Warming My Hands and Telling Lies

Dinah Birch

  • So I Am Glad by A.L. Kennedy
    Cape, 280 pp, £9.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 224 03974 1
  • Now That You’re Back by A.L. Kennedy
    Vintage, 248 pp, £5.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 09 945711 3

One of the most convincing inclusions in Granta’s list of the 20 best young British novelists, A.L. Kennedy has composed a distinctive voice out of youth and national identity. She was born in Dundee, and now lives in Glasgow; Scottishness informs her fiction. This is partly a matter of a characteristic introspection, the tradition of spiritual autobiography that generated the novel in the first place and has never, in the hard climate of Scotland, quite lost its original impetus:

Little comes more naturally to me and my kind than guilt. Devoid of feeling, yes. Devoid of guilt, never. I’m sure even Scottish sociopaths are soaked with remorse, it’s in our air.

     Confession time again, then. Here we go.

The severe outlines of Kennedy’s writing, together with its relentless self-concern, hardly seem calculated to make an immediate appeal. She does not offer the pleasures or complexities of lyrical language, and her sharp, spare sentences can suggest an alienating aggression towards both characters and readers. What might be still more off-putting is the sense of righteousness that rarely deserts those who confess often. The open acknowledgment of guilt implies its opposite, in a paradox that is fully understood within the terms of Kennedy’s fiction. Again and again, the crimes she most wants to expose (the injuries of poverty, the abuse of children, the contemporary mire of pollution and political chicanery) are not personal vices, but social injustices where inequity is a matter of common consent – no one would deny the damage they cause. Yet Kennedy is a larger and very much more winning writer than these fashionably bleak tactics would predict. She is formidably intelligent, and the flat surfaces of her prose conceal the flexibility of a quick literary imagination. In an age that still likes to see itself as neo-Romantic, she is a curiously Augustan figure. Her sense of moral certitude in an oppressive world, her interest in cruelty and the grotesque, her bitterly playful spirit of self-examination, often recall moments in Swift and Pope. Brooding intimacy and satirical fantasy are not separate writerly functions, and one of the developing strengths of A.L. Kennedy’s work is to remind us of the connection.

Her writing persistently returns to themes of transgressive sexuality, violence, guilt and loss. It has the intensity of shameful memory, closed into an inner world answering only to secret imaginative rules. What this often recalls is the pained egotism of adolescence. It also brilliantly remembers the arrogance that underpins the anxiety of the young. Pushed to the margin, exploited or exploiting, inadequate and often uncharming, they nevertheless know themselves to be, unquestionably, among the elect. Their suffering identifies them, gives them expression and finally vindicates them. All Kennedy’s sinners are justified.

The past 16 years of Conservative government have given Scots, particularly young Scots, many reasons to feel that they have been placed on the edge of a powerful institution that is being run elsewhere, in the interests of others. Public anger and private inwardness have proved a fertile mix for an aggrieved but assertive generation of Scottish writers. To be set aside gives a compelling incentive for fiction, a desire to find language for what might otherwise be silenced. In her first collection of short stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990), Kennedy explains: she is writing for the forgotten, small people with small lives. A pensioner, lonely and poor, talks about her passion for photography:

I have come to the conclusion that I deserve better things, that’s all. I know I’ll not get them, but that’s fine. I would rather be content in hoping and making my position clear than settle for lies and nonsense and second best. I will take pictures of the things that are important so that I can keep them to look at again and, one day, I will maybe make a film.

Kennedy’s preoccupation with lies, and the writer’s duty to brush them aside, touches an old paradox. If she tells stories, she tells lies. It is a sore place that she touches again and again. ‘I can be honest with you. I can tell you that I do not tell the truth.’ Novelists have often speculated that fantasy might after all be the best way to tell us the truth, but this consoling notion doesn’t quite do in Kennedy’s austere and direct world. In Now That You’re Back, her second collection of short stories, she broods uneasily on the narcissism of writing. ‘I don’t know why these words occurred to me, only that they seemed entirely true. I sat and typed out fabrications, keeping my hands snug and supple on the little, black keys. That was all it came to, nothing more. Just warming my hands and telling lies.’

