The View from the Passenger Seat

Lorna Sage

  • The Key of the Tower by Gilbert Adair
    Secker, 190 pp, £12.99, October 1997, ISBN 0 436 20429 0

Gilbert Adair the critic writes with feeling and practised bitterness about the anxiety of influence – ‘that looming, lowering pressure exerted, wilfully or not, by those who have already “made it” on those who have not, a pressure cramping, crushing and on occasion castrating the creative energies of the rising generation’. There’s a smack of Hamlet (cabined, cribbed, confined) here – so that when the literary father-figures he has in mind turn out to be Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, it’s hard to believe him. Father’s ghost has to be grander. And he is. Adair the novelist’s true problem, which Amis notoriously shares, is with Nabokov. Adair’s 1990 novel, Love and Death on Long Island, ‘currently’, according to his publicity, ‘being made into a major motion picture’, was about a snobbish, reclusive British writer falling hopelessly in love at long distance with an irretrievably straight American boy starlet, but was ‘really’ about its writer’s own love-affair with Lolita, invoking shades of Death in Venice as a thin disguise. This movie will follow on the heels of the ‘controversial’ remake of Lolita.

Lolita the book was 42 this year. The fuss over the film, you might think, only serves to measure our distance from its world. For Lolita was a product of the Fifties, when Dads were ex-servicemen and Moms were homemakers, and normality was advertised on every hoarding and consumed with your cornflakes. Shrinks expected boys to want to sleep with their mothers, and girls to fall in love with Dad; you weren’t normal if you didn’t entertain the correct fantasies. Humbert Humbert mocked a scrubbed and philistine sexual regime. Have we forgotten so soon? Well, if we have, the Nineties have an explanation and a remedy for that too – recovered memory, the more buried the more traumatic. It’s possible that Lolita only seemed an exotic one-off at the time (this topical argument goes) because good Freudians didn’t listen, and anyway blue-collar families didn’t go into analysis. Now its plot has acquired a grubby patina of realism. Humbert Humbert fancied himself as a gentleman and a decadent. His present-day avatars, however, are not aesthetes, but include the unemployed underclass and sad predators in ‘caring’ clothes, who were often, it’s now suspected, victims of abuse themselves as children. From this angle Lolita becomes Lolita’s story, the story of a sick silence, unoriginal sin. This is emphatically what doesn’t interest Amis or Adair. The movie controversy, in short, highlights the fact that the real source of Nabokov’s staying power lies elsewhere, in the words on the page.

Readers and re-writers read Lolita for its expertise in unrealities – its literariness, its exploration of the questionable and disintegrating sovereignty of the Author, who has refused to die and instead appears teasingly as a character in his own work, bereft of respectability but not of ingenuity or style. This is where Nabokov himself comes into the picture. If his example famously proved an inspiration to a whole range of writers, it was because they found the English language infinitely more interesting hearing it spoken with his un-English, un-American accent, and reinvented as an estrangement. John Updike is a self-confessed fan, but Joyce Carol Oates, who is not, has also conducted a wonderfully ingenious argument with Nabokov in several novels including The Childwold in 1976 and her Chappaquiddick novella, Black Water, in 1992, where the question of who was in the driving seat was asked in Nabokese. John Banville, too, does the voice in his traitorous and obsessive first persons, even when they are based on real-life originals (his Anthony Blunt is a sort of HH). Indeed his reply to an interviewer who asked him about the vanishing girl in his Book of Evidence trilogy – that Freddie, his murderous narrator, ‘has destroyed her ... virtually by the fact that he hasn’t imagined her sufficiently to exist’ – is pure Nabokov/Humbert. Even novelists who have in every sense characters of their own have their Nabokov books: Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince or Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, though Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, which has all the right ingredients, was surely conceived mystically between the author and God, without Nabokov’s mediation. Still, Spark put her finger on the reason Nabokov’s invention of Humbert Humbert was ‘seminal’ – the fascination of power-in-exile, the parade of discredited authorial power, which has been handed over to a criminal surrogate.

Adair the novelist has the doubtful distinction of being almost entirely inspired, permeated, by Nabokov’s example. As his reader you can decide to treat this as a kind of in-joke, depending on insider knowledge only others in the trade need feel troubled or titillated by. David Lodge, quoted on an Adair dust jacket saying that The Death of the Author is ‘brilliant, worthy of Nabokov’, is doing something of this kind, pretending innocence, tactfully avoiding the question of pastiche, of who’s actually in charge of this text. You get the ‘message’ in any case, for Adair’s novels are fables about compulsion. Having your strings pulled, being driven, is their inevitable theme, passivity their motive force.

