A Pair of Lobsters in a Murky Tank

Theo Tait

  • Seven Lies by James Lasdun
    Cape, 199 pp, £14.99, February 2006, ISBN 0 224 07592 6

‘A woman threw her glass of wine at me,’ James Lasdun’s second novel begins. At a party held by a wealthy philanthropist in New York, a woman walks up to the narrator and asks: ‘Excuse me, are you Stefan Vogel?’ He says yes; she flings her wine in his face. In keeping with the novel’s mood of dreamlike self-absorption, the event is replayed many times. Immediately beforehand, Stefan has been politely snubbed by a distinguished elder statesman named Harold Gedney. His hostess introduces him as ‘a wonderful dissident poet’ who has fled from East Germany some years before. Bearing what he calls ‘the various inaccuracies of her introduction’ in silence, Stefan is left there blinking as Gedney makes an abrupt escape. Then a woman he has never met before approaches him and asks if he is Stefan Vogel. ‘Yes,’ he replies.

And out of the points of light gleaming about her, the goblet of red wine, which I have not previously noticed, detaches itself, coming perplexingly towards me, in a perplexingly violent manner, its ruby hemisphere exploding from the glass into elongated fingers like those of some ghastly accusatory hand hurtling through the air at my body until with a great crimson splatter I am suddenly standing there soaking and reeking, blazoned in the livery of shame.

This passage is typical of Seven Lies. The action of the novel has a tendency to freeze, and to resolve itself into arresting conceits, which are explored in a formal, highly worked, sometimes over-adorned prose (‘blazoned in the livery of shame’). The motor of the novel is this ‘ghastly accusatory hand’, which triggers Stefan’s feelings of guilt about a sequence of events that began half a lifetime ago, on the other side of the world. The first few pages consist of a diary, in the course of which we learn that Stefan has been in America since 1986 with his wife Inge, who left East Germany with him, that she is very unhappy, and that she doesn’t return his own undiminished love. Stefan’s outlook is bleak, too: ‘At this point,’ he remarks, ‘my own annihilation seems increasingly the most elegant solution.’

The story then reverts, briefly, to their escape from East Berlin. ‘I was purchased, so my Uncle Heinrich informed me, for two truckloads of grade B Seville oranges.’ Inge, an actress and a prominent figure in the peace movement, fetched a higher price under the Freikauf system, ‘the selling of dissident flesh for goods or hard currency’ by the GDR to West Germany. But the chain of events that made Stefan into a ‘dissident poet’ fixated on America was set in motion earlier, with a family ‘tragedy of thwarted ambition’ that took place in 1974, and it is there that the novel really begins.

Stefan’s father, a diplomat, has been sent to the UN on various occasions, and returns ‘bearing gifts of a radiant strangeness – Slinkies, watches for deep-sea divers, a wireless that woke you with a cup of instant coffee’. There is talk of a permanent posting, which greatly excites the family: his mother even retrieves her aristocratic family’s monogrammed linen, long since exiled to the basement, in the hope of making a splash among New York’s international political elite. But it is not to be: Stefan’s father has made a career-blighting blunder (‘what he had done, I learned later, was to have slightly overestimated his own licence to make concessions in the finer detail of an informal round of arms negotiation’), and he is sent back to negotiating friendship treaties with other Warsaw Pact countries.

Stefan’s mother’s diplomatic ambitions are replaced by cultural ones: she begins hosting a monthly salon for writers and artists at her apartment. The assistance of her brother Heinrich, a senior police lawyer, ensures that many ‘officially recognised’ artists think it worth their while to attend. Prints and statues appear in their home; Stefan’s mother starts referring to her 13-year-old son as the family ‘poet-intellectual’. At one of the salons, he is asked to read out some of his poems, which unfortunately do not exist, and are not likely to:

The feeling I’d had as I sat at my table trying to coax words out of myself was more than simply one of impotence; it was a kind of vast, inverted potency: the sheer inert mass of blankness that I had attempted to breach reverberating violently back through me, as though I had tried to smash through a steel door with my fist.

