Good Things

Michael Hofmann

  • Heart’s Journey in Winter by James Buchan
    Harvill, 201 pp, £14.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 00 273009 X

I don’t believe this country has a better writer to offer than James Buchan. I can’t think of anyone who concedes so much of his own intelligence to his protagonists – doesn’t mock or belittle them – and gives them so much world to do battle with. I see no particular limitation to his scope or style: his stunningly curt dialogues and ravishing recitatives are equally persuasive. No one writes better short sentences; he has a strong grasp of form; an Occam-ish economy (this is his first book over two hundred pages); and is utterly without the factitiousness – the I’ll-pretend-to-write-a-novel-and-you-pretend-to-read-it – that seems so current in England. In the end – though this is bizarre – he is probably a religious novelist, whose theme is salvation, though I’d be surprised if he’s actually used the word anywhere. Most tantalisingly, he is still better than any of his books.

Two things set Buchan apart: first, his understanding of the factual world – I remember his magisterial reportages for the Sunday Indy on Thorp and on high-street banks – such things as politics, money and abroad; not forgetting how little such understanding counts for with others:

Adam was often drunk at this time. He had been abroad a year but nobody much wanted to hear about it, least of all Mary, who did not like abroad and could manage only a smile of puzzled sympathy.

A Parish of Rich Women

Buchan studied Persian and Arabic; he has worked in the Middle East, Europe and America; the German in the new book is demanding and faultless. Novelists tend to be amateurs of information, believing a little to go a long way; Buchan is a pro. Nor is this just another way of saying that he was for ten years a foreign correspondent of the FT; his authority (like Joseph Roth’s, say) is altogether deeper, more committed, more structural, than that of journalism. He reminds me of Washington DC in Lowell’s distich: ‘The stiff spokes of this wheel / touch the sore spots of the earth.’ It is a complex, macro-historical, moral-aesthetic authority:

The Osteria Ischiana is an Italian restaurant in the Remigiusstrasse in Bonn. Its wonder years were the late Forties, when Christian Democrat politicians, de-Nazified and with certificates in their waistcoat-pockets to prove it, spun webs of intrigue between the padded booths; when the Bundestag still convened among the stuffed animals at the Museum König a hundred yards away; and the political city had not yet marched south into the villa gardens, fields and allotments between the railway lines and the river; before the journalist-hutches and diplomat-silos had sprouted at the Tulpenfeld.

  By 1983, the restaurant had fattened in the yeasty Rhineland air. Women in hats and fur collars worked their way through extended midday meals. Flour and cream glutted the sauces. The pasta burst with egg yolk. But you could still sense, under the Rhenish phlegm, the warmth and genius of Italy.

Heart’s Journey in Winter

How animated history is here, by costume and cuisine and clientèle: the calorific content of democracy, peace and self-confidence translated into avoirdupois, a Caesar-like contempt as vision, an audible sigh for risk! Energy turns to mass, ‘webs’ to ‘padded’ to ‘stuffed’, minceur to Bonn femme. At the same time, though, there is a sinister military rumble under the contentment – the book is about the bringing of Cruise and Pershing missiles to Europe to counter the Soviet SS 20s – in ‘marched’ and ‘silos’ and ‘burst’. The second thing, incidentally, about James Buchan is how extraordinarily well he writes: compared to his, how unthinking, unsupple and uninteresting most prose is.

Buchan’s protagonists like to know things – they treat with the world on the plane of knowledge, co-terminous, almost indistinguishable (as above) from the plane of the senses. They are experts, connoisseurs. He uses the word ‘good’ in his novels in a very specific way, auctioneer’s shorthand, cool but with an undertow of almost frantic valedictory feeling: ‘good furniture’, ‘good paintings’, ‘such a good part of London’, ‘The black risotto is outstanding, if you like good things.’ His protagonists are people of the utmost discrimination, and yet they are able to take correspondingly little comfort from it. If anything, it seems to be a further source of danger to them: Adam, in A Parish of Rich Women, intensely knowledgeable about Middle Eastern politics, unable to save his Chelsea friends from heroin addiction and himself from taking his chances in West Beirut; John Chadwick, who leaves the City to pay for the running-costs of his wife’s damp and dilapidated house in Italy with dodgy investments and asset sales, in Davy Chadwick; Richard Verey in Slide, after spells in the Foreign Service and on Wall Street, effectively on the run from himself, finally forced back to what he knows best of all after running out of world: ‘I might not be here, in this ridiculous landscape, hurrying down with my wife and child towards the tower of Wareham church, but I would still be I, Richard Verey, 35 years old, an Englishman of the upper middle class’; or, now, Richard Fisher, historian, writer and observer by temperament, drawn into the dirty world of action at the crisis of the Cold War, in divided Germany in 1983.