The new one, The Key of the Tower, does the trick over again – doing it over again is the trick, after all. We start with the narrator driving his car through a rainstorm. It’s a modest Mini, but already the writing is anticipating an upgrade. The labouring windscreen wipers (‘Thwaack-Thwaack’) are compared in a fancy simile to ‘a brace of trapeze artists on a preliminary dry run, describing two graceful, asynchronous parabolae out into the circus tent’s cottony cosmos and back again, out again and back again, always just about to collide in midair yet always, always, falling short of each other’. This carnival image heralds ‘fun’ but also, in a rather glum and deliberate sort of way, it is ‘showing off’. Our narrator doesn’t belong at the wheel of his second-hand Mini, and lo and behold, very shortly – as a result of a freak lightning-strike that fells a tree across this tree-lined French road, leaving him stranded one side and the driver of a Rolls-Royce who is desperate to catch the next ferry stranded on the other – he finds himself swapping his vehicle for a car that matches his way with words. The transaction, suggested by the impatient Frenchman on the other side of the fallen tree, a wealthy art-dealer who speaks absurd English (‘Why, haven’t you guessed, my dear fellow?’), is implausible and arbitrary on every level except the one that matters: that is, the necessity of getting the show on the road. The trapeze artists are no longer having a dry run. With the Spirit of Ecstasy poised on his bonnet our man makes his way into the plot. Bit by bit we learn that he’s taking a lonely therapeutic holiday in St Malo, after a spell in hospital, after a car accident in which he was driving and his wife was killed. He has guilty dreams. Trust a murderer to have a fancy prose style, said HH. But is having a fancy prose style proof that you are a killer? Read on.

He’s called Guy Lantern, the new driver of the Rolls, a name which by the rules of this game is improbable enough to be genuine, and the car’s real owner is called Cheret. Cheret’s car introduces Guy, once arrived in St Malo, to his world, especially his wife Béa and his business partner Sasha. The very next day they steal it (they know nothing of the swap), since as it turns out they have hidden in a secret compartment a most valuable painting, a de La Tour acquired dishonestly for a pittance, which is being conveyed to England, and to a billionaire collector, without Cheret’s knowledge. And so Guy finds himself sucked into their plot, which is just as well, because he’s finding St Malo very depressing, since all the other tourists belong in groups or families or at least couples; he’s alone in being alone. So he drifts desultorily into their busy, well-heeled, scheming world, the accidental man, contingency’s creature. On the other hand, we’re conscious all the time that everything is ruthlessly determined. For instance, the swarthy man at the desk of the scruffy hotel Guy stays in keeps lazily refusing to let him register, and so erases in advance any proof that he was ever there – just in case he needs to vanish.

Anyway, for the moment, he’s irritably intrigued by Béa and Sasha, who are rowing over their plan to deceive her husband; it doesn’t take long for Guy to work out that they’ve been lovers, partly because he wants Béa himself. Or perhaps that’s putting it too strongly. She goes with the Rolls. Here is our first introduction to Béa:

‘Mais qu’est-ce-que c’est ce cinéma?’

She was standing halfway up the staircase. She was in her late twenties or very early thirties, wearing a loose cream silk shirt and a pair of equally loose-fitting grey slacks, slacks whose subtly spoked pleats emphasised her small, neat waist. Her hair, blonde, drawn back tight from her forehead, fell heavy and straight on her shoulders ... she was holding a cigarette ... She was tanned ... it was the tan of money ... Hers was the innately tanned skin, as if bronzed from the inside, of those born to die rich.

This is the description of someone you’re meant to want, but actually resent, dislike and try to despise. It is characterisation as assassination, the portrait of a lady who’s already dead, or at least moribund. Poised on the stairs, she’s Lolita’s doomed mother, who is introduced in exactly the same setting, smoking the same cigarette, as ‘a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich’. Béa is a weak solution of Lauren Bacall, I suspect: certainly she’s in quotation marks, and that’s what dooms her, though she has a run for her money first, and so do we. Béa lets Guy in on the de La Tour plot and seduces him, Sasha steals the painting, and the billionaire collector becomes impatient and sends a couple of vaudeville heavies over to St Malo to protect his investment.