But Stefan remembers seeing a volume of foreign poetry in translation in the basement. So he finds it, copies out a German version of the first lines of Song of Myself, and treats the salon to a garbled reworking of Walt Whitman. No one spots the fraud. ‘The evening was considered a triumph,’ he explains, ‘and for the next period of my life I devoted most of my energies to maintaining the façade of “poet-intellectual” that my mother’s warped pride had created and that I now began to half believe in myself.’ This is not easy. The book’s title, and its epigraph, come from Martin Luther: ‘Every lie must beget seven more lies if it is to resemble the truth and adopt truth’s aura.’ And so it proves. In order to gain access to the basement, Stefan has to bribe the loathsome janitor, Brandt. This means stealing miniature bottles of aquavit brought back from his father’s last trip abroad; then concealing the thefts; lying to his family about his trips to the basement; inventing new lies to cover those lies, and so on. When, inevitably, the theft is discovered, it is blamed on Stefan’s hapless brother. But Stefan then finds himself with nothing to bargain with – until Brandt places his hand on his ‘bulging groin’, and leads him down to the basement. Thereafter, his molestation becomes a monthly event. This horrifying little parable of the writer’s development produces some dark and rather brilliant passages:

The other thing I remember is that Brandt never seemed to experience anything resembling pleasure during our encounters. The vacant look on his large, round face (the face of a baby left to bloat in a jar of formaldehyde) would turn actively gloomy when I arrived at his booth for the key now. As we walked in silence down the service stairway, I had the sense that he was moving there through the same miasma of dimly apprehended horror as I was, and as we groped and grappled lugubriously together in the near-blackness of the storage room, a pair of lobsters in a murky tank, he had the weary air of someone undergoing a peculiarly burdensome penance.

Lasdun is a prodigiously talented writer; in Seven Lies, there is a great deal of this sort of prose: detached, elegantly bleak, fed on surprising images and intriguing notions. As a novelist, though, he has yet to find the story to do his talent justice. His poems and short stories often turn, compellingly and convincingly, on oblique incidents and narrative shards; the stories that try to achieve more traditional plotted resolutions are usually the less successful ones. In the novels, there’s a palpable sense that the material is being stretched. His first, The Horned Man (2002), a campus novel as David Lynch might have conceived it, was rightly praised: it charted a professor’s descent through paranoia into outright mania in a way that was neat, sharp, witty and intelligent. But it gave the sense of being a brilliant writing-school exercise, rather than something that Lasdun entirely owned and imaginatively inhabited; a master-class in how to deploy various well-worn narrative themes and devices – the unreliable narrator, the Kafkaesque fable, political correctness on campus. The mood was authentic – the thick, queasy, febrile social unease – but the plot was more like a well-oiled mechanical device than an organic expression of it.

If the narrative oversimplified the first book, in the second the plot meanders, becoming too big for such a slim novel. The story of Stefan’s ‘furtive routines’ in the basement abruptly stops: ‘Suddenly, effortlessly, it was over.’ A series of disconnected episodes follow: humiliation at school, and a period of ‘inertia’, ‘vacancy’ and yearning; a brief romance; a career in anti-American propaganda. The story begins to take shape again when Stefan is spellbound by the sight of Inge, a beautiful actress in an avant-garde production. He takes up with a group of poets, writers and artists in order to pursue her, but finds that his way is barred by her fiancé, Thilo, a charismatic dissident. Thereafter, Lasdun has to cover a great deal of ground with a few impressionistic strokes. The mysteries posed by the first pages have to be unravelled. Is Stefan really a poet? Is he a dissident? Why, when he’s living in New York, do the ideas of glasnost and perestroika disturb him ‘dimly, like obscure portents in a dream’?

Given Stefan’s pervasive sense of guilt, and the notoriety of the Stasi’s huge web of informers in the GDR, the reader forms suspicions early on. The lying and betrayal, rooted so far in a specific family context, is extended outwards, and becomes more explicitly a metaphor for the East German state. This is counterpointed with the couple’s new life in America. Stefan is exhilarated by both the money and the squalor, ‘the ruin and the glamour’; Inge is horrified by them. Lasdun even hints, opportunistically and not very convincingly, that post-9/11 America is beginning to resemble East Germany. Ultimately, juggling these separate aspects of the book proves too much for Lasdun. Seven Lies descends into portentousness and melodrama, restoring order in the last few pages with a few sudden twists and turns that are neither believable nor particularly memorable. The prose, too, begins to suffer, becoming overblown and vaguely hysterical where before it has been exacting and patient.

Lasdun was brought up in England, and, like his protagonist, emigrated to New York. His most recent collection of poetry, Landscape with Chainsaw (2001), is made up of a series of recondite and often very beautiful meditations on emigration and belonging, which occasionally hit an open, personal note: ‘Being here’s just a question of having been/elsewhere unhappily long enough to/feel that that was exile, this not.’ Seven Lies is probably best read as an eccentric and studiedly impersonal meditation on the same theme.