Terrible Teacher

Justine Jordan

  • Little Thing by Susan Wicks
    Faber, 155 pp, £9.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 571 19344 7

You need never explain yourself in the present tense. It is the most authoritative and least analytical tense in English, the stuff of dreams (the breakdown of cause and effect) and of experimental fiction, and marks a point where prose moves towards poetry. Susan Wicks’s background in poetry illuminates and informs her fiction (she has published three collections, as well as a memoir, Driving My Father). Both Little Thing and her first novel, The Key, use poetry’s building-blocks of partisan fragment and significant moment, along with a neglect of chronology: events are linked not by order of occurrence but by similitude. The narrator of The Key inverts an early relationship with a manipulative older man by taking the controlling role in her relationship with a younger man, twenty years later. She jumbles parallel defining moments from the two affairs so that it is hard to tell where to site intention and responsibility, and whether she is doer-to or done-by. The novel captures the way emotional wounds can stay open for decades – each time it is spoken, an ex-lover’s name conjures the same ‘sick gasp in the pit of my stomach like impotence or shame’ – and can even come to constitute a personality.

Little Thing also jumps backwards and forwards in time, and gaps and inconsistencies are revealed as the reader shuffles the events into order. In The Key the slow unveiling of the past complicated and undermined the apparent calm of the present; Little Thing takes structural subversion a step further, building up a life only to shatter it. It’s a reprise of Beckett’s eerie finale to Molloy – ‘Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining’ – to similarly disorientating effect. What is unusual in Wicks’s work is the way it weds these metafictional devices with the sort of subject-matter that can get a book labelled a ‘women’s novel’: intimate, domestic concerns, the minutiae of mixing babyfood and stirring soup, female lack of confidence and male aggression. ‘All I ever wanted was a job, and a child,’ protests Sarah, the twentysomething narrator of Little Thing.

Much of the novel is in the form of a monologue addressed to an absent lover, giving the woman an opportunity finally to speak to and for herself, ‘tell you anything I like and you don’t have to listen ... details you would never be patient enough to listen to in the flesh’. It’s a baby album for a runaway father, a single mother protesting overmuch that she can cope. ‘None of it matters now I have the child’ is the incautious and cautionary first sentence. Sarah seems to have nothing else: her contract working as a lectrice in a French university has come to an end; family and friends back home are never mentioned; her lover Joseph, another expat, fled back to Boston when she told him she was pregnant. Rejecting her past life in England and with her future in France curtailed, she gives herself up after Hannah’s birth to ‘the joy of complete erasure. The past that is wiped out, totally, by her unwitting presence, the future that will never happen now ... The sheer fatigue of choosing usurped by this.’

Except that Hannah, the little thing who was to grow and fill an uncertain, ungrounded life with nappies, laundry and petits suisses, is imaginary, a creation enabling the tragedies of the past to be denied in order to push the present into the future. Most of the novel – which begins in a heatwave with a sleeping toddler and ends a couple of winters before that with an early miscarriage and Sarah’s regret that she won’t be there in summer to see the farm she lives on come to life – is told in a new tense: the future imaginary. By the end of the book, the students and academic colleagues she is to come to know, if not well, then with a painfully raw intimacy, have retreated into the politeness of ‘madame’ and Sarah is only beginning to learn their already charted idiosyncrasies. The shock of realising that the unreliable narrator has been raised to the level of a structural device leaves the reader struggling to situate Sarah’s miscarriage in the jumble of events and thus to work out which parts of her story are ‘made up’. The exposure of the big lie in the book’s construction enables Wicks to reveal the gaps in Sarah’s side of the story, her blottings out of the sadnesses in the lives of those around her, without sacrificing the subjectivity of her voice (for most of the novel we are inside Sarah’s head) or the emotional truth in the characters’ imagined interactions.

We are forced to build the novel out of moments: snatches of conversation, overheard murmurs, chance meetings and halting small talk – Sarah is continually caught off guard, cheeks burning and teaching notes flapping to the ground. Fragmented incidents offer no insight into character or clues as to motivation. Bald, unrevealing sentences in the present tense will suddenly focus on the play of light or shape of a branch, but never explain a tone of voice. Sarah’s prose has a flat, alienated tone: as in The Key, which also features a woman cut off from her emotions, vision blurs, cheeks become suddenly wet, but the admission of tears is rare. She creates around herself a charged, prickly atmosphere in which every remark seems barbed, a potential wound: the professors ‘didn’t want to lose’ her; ‘I’m not lost.’ Sarah’s possible future remains at a dreamlike distance, ‘tipping towards me like a dark cup’, asserted then denied. Oversensitive and underconfident, she is not, however, fluent in the language, ‘at home’ in France, or in academic life. As Lervain, her head of department, says, ‘You have to go back eventually. You can’t ever really be one of us.’ Her colleagues seem to be intimidating perfect: beautiful, bird-thin Laurence, whose only appetites are intellectual; brilliant, eccentric Francis, with his custom-made lute, exotic pet sheep and 700-franc shirts, chasing the holy grail through 20th-century literature; dapper, reserved Lervain, in whose hands rests the power of hiring and firing. Sarah’s alienation increases as the pregnancy progresses, her body swept up in the messy, physical process of beginning life while she tries to keep up with the life of the mind, fighting morning sickness in departmental meetings or trying to conceal her bump from the unclouded eyes of her students.

Little Thing is about, and made up of, the small acts of kindness and cruelty humans visit on one another; the former so hard to accept and the latter, however trivial, still capable of making cheeks burn months or years later. Marthe, Sarah’s angry, difficult student, aims her purposeful, shaming barbs: a list scrawled in lesson-time of her inadequacies as a teacher; a line of glasses charged for a toast to the department ‘and all who sail in her’, with Sarah’s left empty. Yet kindness is in a way harder to bear: as Sarah knows, it is a form of pity. At its worst, it’s what you give people to make them go away and stop bleeding over you. ‘It would be all right, if only people didn’t try to be kind to me.’ ‘It’s not kindness!’ barks her landlady, in response to ultra-English protestations that Sarah really is – that overused fib of a word – fine, but it’s very kind of her to ask. ‘It’s called survival.’ Which could also be called leaning on others: the boyfriend before Joseph, adopted chiefly because he seemed ‘kind’ when she was lonely, betrayed her; Joseph fled because he refused the responsibility of wanting or not wanting to keep the baby. ‘Under these conditions,’ she says, ‘I don’t think I ought to need anyone.’ Proverbially, one can be cruel to be kind: Sarah sees Francis’s internal battle when she asks him whether she could ever hack it as a don, a question to which the answer can only be ‘no’. This works the other way round, too: kindness masks Lervain’s face as Sarah begs for an extension of her contract, but ‘somewhere behind his eyes something closes.’ In the ‘games for grown-ups’ – Francis’s definition of academia – kindness is a form of patronage.

The book’s key-words – ‘kindness’, ‘need’, ‘responsibility’, ‘alone’ – evolve with each use. Wicks weights them with a poet’s sensibility, her bald, simple prose alive to every nuance and ambiguity. It is only when she deliberately heightens her language in Sarah’s dreams and hallucinations that she overpoeticises. The achievement of this complex, suggestive and disturbing book lies in the darkness and silence it evokes behind language. The faux amis Sarah discusses with her class epitomise the gaps in language between thought and expression, between lovers, enemies, different tongues: gentil, ‘gentle’; ignorer, ‘ignore’; sentiment, ‘sentimentality’. ‘You’re a terrible teacher,’ Marthe tells her, with studied aggression. The truth lies somewhere in between the French and the English homographs; in the unspoken element of every attempt at communication, the place where Hannah can be born.