A Taste for the Obvious

Brian Dillon

  • The Escape by Adam Thirlwell
    Cape, 322 pp, £16.99, August 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 08911 1

The Escape is Adam Thirlwell’s third book. His first novel, Politics, was published in 2003 and won some acclaim for its energetic smut and (less frequently) for its alternately faux-naif and overreaching prose. He followed it in 2007 with Miss Herbert, a vagrant disquisition on the nature of style in the novel that had the feel of a lot of flashy undergraduate essays determinedly tacked together to make a passably book-like structure. But the source material was smart enough (it was often very clever indeed) to make this seem a project perversely worth pursuing. The book enraged so many middling and middle-aged reviewers – some of whom actually took Thirlwell to task for the crime of being young – that one badly wanted to warm to its refreshingly callow, hectoring and capacious take on the history of fiction. Sadly, Miss Herbert was not what it seemed, and over the long (600-page) haul Thirlwell’s mild nostrums about the primacy of world over word, story over sentence, often undermined his formal ambitions and traduced his declared admiration for stylists such as Flaubert and Nabokov.

Something of the same disparity between fizzing surface and still depths is evident in The Escape, Thirlwell’s second novel. His earlier style is for the most part intact, which is to say that it remains conflicted: lurching between seemingly sincere aphorisms and tricksy interjections that suggest (or do they?) that those moral, metaphysical and historical aperçus are not to be trusted, that his narrator is in fact a pretentious and immature fantasist. The most obvious stylistic hangover from the first two books is Thirlwell’s stubbornly flat insistence on repeating elements of a sentence in close proximity, like Warhol silkscreens. The pretended erudition is still extant too, and apparently (even admirably) designed to infuriate the ill-read reviewer: Thirlwell appends a list of authors from whom, more or less accurately and overtly, he has quoted in the text.

We shall have to return to all of the above formal paraphernalia, and especially to the provenance of this last trick, which points to a taste for the 20th-century avant-garde that all three of Thirlwell’s books have insisted on without themselves exhibiting all that much by way of experimental or even minimally metafictional tendencies – this despite some critics’ continued belief that the problem with Thirlwell is his gauche excitement at the confectionary pleasures of a belated postmodernism. If only. Quite the most peculiar thing about The Escape, at least to begin with, is rather to be found at the level of plot and character. For his new novel Thirlwell has turned, surprisingly, to the conventional if contested motif of the elderly sybarite – best known from the fiction of Philip Roth and John Updike – whose declining sexual picaresque is set against historical or social forces which leave the ageing roué flummoxed and rueful. The Escape, or rather its protagonist, evinces a worldview that is best described as aspirant Rothdike: all raging self-justification and would-be poetic observation of the world one is about to abdicate.

The novel’s randy but decrepit hero is Raphael Haffner, aged 78: a retired London banker whose wife has recently died. We first encounter him inside a wardrobe in a hotel room at an Alpine resort, watching a young couple having sex. In a set-piece inversion of the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, it is in this case the morally dubious old goat who watches from the dark as his beloved young Zinka (a ballet dancer turned yoga teacher whom he has only recently met) is clumsily ravished by her boyfriend Niko. It is just the first of several erotic entanglements – some engineered, others inadvertent – through which Haffner ekes out the time he ought to be spending wrapping up his wife’s inheritance. It seems that he has spent his adult life in pursuit of ‘the women’ (the definite article here doing away with definition), and he does not intend to stop now. As the anonymous narrator remarks of the scene in the hotel room: ‘It was an imbroglio. He would admit that much. But at least it was an imbroglio of Haffner’s making.’

Haffner is Jewish, but has long believed only – so the young narrator, a friend of Haffner’s, reports – in ‘a minor sect of one’. Though he will admit to feeling British among Jews and Jewish elsewhere, Haffner has contrived mostly to ignore the problems of collective identity, religious or national, that have convulsed his century. Not so his wife, whose parents died at Buchenwald in 1944 and whose family home – a villa stolen first by the Nazis, then by the Soviets, lastly by a Czech microchip company – Haffner has at length come to reclaim. At his hotel he meets Zinka, who condescends to let the adoring old creep kiss one soapy knee, and Frau Tummel, a disgruntled and lusty matron who swiftly and unaccountably falls in love with him. Various capers ensue, in cod-Nabokovian style. Zinka, strolling by the lake, discovers Haffner reluctantly skinny-dipping with Frau Tummel, who later finds herself locked in his bathroom while Haffner, unable to stop himself, watches his Slavic nymph masturbate on his hotel bed.

The novel sketches a familiar image of Eastern Europe towards the end of the 20th century: a mythical ‘Bohemia’ turned violent and acquisitive after the fitful sleep of the Soviet era. Haffner falls in with various shady individuals who announce they can expedite his claim on the villa in the face of officious and anti-semitic authorities. (Haffner’s hotel masseur, who treats him to a sleepy handjob, turns out to be a local fixer and crook.) But the real drama in The Escape is internal: despite Haffner’s half-hearted efforts at self-examination and his gradual realisation that he cannot free himself from the patterns of his serially unfaithful life and truly become the sexually liberated being he would like to be, love (or its mawkish Haffnerian variant) keeps intruding. Neither, it seems, can he flee the history that he has done his best to bracket out of his high-flying career and lowdown private life; he finds himself at the heart of a Europe whose rages he has never understood, and troubled by the presence of his grandson, Benjamin, who has embraced the Jewish heritage to which he himself has always affected a bemused indifference.