Kennedy’s new novel, So I Am Glad, is an inventive confrontation with issues that she has pondered before. Youth will not endure (she is 30 this year), and the repeating designs that have ordered her work might have begun to constrain it. Her first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, considered the lover who disappears, and then liberates frozen potential with an unlooked-for return. This pattern recurs, with a difference, in So I Am Glad. The inner voice, guilt and fantasy, violence and victimhood – these remain the central themes. But now Glasgow’s brisk streets have become, unexpectedly, the home of a transforming enchantment. Mercy Jennifer Wilson, the voice of the novel, works as a ‘professional enunciator’ for a local radio station. ‘Someone has to do it. Radio prayers and poems, British voices for American faces, neutral voices for criminal faces – terroristically digitised – jolly encouragements to purchase who cares what and, of course, calm accounts of current chaos, who cares where.’ Making a living out of her displaced voice, Jennifer has withdrawn from the human world. She is (like many of Kennedy’s voices) a victim of sexual abuse in childhood. The resulting emotional dislocation has made her ruthless. Mercy, her own first name, simply baffles her, and she has long since dropped it. Defensively, she has turned herself into someone who can connect with feeling, her own or that of others, only in inflicting pain. Her vigorous sadism (graphically described – Kennedy is a writer who, like Jennifer, has a relish for distress) distorts her sexuality, and moves her still further from the hazardous exposure of shared sympathy. These are thoroughly modern ills, and the wrongs that depress her – the failure of the family, a soiled environment, unemployment at home, hopelessness in the Third World, corrupt politicians everywhere – read very much like a conscientious list of the woes of the Nineties. But Kennedy’s satirical edge is whetted by her allusive and widely-read scholarship, and her fiction locates itself in a literary past. Brutal and preternaturally sensitive, a withered refugee from her own kind, Jennifer is a female Gulliver who has never had the chance to travel.

Into this dour and impoverished life erupts, literally, a stranger returning from a half-forgotten world of old stories. Materialising unannounced in the spare room of Jennifer’s rented house, his foreignness is more than natural – for one thing, he glows in the dark. His language is odd, his ideas are odder. Piece by piece, Jennifer learns the bizarre story she takes it upon herself to tell us. Her visitor is, or so it appears, Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, 17th-century writer, soldier, lover, duellist and notorious liar. De Bergerac is a man who became a fiction, a fantasy transformed into literature. ‘I am neither mad nor mistaken, I am only impossible,’ he announces to his bewildered new friend. He is also, it seems, just what Jennifer needed. She is forced into an engagement with the past – her own damaged past, and that of her culture. Learning its lessons, she discovers what it is like to feel, even to love.

For a writer who has made a reputation out of granite realism, this venture into magic is a substantial risk. The story could readily have become either fey or sentimental, but is finally neither. What saves it is a tough and wide-ranging concern with literary and historical selfhood. Who is this shimmering revenant? A real man, with robust appetites – he is neither angel nor ghost. But he is also representative of the origin of Jennifer’s modern maladies. His life was as barbarous as hers has been, and his death, in disputed circumstances, seems to have been a violent one. Like Jennifer, he is at odds with the urban life that has produced him. ‘I have always found it hard to believe in most things.’ He is contaminated by the traumas of others, crowded into a dirty city, deformed and energised by the ‘continual stare of its streets’. Kennedy makes de Bergerac’s mythologised long nose an image of what has set him apart from humankind: ‘I inhaled so much blasphemy and heresy and original thought that naturally their atoms and mine became combined, as is wood with fire. I was alchemised.’ This impossible de Bergerac and Jennifer have both grown away from the proper shape of their lives. Having written about space travel (surely one of the first to do so), de Bergerac after death is propelled into a numbly extraterrestrial afterlife, floating in space. Kennedy imagines him trapped in another world, that of his own writing. As a result, his marvellous return has the power to set new light to what Jennifer is also by slow alchemy becoming – not only drifting fantasist, but writer.

