Descent into Oddness

Dinah Birch

  • Pinkerton’s Sister by Peter Rushforth
    Scribner, 729 pp, £18.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 7432 5235 7

Using literature as a way out of your life carries less of a stigma than lager or Grand Theft Auto. It’s understood as a mark of educated cultivation, not wilful indulgence or evasion. Yet reading, like every other exercise of the imagination, can be abused, can turn into an addiction. The connection between this and other kinds of abuse is something that Peter Rushforth has been thinking about for a long time. In 1979 he published his first novel, Kindergarten, a short and desolate work which won the Hawthornden Prize. A meditation on ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the grimmest of tales, Kindergarten describes a world well worth escaping. The child at its centre, Corrie, is a musical boy whose developing talents are a response to isolation. His mother was killed by terrorists; his much-loved grandmother, Lilli, recently disabled by a stroke (she will soon die too), is a German Jew whose family was destroyed in the war. Lilli is an artist, and her illustrations of fairy stories are crowded with images of her murdered relatives – faces Corrie never saw. The narrative is framed by snatches of a 20th-century version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, in which the witch’s oven and the ovens of the concentration camps are conflated.

‘Get in,’ the woman said. Hansel stood for a moment, and saw his sister’s hair lying on the kitchen floor, beside her neatly folded clothes. Then, without another word, he bent over and climbed into the oven, and the woman shut the iron door, and fastened the bolt.

Corrie will survive, but what he has learned about human malevolence means he must live as an exile, translating his alienation into art. And this is the primary function of all art, Rushforth implies, for those who make it, and those who live by it. It’s not a new idea, but it is represented here with uncommon conviction and force. The book juxtaposes fragments of folklore, music, poetry, drama and history to make patterns of loss and survival that are resolutely uncomforting. Its final image is that of the ‘wilful child’, refusing to accept death until compelled to do so:

her arm pushed itself through the earth, refusing to be buried, and stretched upwards. They pushed it below the earth again, and covered it over, but this didn’t work: whatever they tried to do, the arm rose up and out of the grave. Then the mother had to go to the grave, and strike at the arm with a stick. When she had done that, the arm was drawn in, and then, at last, the child was at peace, and rested in the earth.

This ruthless mixture of grotesque violence and resistance, restiveness and enclosure, characterises Rushforth’s imagination.

Kindergarten brought Rushforth attention and praise. It looked like the start of a successful career. But it was a bleak beginning, and it was followed by silence. Now, 25 years later, we have his second novel, Pinkerton’s Sister, a seven-hundred-page expansion of the themes in Kindergarten. Alice Pinkerton, whose mind we follow through the course of a single day, lives in New York. The year is 1903, and the city is humming with commerce and industry. Alice is witnessing a burgeoning new world, competitive and ruthless; but she plays no part in its bustle. She is 35, unmarried, lonely. Her father is dead, her mother is dying, her brother Ben is on his way to Japan (yes, that Pinkerton – Alice is the American counterpart of Puccini’s abandoned Madame Butterfly, a parallel study of injustice and hurt). Those who know Alice think of her as eccentric at best, perhaps seriously deranged. She is a fanatical reader. She is also a writer – 500 meticulously counted words a day, never fewer – though she keeps her work to herself. The novel is an examination of her self-enclosed life, from the inside. Every page is a network of the allusions, quotations and references that bind her thinking into coherence, if not into sense. There isn’t much she hasn’t read, or doesn’t remember. Oscar Wilde, the Brontës, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tennyson, George MacDonald, Charles Reade, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, Wilkie Collins, Mary Braddon, Conan Doyle, Du Maurier, and plenty more. Her literary memory is a compendium of every syllabus in Victorian literature that could be contrived. Alice is the woman in white, or Lewis Carroll’s little girl lost in a looking-glass. Still more, she is the madwoman in the attic. But she is a madwoman who cares about accuracy, and is vexed by the slackness of other readers:

It annoyed her that they thought she was mad, but it annoyed her even more that they were wrong about the attic. The mad wife in Jane Eyre, Dorian Gray’s portrait, and herself: all were thought to be locked away in an attic, and not one of them was . . . Charlotte Brontë was quite specific about where Bertha (Alice sometimes thought of Mrs Rochester by just her Christian name, as if she knew her well) was: in a room on the third storey, the floor below the attics . . . The detail Alice most admired in The Picture of Dorian Gray was the decision to locate the hideous portrait – the painting that bore upon it all the visible traces of damage and sin – in the locked and disused schoolroom where Dorian Gray had been an unhappy and lonely child, the room especially built for a hated grandson. This seemed to her to be, psychologically, profoundly and powerfully true, an insight of real genius. This was the room in which a monstrous thing had been created, long before the portrait had ever been painted.

As a reader, Alice is impressive. She knows what she is talking about because she is reading her own situation, with an obsession that both denies solitude (others have had this experience) and confirms it (the world of books is lonely). Like Dorian, she was an unvalued child, and a disappointment to her conventional family. Though she identifies most readily with unhappy victims, she is also Wilkie Collins’s Marian Halcombe, that bracing model for all sharp-eyed misfits. Alice secretly inhabits her own version of Pinkerton’s detective agency, unpicking clues that will expose the crime concealed within this scrupulous, intimate novel. She is looking for her lost childhood friend, Annie Clement, a black servant girl whose mysterious disappearance marked the beginning of Alice’s descent into oddness and isolation. It was a friendship that began (somewhat implausibly, for Annie is illiterate) with bookish games, as the two high-spirited girls acted out the roles that Alice encountered in her reading. But Annie, still more than Alice, was broken by pitiless exploitation. Books did not save her.