All of this is somewhat crudely framed by the novel’s narrator, who never lets a telling binary go by without fixing it for the reader too starkly. Here he is on the old libertine who is unmanned by sentiment: ‘Haffner’s deepest wish was to possess the total independence of a mad imperator; a classical god. But the stern line of Haffner’s cruelty was always complicated by the kink of his kindness.’ On the tenacity of his past: ‘So often, he wanted to give up, and elope from his history. The problem was in finding the right elopee. He only had Haffner. And Haffner wasn’t enough.’ And on his involvement with Frau Tummel: ‘Haffner’s happiness must always be subject to swift reversals.’ So far so helpfully schematic, but the question is whether such interjections are to be read as transparent statements of the state of affairs, or as evidence of the narrator’s naive faith in a certain moral seesaw effect, his keenness to reduce complex history and psychology to a simple narrative structure of flight and fall.

The narrator certainly seems to have a taste for the obvious. Haffner, for example, is made to recall a story told by a friend, Goldfaden (with whom his wife, Livia, had an inconclusive affair), concerning his relatives’ murder by the Nazis. As a child, Goldfaden’s uncle, Eli, had fled a transport from the Warsaw Ghetto and the family he left behind had all perished. It is, on first hearing, an anecdote about ‘the grand bravery of refusing to act in the way you were supposed to act’. But to Haffner’s mind, ‘Eli’s escape from the Ghetto was also a desertion.’ The narrator concurs – in certain cases, ‘if someone takes flight, then their escape is just a desertion’ – and then elaborates: ‘Yes, the whole vocabulary of flight is puritanical. So every act of desertion is also an act of hedonism.’ The Escape is full of such moments: the narrator pummelling home a point that has already been adequately made, as though he (or the author) is unsure of its import or his power of persuasion.

Something similar happens at the level of the sentence, where odd repetitions and redundancies are the norm. In a typical instance, Haffner realises that Frau Tummel is in love with him: ‘So ended, in one swift exchange, the swift moment of Haffner’s happiness.’ The effect is sometimes precisely the one called for, registering a kind of punctilious resignation. More often the repetition is of Haffner’s name, and the result more dispiriting than dispirited. When it’s used in the novel’s chapter titles – ‘Haffner Interrupted’, ‘Haffner Banished’, ‘Haffner Delinquent’ – this tic is no doubt meant to put one in mind of Updike, while its deployment in the text itself is often a matter of asserting the character’s self-mythologising habits: ‘Haffner Unbound! But there were other Haffners too – Haffner Pensive, Haffner Abandoned.’ But such is the rash of Haffners – ‘as Viko tended to Haffner’s penis, Haffner’s phone began to ring’ – that one starts to suspect it is not just the narrator who only half-believes in his protagonist.

This linguistic unease is something of a handicap in a novel that is so avowedly in thrall to writers its narrator keeps gauchely referring to as his ‘masters’. (Channelling both Tolstoy and Nabokov, he muses: ‘All photo albums are unhappy, in the words of the old master, in their own particular way.’) It manifests especially in a tendency to decorate a perfectly felicitous metaphor with unnecessary qualifiers, as when Haffner, at his hotel, passes the ‘coiled roulade’ of a fire hose; the narrator’s novelist heroes would have left the ‘roulade’ alone, not given it the extra twist of ‘coiled’. Similarly this, on Haffner’s ageing body: ‘still a pincushion for the multicoloured plastic arrows of the victorious kid-god’, whom we do not then need to be told is called Cupid. Sentences like these are of a piece with the narrator’s oddly awkward way with an extended simile. Haffner is ‘transformed into the sign for a smile: a single reclining parenthesis’; a few sentences later, ‘the sign for Haffner was no longer a supine parenthesis,’ a piece of elegant variation that does nothing for the logic of the image.

If lighting on such details seems pedantic, I do it not to disparage Thirlwell’s prose, which is often vivid and funny, but to remark the strangeness of his narrator. This ‘friend’ of the protagonist’s tells us that he was born 60 years after Haffner, and that they have occasionally met naked at a gym, their ‘penises dolefully looking away’, the narrator regretting the old man’s superior musculature. The story is being told, more than ten years later, by a young man of questionable honesty, peculiarly impressed by the erotic attitudinising of an almost-octogenarian and by the quotable gobbets of Western literature that he seems to think add gravitas to his tale. At the same time, he allows himself a very slight playfulness at the level of narrative self-consciousness, coaxing the reader to ‘look closer’ or announcing: ‘I’m not quite in the mood for Haffner, and his confusions. Instead, I am into the different confusions of Zinka.’ (Though it has to be said he’s not as ‘into’ Zinka as he claims: the character barely registers as more than an adventurous playmate.) Thirlwell’s narrator, in other words, badly wants to be the kind of novelist – Saul Bellow, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Mann are among those he quotes, according to the postscript – who could make Literature out of the thin delusions of a reprobate like Haffner.

Unless, of course, it is Thirlwell who wants to be that novelist, in which case The Escape is a different sort of book: a mystifying and frustrating one. A glimpse of the novel it might have been is actually to be found in the postscript that has so maddened many reviewers. On the face of it, a list of quoted sources that one may or may not have spotted in the text looks like a calculated affront to the average reader. In fact – and this might not improve matters for some – the ploy and the precise opening words of the postscript are borrowed from the end of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, which suggests (along with certain of the names in the list: Sterne, Kafka, Mallarmé, Brecht, Groucho Marx) that Thirlwell has it in him to become a more rigorously playful novelist than he has so far been. It’s a mystery to me why a writer with such tastes, who has spent a good deal of his time so far arguing (both in the voice of his novels and the form if not the manifest argument of Miss Herbert) for a self-conscious and intellectually lusty sort of fiction, should seem at times to be trying so hard to be another kind of writer: a novelist of dully weighty thematics, lightly embellished with delicious phrasing and bathetic sexual capers.