All of this ‘happens’. Guy is merely caught up in it. But as with Béa, he contrives in his sour way to intimate that the flamboyance and energy the others are so over-supplied with is not real style. They’re second-hand. The elegant Proust-quoting gangster Rieti and his punk boyfriend Junior, whose hair runs ‘the gamut from chrome red through tea-rose pink to an Edenic green’, seem larger than life. Rieti’s face, we are told, ‘had a real, if fleshy, force, a real personality. It resembled the kind of face one might see in a gallery of portraits of the century’s petrified luminaries of humanism, Shaw, Mann, Wells, Ortegay Gasset.’ Like Béa he’s a copy, a kind of android. His speech patterns are eerily reminiscent of Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, a character also both fat and rounded, played memorably by Sidney Greenstreet: ‘By heaven, madame, you’re a remarkable woman!’ or again, ‘to be absolutely candid, and I do like a man to be candid.’ And his punk sidekick is referred to anachronistically as a ‘gunsel’, which clinches the allusion. They are, it transpires, in black and white – ontologically, challenged – so no wonder they don’t succeed in preventing Guy from solving the mystery and finding the painting, which turns out, like the Maltese Falcon, to be ... Haven’t you guessed, my dear fellow?

Adair’s plotting is, as ever, impeccable and fast-paced, producing surprises up to the last gasp. Guy gets to keep the Rolls – he ‘gets the picture’ too, and stops feeling troubled by his guilt at last because now he is certainly a criminal. We’re back where we started, except that after some death-defying somersaults ‘I’ am in the right driving seat. The slightly queasy sensation that accompanies the reader’s fun has a lot to do with the bursting of illusion’s bubble. Dust off the popcorn, shrug yourself back into your overcoat, get ready to face the fresh air. RIP Guy, coffined between the covers. There was no one else there after all, except the author, and Adair himself is a mere shadow of the Master.

It’s customary at this point to extract the message that the formula Nabokov has bequeathed is an allegory of art’s sublime and ineluctable limitations: ‘art promises everything and changes nothing.’ The words belong to Bryan Appleyard, celebrating Lolita’s 40th birthday in 1995. ‘Humbert,’ he wrote, ‘is caged by his own genius ... And there is no outside.’ However, seeing Nabokov in Adair’s mirror, and contemplating the elaborate play with powerlessness this novel’s engaged in, it’s tempting to look for some further moral, perhaps rather different from the one Nabokov laid on. There is a lurking question of agency in Adair’s authorial games, which seem more and more to reflect – not back onto the autonomy of art – but outwards into our everyday public dilemmas about who’s in the driver’s seat, who makes things happen. Judging by the trial of Louise Woodward, and the burial of Diana, we seem collectively to be plumping more and more for blamelessness or monstrosity. ‘I’ am either passively innocent or actively a monster: individual agency itself has become suspect, mysterious, dangerous ground. Adair’s Guy, unlike Humbert, is no genius, but he is like Humbert in pitting his ‘I’ knowingly and defiantly against ‘them’. Adair the critic, too, declares with unaccustomed vehemence in an article ‘On the Death of the Author’: ‘No, whatever else happens in our culture, the first person singular must never be allowed to become persona non grata.’

Perhaps, then, the army of Humbert’s avatars, the I-narrators, survive and multiply because they represent the other side to all the multi-voiced narratives and pluralist panoramas that win the prizes now. Nabokov himself, oddly enough, in his lectures on literature, produced a description of that kind of fictional utopia. Dickens’s Bleak House, he said, was like a ‘magical democracy ... where even some very minor character ... has the right to live and breed’. It’s beautifully put, though it may have an ironic undertone (unlike actual democracies? Nabokov was not a great believer in democracy).

Be that as it may, such ‘ordinary’ life can only be glimpsed in a Nabokov novel round the edge of the narrator’s obsession. There’s a moment when HH, having lost Lolita, looks down at a distance on a small, nameless, ordinary town, hears children’s voices rising through the air, and sees that hers should simply have been one of them. Adair in The Key of the Tower pays tribute, by having Guy contemplate this innocent scene:

On the windswept beach beyond the rocks I saw an elderly man in a sheepskin-lined coat, his flannel trousers rolled up to his knees, paddling his bare feet in the icy shallows. Standing a few yards away from him, on the sand, an adolescent in jeans and wellington boots, probably his grandson, was having fun making a succession of smooth, flat pebbles play leap-frog with the ocean.

This is the criminal narrator’s tribute to innocence: he himself is shut out, shut into the cage of his lonely fantasies. Or perhaps that’s only his story, perhaps he lives on because he’s the demonised type of our collective fears, the one in the driver’s seat, who makes things happen.