If knowledge is one way of testing the limits of existence, action is another, and in a sense all Buchan’s protagonists find themselves overtaken by action. The life they end up with is the one for which they are least suited; they are Hamlets forced into being Horatios. ‘I thought: I was born for this stuff,’ it occurs to Richard Fisher in a moment of dangerous elation. This sort of cross-casting – of which, in a sense, Buchan is himself a victim, with the expectation of genre in his pedigree and surname, the gold lettering on his first book and his fourth touted as a ‘meticulously authentic thriller’ – is a powerful device: putting a superfine piece of equipment in a mundane circuit, casting an insider (someone like Richard Verey) adrift, or perhaps installing someone with the nerves and awareness of an outsider as an insider. Characters with knowledge and sensitivity to burn, people who ordinarily, in fiction, would coin a few bon mots, give the encyclopedias a run for their money, or stare fascinatingly out of the window, are made to be action heroes. It makes the books both harder and softer than you think they will be, or than other books. A brighter intelligence burns more unavailingly in greater darkness. In the end, though, they aren’t really about their stories but about the embroiling of an individual, an innocent, in the affairs of the world, die Weltmaschine as my father once wrote, and the way that life converts time into memory.

All Buchan’s books might be called Heart of Darkness or In Search of Lost Time. Their text is ‘What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul,’ although this is given a further twist by Buchan’s understanding that gaining the world is an impossibility, that absolute possession is also absolute loss because it only exists in the past, in the phantasmal currency of memory, and finally comes down to a pawky delirium of absence: ‘My mind filled slowly with maddening touristic souvenirs: shrimps in Lübeck, cloudberry brandy in Helsinki, the heaving sea at Norderney, Leicester Forest East motorway services in rain, two quails in a cage in the Cahors Friday market, the warmth of paving stones on bare feet at Anacapri.’ What remains of us is not love but memory, at best the memory of love. Richard Fisher says, ‘You have to love to be able to enter history,’ deliberately misquoting Marx. Buchan’s books are the histories of people who love, and who, as a result, find themselves in the wrong lives: Adam Murray in his friend Johnny’s, John Chadwick in his rival William Nelson’s, Richard Verey in absolutely anyone’s but his own, Richard Fisher in that of the American spy Polina Mertz. The governing myth, I think, is Grimm’s. It is the story of the ferryman who presses the oars into the hands of a passenger, who is then himself compelled to ply the crossing until he in turn can find someone who will take over from him. What Buchan has to offer is not primarily thrills and spills but Glanz und Elend, splendour and misery, or, as Lowell wrote: ‘All life’s grandeur / is something with a girl in summer ...’ His books are elegies to being alive. They are more like Brodsky’s definition of poetry, ‘melancholy disciplined by metre’ – if you substitute ‘story’ or ‘character’ or ‘prose’ for ‘metre’ – than anything else.

At the end of Notebook, Lowell observes: ‘Dates fade faster than we do.’ 1983 hasn’t merely faded, it was practically obliterated by the seismic shift in European politics. Now, it seems like Rilke’s unicorn, ‘the beast that never was.’ So it is oddly effortful to retrieve Andropov, Reagan, Schmidt, the medium-range ballistic missile, the Twin Track approach, Geneva, Paul Nitze and Yuli (Yuri?) Kvitsinsky (Kvitinsky?) and the Walk in the Woods. These are the characters and developments that frame James Buchan’s fourth novel. God knows they seemed vivid enough at the time, and Buchan brings them back with wonderful dash and economy. Political acuity is leavened by a fabulist’s distancing lightness of phrase: ‘Among the parricidal youth of 1968, whose heroes were not the founders of their prosperous republic but the peevish Marxists of the Frankfurt School such as Frank Lightner or the revolutionaries of remote and picturesque ex-colonies, the Soviets found a field ripe for subversion and recruitment.’ (Who needs story, with exposition like this?) Between the big players, people like Genscher and Kohl and Petra Kelly and Margaret Thatcher – who, thrillingly, appear as themselves – and the fictional characters, Polina Mertz and Richard Fisher, is an intermediate layer of lightly fictionalised or disguised or à clef types, Polk and Kurtsovsky (i.e. Nitze and Kvitsinsky), Frank Lightner, co-founder of the Greens and Sebastian Ritter from the left of the SPD (Lafontaine? – but I really don’t know). The function of Mertz and Fisher is to puncture the hermetic opposition of the two blocs: by their unexpected, human agitation to disrupt the colossal, grooved indifference of their political masters, and see that the timid hopes of Geneva (‘the walk in the woods’, which in the novel becomes ‘the Golden Plough’) get aired where it matters: ‘In 1983, the two opposing systems were in such perfect equilibrium that the fall of a feather would tip the scale; and great events, for the only time in my life, came within the agency of individuals.’ There is a wonderful interplay throughout the book between the personal-aesthetic and the political-functional, the spontaneous and the calculable, the ethical and the necessary, free will and determinism, love and espionage. Is there an aesthetics of history, Buchan asks; can you have ecstasy in politics? These questions are suggested again and again in the novel, whether it is in the youthful Ritter’s Whitmanesque epiphany by the Thames, or the CDU’s triumph in the ’83 election (‘the crowds round the TV sets, the wall-clock at 18.15, the arms going up, Kohl clambering, vastly, onto a table and, on Hannelore Kohl’s face, a look of inconsolable misery’), or the Adam or Cain-moment in Fisher’s life after he’s killed a man (‘I was weeping because I’d passed out of the world I’d been born into, and lived in more or less at peace, and into outlawry, a windy and depopulated region where I’d scrape a hard living for the rest of an abbreviated life. I’d hoped to capture Polina for my world, or at least what remained of it; instead, she’d captured me for hers’ – the ferryman story, as I was pleased to call it), or again, when Fisher, under interrogation from the Americans, is close to death: ‘My body was dismantling. My chest and legs had broken off relations. My nerves passed out of central control. Grim little wars erupted, unreported, in my hands and feet. Muscles starved or hoarded. One by one, the great organs of my body shut down.’