They won’t save Alice, either. The web of words that preserves and threatens her sanity is a trap. She sees that all too clearly, though she can do nothing about it. Her acid banter expresses a concentration of feeling that consoles while it wounds:

Miss Annie Clement.

‘I miss Annie Clement,’ Alice thought, and felt guilty because wordplay must mean a lack of emotion. It didn’t. It didn’t. ‘If he do bleed,’ Lady Macbeth had said of the murdered Duncan – he bled, he most certainly bled, gallons gushed – ‘I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal,/for it must seem their guilt.’ ‘Gild’, ‘guilt’: there were puns at a moment of intense emotion. Alice took comfort in being like Lady Macbeth. It was a definite promotion from being one of the Weird Sisters. Not on her sole, but on her soul, she made her knife keen. That was Gratiano’s pun in The Merchant of Venice, another pun made as a knife approached a heart.

Alice is helpless, but not meek. She broods on retribution. Surrounded by a cast of predatory grotesques, she invents whimsically ferocious murders. ‘The only difference between “slaughter” and “laughter” was the letter “s”.’ An excellent hater, she is much given to the ‘luxury of vengeance’ – the phrase George Eliot used to describe Maggie Tulliver hammering her wooden doll.

She had barely finished reading Chapter IV of The Mill on the Floss before she was sprinting around the house in search of a hammer and a good supply of nails in order to follow Maggie’s lead. It had been a ‘Eureka!’ sort of moment. Mrs Albert Comstock opted for ‘Earache!’, but Alice – something of a traditionalist – favoured ‘Eureka!’

Her two favourite targets are the blundering psychiatrist Dr Wolcott Ascharm Webster, who believes ‘imagination is an impediment to progress’ and whose inept treatment of her has amounted to years of persecution, and Mrs Albert Comstock, the local guardian of social decency. Alice has been feverishly speculating on how she might slaughter Mrs Comstock since her earliest childhood. This has had no noticeable effect: her target’s ‘failure to keel over . . . showed that the imagination – however hard you pushed it, however hard you flexed its muscles – had its limitations.’ Such frustrations are a source of perverse satisfaction. The novels she returns to with most enjoyment are those that deal with madness, imprisonment and violent death. Charles Reade’s Hard Cash, ‘in which flames consumed the asylum as the lunatics shrieked with laughter’, is just what she needs.

Some people read certain books over and over to comfort themselves, as if hearing the words of a story read at bedtime long ago, the voice of a lost mother or father, the time when everything was safe, and someone was there to look after you. She read Hard Cash to discomfort herself, to feel a fear that had somehow become necessary.

Where has this need come from? Step by step, Alice’s bitter play uncovers the casual sexual brutality that destroyed Annie’s life, and crushed her own. What happened or didn’t happen to her and Annie when they were little girls is never quite spelled out. But images of relentless sexual abuse haunt her memory, involving her brutal father and his sinister and predatory friend. Annie’s disappearance might have been the result of a bungled back-street abortion after repeated acts of rape. It is not an accident that so many of Alice’s dreams of revenge involve nails and daggers and swords. They are re-enactments of an imagined penetration in which she is both victim and perpetrator, for agency and suffering are not separate in her mind. ‘“I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles”: these . . . were the words from Confessions of an English Opium-Eater that had stayed in her mind.’ In their context in De Quincey’s nightmares, these kisses are a punishment for unnamed crimes: ‘I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.’ The last of the novel’s quotations is from Edward Lear, who knew about writing and depression.

There was an ink stain on the side of her face. She touched at it, feeling the blackness entering inside her.

There was a Young . . .

– Young! –

. . . Lady in White,
Who looked out at the depths of the Night;
But the birds of the air,
Filled her heart with despair
And oppressed that Young . . .

– Young! –

. . . lady in White.

This not so young lady in white has given up hoping for a miraculous liberation. ‘No prince was on his way to rescue her.’ Words won’t release her either, but she cannot stop playing with the possibility:

She would have to organise her own escape. She’d do it through her writing, she’d do it by finding the right words, the Ali Baba ‘Open Sesame!’ to fling open the locked doors. Like the pupils of St Cassian of Imola, she’d find an unexpected power in the nib of the pen. Cassian was a Christian schoolmaster who had refused to make sacrifice to the heathen gods, so he had been handed over to his pupils, who had leaped upon him and stabbed him to death with their iron pens. All it took was a little imagination from the relevant authorities and going to school could so easily be transformed into a positively enjoyable experience.

But Alice is both the hapless Cassian and his vengeful pupils, and the imaginative cruelty that has attached itself to her reading and writing damages her as certainly as it leaves the objects of her hatred unscathed. ‘The imagination is dangerous if it were not controlled,’ she reflects, and the book that contains her life is a prolonged demonstration of that recognition.

It is too prolonged – and this is Rushforth’s problem. His investigation of despair is disheartening, to say the least. In the 1853 preface to his Poems, Matthew Arnold, one of the few Victorian writers who (understandably) is not among Alice’s heroes, makes the point with grim authority:

What then are the situations, from the representation of which, though accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be derived? They are those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous. When they occur in actual life, they are painful, not tragic; the representation of them in poetry is painful also.

This is a brilliant book, but it is peculiarly cheerless. Many will have tiptoed quietly away before Alice’s long sad day comes to an end.