Nasty Lucky Genes

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Arms of the Infinite by Christopher Barker
    Pomona, 329 pp, £9.99, August 2006, ISBN 1 904590 04 7

Elizabeth Smart was browsing one day between the wars in the bookshops of the Charing Cross Road. Young, blonde and original, unclaimed by her Ottawa upbringing or her mother’s social hopes, Smart came to lean against those London bookshelves as if they alone contained all the answers. That day, she drew her finger over a line of volumes, took one down and read the poems where she stood, deciding by the last page that the author was the man she was put on earth to marry.

George Barker. His name seems almost seedy now, redolent of multiple fatherings and free drinks and Benzedrine, a low-rent Catholic visionary forever caught in some personal smog of Latinate rhetoric and English ambition. But at the time of Elizabeth Smart’s first fascination, Barker was a hero of many sorts: taken for a Byronic adventurer and a part-time horseman of the New Apocalypse, fêted by the small magazines, published by Eliot, anthologised by Yeats, and understood, alongside Dylan Thomas, to be one of the chief lyrical men of the age. Anaïs Nin, of all the spotters of seedy excellence, names him in her diaries as the sort of person who might put a pulse into a dull room:

George Barker comes, with his dilated Celtic blue eyes, his brilliance and accuracy of mind, vivid talk, electric and fertile … A taut mind and body, throwing off sparks. We talk with suppleness, clarity, swiftness. Images appear spontaneously, a search for heightened living. His body is all keyed up for it. I am sure he makes love the same way.

Nin always writes as if she wants to do it right now on top of the typewriter. Nevertheless, she can’t have been very wrong about Barker: it seems that everybody who met him wanted to have four children by him, and each of his long-term admirers was willing in the end to sink to some pretty low depths, and live through many shades of domestic horror, to accommodate this very male poet’s ‘search for heightened living’. That appears to have been one of the delights of talented women back then, to enjoy the privilege of having your nerves roasted by a talented man. But perhaps one should be thankful for the George Barkers, because their exquisite vanity sent out a thousand beautiful ships, few so perfectly rigged or better equipped for the demands of the modern climate than that of Elizabeth Smart.

She was no opponent of male bravado. In fact she must have loved it and saw her chance for wholeness there. She never refers to Barker’s poem ‘The Leaping Laughers’ in any of her writings, but it features in the book she read in that bookshop, and it might have given her a nice clue to the gymnastics of male masochism, a clue she chose at that stage to ignore:

Many men mean
Well: but tall walls
Impede, their hands bleed and
They fall, their seed the
Seed of the fallen.

Smart spent three years chasing him and once she got him, chose – like his wife, Jessica – to live in thrall to the seed of the fallen. It was to become one of the savage love stories of the period, covering several continents and any number of broken houses, agonies, separations and breakdowns, the whole business wreathed in a perpetually sprouting foliage of metaphor. Smart’s writing, more than his, would dwell on the matter, but it is hard at this distance not to feel it is essentially a story about George Barker’s shittiness. Women are apt to dress up for their great encounters with male brutality, and perhaps it has been something of a habit to turn the carelessness of the children’s father, the meanness, the selfishness, into a more bearable series of encounters with the nearly human. Loving a man is not sainthood, but Smart showed how far a person could go towards self-immolation – all that distance, all those years – simply to avoid devaluing their own capacity for love.

Trying to cope and trying to write are not usually twins in the mind of the male writer. But for Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf they are the same. Smart’s great book, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, is a delirium of coping and writing, where there is not only a man to be loved and a duty to be borne but also dinners to prepare and beds to make. What we end up with are lines from the Song of Solomon stamped into a ration book: comfort me with apples, if you must, but be sure they are weighed and washed and set in a bowl. Barker would leave her (and leave her pregnant), go back to his wife, lie to her, leave her pregnant too, and go in search of his art. Smart would be left in a kitchen with a cold typewriter, but she managed to come up with sentences like these again and again:

I am lonely. I cannot be a female saint. I want the one I want. He is the one I picked out from the world. I picked him out in cold deliberation. But the passion was not cold. It kindled me. It kindled the world. Love, love, give my heart ease, put your arms round me, give my heart ease. Feel the little bastard.

