His lack of emphasis was more soothing every moment.’

Meanwhile, within sight of the hotel, the cruise liner Achille Lauro soundlessly enters the bay, bringing with it a dark memory of hijack and murder. To Ginnie the ship means almost nothing. On the other hand, she has to admit to an overwhelming feeling, ‘something like desire’, at the sight of a superbly strong and dark and astonishingly whiteskinned woman climbing out of the sea. This, she thinks, must truly be the White Witch of Sorrento. In fact, she is Alice, one of the holiday room-maids, and it’s Alice – certainly not Mark Brassey – who comes that night to share Ginnie’s cramped hotel bed.

Alice is a magnificent six foot, broad-shouldered, broad-minded. Her Australian accent (as Germaine Greer said of Neighbours) is cut out of whole cloth, but this is partly accounted for later, and in any case there is something unaccountable about the way people talk in this book. Even the youngish ones seem to be in a time-warp, referring to rotters, to being a good sport, to giving the glad eye and even to popping the question. Ginnie reflects several times on the difficulties of slang. ‘The modern era often struck her as no longer able to keep up with itself.’ This might well have been one of the first notes for the whole novel, but would mean nothing to Alice, whose name suggests a combination of the heart of Australia with the logic of Victorian nonsense.

In Tolstoy and the Novel John Bayley describes Tolstoy’s creation of separate identities and his characters’ satisfaction in being themselves and at the same time ‘at the disposal of life’. In this sense Alice seems gloriously self-satisfied. Indeed, emerging as she does at unexpected moments she seems virtually self-created. Surrounded by low-keyed temperaments, she brilliantly dominates the whole book, but that, surely, was what the author intended.

The scene changes from Sorrento to a wonderfully well described Venice in the off-season. The canals are blocked with seaweed and the incessant rain brings out the ‘penetrating chill of Venice’s stagnant and drowning corpse’. Here on holiday, before getting down to his doctoral thesis on ‘Competitive Discourse in Modern Poetics’, is a penniless graduate, Tom. Tom, John Bayley’s second innocent, may perhaps have irritated his creator. Certainly he is faint-hearted almost beyond belief. But he is lucky, or appears to be, when at his coldest, hungriest and most dismal he comes across a Major Grey. Perhaps the Major fancies him, and the frustrated Tom is not against the idea. Meantime he accepts the loan of a richly-padded overcoat, with a silk lining ‘dimpled like the upholstery in an old first-class railway carriage’. In this noble garment, with hints and echoes of Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich, he traverses the draughty backstreets and bridge with new confidence. ‘He saw waiters in white aprons glance at it respectfully as he entered a restaurant ... And when he took it off, his tattered appearance did not give an unfavourable impression.’ What’s more, banknotes have been discreetly placed in the warm depths of the pockets. Tom gorges himself silly on a ‘great whiskery mass’ of seafood.

But the Major asks him only to return the coat, when he gets back home, to an address in Earl’s Court. Not long before, in Sorrento, Ginnie has agreed to take back to England a quantity of lime-green trimming for what may, in time, be Alice’s wedding dress. Neither of them expects any trouble at the customs, and neither gets any. Tom is unsuspectingly glad to see his fiancée again (although she had made him leave his anorak behind, telling him it was never cold in Venice). He knows her as Pinky. But Pinky turns out to be the sumptuously manipulative Alice. And her wedding, if it ever takes place, won’t be to Tom but to Mark Brassey or to Major Grey himself. Alice knows them both, she would settle for either of them, if one of them could be brought up to scratch.

Very well then, Bayley is amusing himself with a venerable plot-line, leaving it open for reversal, bluff and double-bluff. Even Ginnie, at long last, reflects that they must all be taking part in a ‘modern smuggling romance’. But Bayley’s sense of place is far more acute and delicate than is needed for the purposes of simple amusement. In Part Three, Sorrento and Venice having fallen short, it’s from the Romney Marshes and the serviceable Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway that he creates enchantment. He is a connoisseur of grey marshlands, shingle, sandflats, distant sheep, churches on slightly higher ground which can be seen for miles, and the redeeming quality of the silvery, watery, reflected sea-light. Tom and Ginnie

drove along a narrow ribbon of concrete, laid straight upon the grassy sand in what seemed an amateurish way. Every few yards the tyres gave a bump as they entered a new stretch. On either side plains and inclines of brownish and bluish shingles seemed to have spawned little houses, some rustic in style, some glass and cement, all with their windows turned compulsively towards the sea. The sea itself remained indeterminate, a presumed feature beyond bright wastes of sandy mud.

Alice has asked them urgently to come down to her bungalow, Silver Spray. It looks, Ginnie thinks, the kind of place to be found dead in, but Alice is there, indestructible. At this point Bayley shows himself an expert not only on the marshlands but on Thirties bungalows with cardboard partitions and stovepipe chimneys and marram grass scratching behind the thin walls. His faultless realism makes Tom and Ginnie – never quite believable – seem even fainter than before. Hand in hand they walk across the pale sandhills, hearing the whisper of the sea ‘which once taken in seemed to absorb the whole of consciousness’. They ignore (as Ginnie ignored the Achille Lauro) the nuclear power station in the distance beyond Dungeness.

Alice describes Silver Spray as her safe house – safe, that is, for amateur drug-runners – but it proves to be anything but that. Violence intrudes with the arrival of an Ealing Comedy smuggling gang, one of whom is called the Hon. Giles Parker and wears a waistcoat and gold watchchain. To Ginnie, left dazed and bruised, it seems incredible that these things have happened (or not quite happened) to her.

Why is it incredible? Ginnie has an obstinate conviction that the world presented by the media, ‘full of crime and cant and guidelines and social justice, prisons and education’, is an imposition or even an illusion, anyway less real than her own eventless middle-class consumer’s existence. But while she and Tom were crossing the sands she had thought of a title for them: ‘The Adventures of Tom and Ginnie in their Search for the Real World’. Reality, then, must be elsewhere, perhaps in Alice’s overwhelming patronage, or their intoxicating roll in bed. That had been solid enough. And yet ‘any coming of hers was like that first appearance at the beach, when the actual manifestations of Alice must somehow have coincided with the buried fantasies in Ginnie’s own mind’. And Ginnie has an even stranger intuition about Tom. ‘Perhaps it had been the warm embrace of the drug-laden overcoat which had been real-life-enhancing for him, even though he had known nothing of its contents.’ If that’s so, Tom’s contact with the real world can only have lasted a few days.

At this point you feel a close relationship between John Bayley’s two novels, across nearly forty years. At the beginning of In Another Country, Oliver feels that occupied Germany is ‘like the films ... neither mind nor body really believed it. Perhaps it was bad for you not to believe.’ At the end, he knows he must go back to England and find a job. His decision is made in favour of ‘scrappy but valiant’ reality, although if he and his girl can stay together everything else will be unimportant. There are no such heartening reflections for Ginnie. When on the chilly, lumpy mattress at Silver Spray Alice had wept and wished she was a girl again, ‘the falsity of the thing seemed more moving than simple truth.’ But ‘a person like Alice lived in a real – or was it an unreal? – world which could not be reached, which made any true intimacy impossible.’

John Bayley doesn’t press these contradictions hard enough to unsettle his new book, which is a golden comedy in which he resolutely refuses to dispense comic justice. Many have behaved badly, even very badly, but none is condemned. And although Alice, by the end, has disappeared, Ginnie knows she wouldn’t be at all surprised if she were to walk in at the door tomorrow.