The consciousness registering these dramatic public and private events is, as it often is in Buchan, partial, fragmented, even in ruins. (It is another way in which the anarchic, free and personal opposes the public and political: this isn’t an impersonal narrative, though it touches on many things that are ‘history’.) You can read the book as history; as dialectic; but also as a – mimicked – protocol of Fisher’s memory as it is filtered by circumstances, by internal moods or external agencies like drink or drugs. There is a wonderful posture of inability or refusal that Buchan does (that ‘excuse me, I can’t go on with this’ first seen in ‘Felicia Hrabek’ in Slide). Then, gradations of oblivion (‘Of that evening at Gut Zons, I do not have continuous memory’), actual and predicted (‘I suppose that, in time, Polina will attenuate into a female nude, bent at the waist to retrieve a bar of soap in a hotel shower in Marburg’), then colloquial vagueness (‘that eel thing Manfred loves’), then on to many less easily describable degrees of precision, from the more generalised (‘about to seal a masculine friendship in a welter of Leftist defeatism’), to the scrupulously swaggering (‘the boats sliding under Holy Loch and the Vulcans of enamelled cast-iron and the Plateau d’Albion and the nuclear arquebusses in the Vosges’), to the constatation of impairment (‘I was dazed with sunshine, Kirsch and sorrow’), to a raddled curve of thought (‘she was looking at me and then the road: happy yet suspicious: what sort of civilian anyway, severe bruising, opioid intoxication, weight loss, dehydration, bed rest, 5 mg Vitamin B anticoagulant on the IV, fishy, leave it’), to the fabulous Lowellian catalogues (‘everything about Jack Polk was faded, cracked, oiled, supple, expensive, fraudulent’ or ‘the world tasted and smelled of Patty Livingston: the hot spruces, the kraftpaper in the supermarket, the bloom on blueberries, the clamshell under the rake, the nylon of her white bathing dress drying on the deck, the flake of paint and creosote, the cool air on my legs as I jumped up in my shorts in the morning, the hot granite rip-rap and the icy sea, the yellow warblers flickering through the woods; tobacco, menthol, corn-bread, Budweiser, lobster claws, hot dogs, kerosene and, Hey, guys make great cooks, don’t you believe that crap!’) to tiny observations of hallucinatory clarity: a fly in a trout-stream spinning ‘histrionically’, or darkness ‘cutting off’ pieces of a bar at closing time. There is a wonderful half-page of crossword-type false leads about the Golden Plough: ‘The Golden Plough is a place. The Golden Plough is an idea. A late and inordinately difficult novel by Henry James. A work of amateur 19th-century anthropology. An icily snobbish hotel in Salzburg, Austria’, and a lovely two-page apostrophe, hymning Bonn (‘Little city of dentists! I think I forgot to say I loved you.’)

Last thing. The title. A Zukofsky-type pun on Goethe’s wonderful poem ‘Harzreise in Winter’ about the unfairness and violence and unpredictability of the world. For all its historical circumstance and materiality, Heart’s Journey in Winter is a meditation on just that: ‘For the first time in my life, I thought: All this is going to end soon, in war or peace.’