And yet all the permissions were his. All the reason was his. We take such things for granted now, but it must have drawn the sap out of her will to sit down and press those keys. In her poem ‘Trying to Write’, she asks:

Why am I so frightened
To say I’m me
And publicly acknowledge
My small mastery?
Waiting for sixty years
Till the people take out the horses
And draw me to the theatre
With triumphant voices?

Barker became mythic in his absences, saying, as artist-fathers do, that he needed a breather or a break for the sake of his work. That would probably be fair enough, except Barker did this with more than one woman and with more than one set of children, leaving the lot of them pining for a sighting they seldom got. Barker was neither the first nor the last poet with a knack for presenting the satisfaction of his own needs as a hymn of self-sacrifice, but he did it more nakedly than most, coercing his loved ones into thinking him a martyr to art and a slave to integrity when he was nothing but a user. ‘But he never passes anywhere near me without every drop of my blood springing to attention,’ Smart wrote, in By Grand Central Station. She had the style to honour the truth of her feelings for him, honour them with consistency and imagination, even in the face of self-thwarting, and she never turned them, as anybody else would have done, into a pattern of denial or a strategy for revenge.

My mind may reason that the tenseness only registers neutrality, but my heart knows no true neutrality was ever so full of passion. One day along the path he brushed my breast in passing, and I thought, Does this efflorescence offend him? And I went into the redwoods brooding and blushing with rage, to be stamped so obviously with femininity, and liable to humiliation worse than Venus’ with Adonis, purely by reason of my accidental but flaunting sex.

These are twisted feelings – with a prose that can do the twist – but Smart’s honesty radiates upwards. All that one can say is that parents engaged in such a danse macabre can have a lovely and a lousy time, a vital dream and a terrifying nightmare, and it will never be resolved. Such parents either wake up in the morning together or they don’t, and for all Smart’s beautiful words (and his) there is still no very easy way of understanding why she kept having children by this man and loved him to the end of her life. That will be one of the mysteries that they both enjoyed too much.

But there are other narratives to be told. Children owe nothing to their parents’ mysteries, and are obliged to clip their parents’ wings to make space for their own. Four of Thomas Mann’s six children (and his wife, Katia) wrote books about him, and each one recalls the other children at school saying: ‘Does your father ever trouble his head about you?’ Then we have Edmund Gosse, who wrote about himself and his father as if he were writing about two entirely different versions of how to live. (‘This book is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs,’ Father and Son begins.) Susan Cheever says she once had another title for her memoir, Treetops; it was ‘Three Great Men and the Women They Destroyed’. Yet the first book she wrote about her father, Home before Dark, left her reeling at the variety of her discoveries. ‘I don’t think I would have started this book if I had known where it was going to end,’ she writes in the preface. Christopher Dickey wrote a memoir of the poet and novelist James Dickey, his father, in which he says the old man ‘killed my mother’. He also reports his father saying of the son: ‘I made his head.’ We might say of this kind of book that the making and the unmaking of heads is the genre’s chief component: writing a book about the process is not always evidence that the authors of the books have survived entangling with the authors of their being, though survival is often in the air.

Like all the others, Christopher Barker – the son of Elizabeth Smart and her fatal George – gets to experience his writer-parents twice over, once in his memory and once again in the pages of their own books. There’s no saying which is the stronger potion, but his book gives him a third draft. At any rate we find him distilling their essence in his own voice:

George would, through these years, make the occasional visit and these were awaited with great excitement by us children and not a little longing by me. The trouble was, for me they always seemed to be visits. George never came back to claim us or be what my school friends had: a proper dad. Why wasn’t he like these fathers? I wanted to see him trudge out in the morning and navigate a Ferguson tractor through the Essex sludge … To describe him to them as a ‘poet’ would have been met with incredulity and so I started my schooldays with a half blank family background. When talking about Dad, I would try to ingratiate myself with a scanty knowledge of George’s cars. I knew the subject was close to his heart but I never had quite the right information. A colourful tweak in the telling was often necessary.