De Bergerac’s most fantastic text, L’Autre Monde, is the fictional shadow moving before Kennedy’s novel. Satirical, irreverent and innovative, L’Autre Monde, ou les états et empires de la lune is the story of a world in which both alchemical magic and new science (Copernican and Galilean) can be exuberantly considered and acknowledged. It was posthumously published, at first in an expurgated form in 1657, two years after his death. The complete text did not appear until 1921. This was a fantasy too daring, and perhaps dangerous, to achieve its right form in its own time. Gleeful rejections of orthodoxy had laid de Bergerac open to the scandalous charge of atheism. Kennedy’s resurrected Savinien makes his faith, or scepticism, a matter of doubt. Hundreds of years spent spinning in space, uncommitted to humanity or divinity, suggest a purgatorial punishment leading to the prospect of another chance: ‘There was a darkness cold and patient as the moon, without sound and without meaning and nothing more but my tiny thought of myself adrift along eternity. I was the black of an eye, a cold dry look pressed in against night, and I saw only the absence of God – a faraway disinterested ache, a faint taste of intellect on the edge of time.’

To speak of absence suggests the possibility of presence. This is not the first time that Kennedy has wondered about the operations of suffering and redemption. The hero of Looking for the Possible Dance was an entirely secular figure, placed in her characteristically disaffected and urban frame. But he too returns, and reclaims the heroine, who is an earlier expression of Jennifer’s spiritual alienation, with a horribly literal crucifixion. De Bergerac comes back from another kind of world, and his martyrdom, if that is what it should be called, is a more distant one. Again, it is imagined as a physical process. De Bergerac was a soldier as a young man, and it was receiving a wound that led to his becoming a writer. Kennedy dwells on his scars, as worldly stigmata. ‘I can’t think of anything that would make a mark like that.’ His saving passion is a matter of the body and its restorative capacity to endure, to gesture towards significance that might survive its own death.

The 17th-century world that de Bergerac has left behind was in many ways still more tainted than the 20th-century world he has re-entered. Life was dirtier, narrower, its forms of cruelty more casual and often more destructive. The grotesque nose that made de Bergerac separate also made him dangerous, and the book dwells on his reputation as a murderous duellist. ‘I made a whole city careful how it looked in my face.’ But modern city life, as he perceives it, perpetuates old violence in masked disguises. Cars can be more menacing as duelling weapons than swords: ‘They move people but they do so much more, they make such fear. At one point I was in amongst them and I could see one driver’s face, boxed up there with his wheel in darkness, he was not making a journey, he was setting out to kill.’ Drugs, too, are more potent than wine ever was, and the novel gives unflinching attention to their false promises of another world. The notion of de Bergerac as Glaswegian drug addict is of course absurd. Kennedy knows this, and here as elsewhere she plays with the absurdity. Yet once the notion is admitted it makes a kind of sense, and his fragile rehabilitation is one of the most engaged sections of the narrative. It is described with the same grim precision with which Kennedy displays the processes and consequences of Jennifer’s sadism. This is a novel that insists on the primacy of the body, and on our need to acknowledge and respect what the body has to teach; but it is never in the least inclined to romanticise its sticky and unsafe activities.

Love story, allegory, fantasy and satire, So I Am Glad is held together with a sense of strain that makes it a vertiginous experience. Many of Kennedy’s concerns and strategies are those of literary fashion, of which she is an exceptionally shrewd judge, and her new book is uncompromising in its claim to be a novel of the moment. She has no wish to beat an eccentric and lonely path into a critical wilderness. But the unlikely forms of the novel’s spirituality and its defiant optimism – ‘I will be glad’ – make this a more densely suggestive and peculiarly comforting story than anything she has yet produced. De Bergerac inevitably turns back to his other world, waning with the moon. Made out of literature, he was a book passing into a body, with a reflected power to save. He taught the folly of despair, the need to love. Having told us that she was less than human, Jennifer confesses that she was not telling the truth. ‘Sometimes the best beginning is a lie. But I hope you’ll accept my apology for it now.’ It is a resonant and hopeful moment, for Kennedy and for her readers.