Because of mummy’s needs and daddy’s needs, or what one needed from the other, the Barker kids were always being shifted about and enjoying the company of relative strangers acting in loco parentis. Half-mad painters and poets were forever clanking in from a drinking session at Muriel’s to talk and then fight. Christopher Barker is brilliant at summoning the fear in the atmosphere, and at these points his prose is textured with shards of glass. But there are also the happy years at the millhouse at Tilty in Essex, where Smart built a family life filled with punting and fishing and ballet slippers, but inevitably all would turn grey when the agitations of their parents’ on-off love affair put everything on hold or into the kind of shadow thrown by a million coloured butterflies. The children must have realised, though Barker doesn’t say it, that they themselves were basic elements in their parents’ love-drama. Elizabeth wanted to have Barker’s babies as a way of having parts of him. But what did the babies have? And what do they have as grown-ups?

Christopher Barker tells that story beautifully and it is a story worth telling. What he uses most effectively are his mother’s journals, which summon both the chaos and the clarity of her unsettled life. But he also goes back in time to find the seeds of his parents’ disorderly attraction to one another. I always find it moving to see an author rummaging about in the past of his parents, looking to find what might never be there to be found: a good reason for himself, a justification for living. One suspects it may not be such a life-affirming journey for Christopher Barker, and that he must always take second place to his parents’ valuation of each other and their respective genius. Like firemen after a blaze, the Barker children may have discovered a deeper kinship because of what they went through, but there is no certainty of that, for Elizabeth’s trouble with George touched each of them differently. The sad truth, as always, might be that the parents’ glory in one another, their ruination of one another’s years, might always exclude their children. Being a product of a relationship is not the same as being a part of it.

British bohemia produces children who struggle all their lives to be as interesting as their parents. Reading his memoir, you get the feeling Christopher Barker may have suffered in that way, and that his best revenge may lie in the certainty of being a better parent himself. But how complicated to see one’s mother as having been blighted by one’s father, and to live in the knowledge that you owe your existence to the carelessness of a person like George Barker. He keeps himself back from the full attack, but you can see Christopher bristling still at his late father’s phoniness and at the arrogance which allowed him to be so withholding with his children. ‘Mum wouldn’t really try to defend him. She just asked me to forgive him. It still left me feeling that even a poet or artist, be he the greatest that had ever lived, did not have the right to live outside society’s rules while lying comfortably protected in its bosom (not always so comfortably with George). It made forgiveness difficult.’

The boy failed to get into Oxford and then dropped out of Princeton. He didn’t blame his father, and, of course, it would never have occurred to his father to blame himself. At such times, it is customary for the mother to take the blame, but she was working for Queen magazine by then and appeared to have given up on several schemes for perfection. She was simply rather pleased not to have to think any more about his fees. But that was the least of it, so far as devastation goes. Christopher Barker had a sister, Rose, and she may have been the one who took the brunt of their parents’ suffocating attraction. She takes her position in this story like a sister out of Tennessee Williams, vulnerable, yes, but made vulnerable by the people who name her so. Her parents’ needs and their illnesses and absences made a winding sheet for Rose Barker, and she was dead before she really began, ruined by drugs and the inattention of others. At 13, Rose had written in her diary: ‘I wish my father would be like a father.’

The Arms of the Infinite closes with a photograph of Rose, as if she, and such as she, were the vanishing point for all the boisterous egotism and enslavement that attends on the parents’ obsessive love. ‘Rose Died,’ Smart wrote:

O forgive, forgive, forgive,
as I know you would,
that my urgent live
message to you failed.

Two sins will jostle forever, and humble me
beneath my masked heart:
it was my job to explain the world;
it was my job to get the words right.

I tried, oh I tried, I did try,
I biked through gales,
brought hugs, kisses,
but no explanation for your despair, your desperate Why.

‘Perfection of the life or of the work’ is not a choice for everybody, and it can’t always be a life of laughter (or a life at all) being a dependent of the coarsely independent. For all his carry-on, George Barker was ‘survival-bent’: it’s the others who did less well, without his resources or a full complement of his ‘nasty lucky genes’. We will not find ‘A Prayer to My Daughter’ among his collected works. But one of the pleasures of this memoir is to see how the work of Elizabeth Smart still thrives: it is heartening to witness Christopher Barker consort with his mother’s words and add a cool quantity of his own, finally getting a word in, one might say, in a conversation that cancelled the children too many times.