Darkness and so on and on

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
    Doubleday, 477 pp, £18.99, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 385 61867 0

Kate Atkinson is in no danger of prosecution for misrepresenting goods. Life after Life does exactly what it says on the spine of the book, offering a number of versions of the life of Ursula Todd, born in 1910. These lives aren’t exactly alternatives: it’s unclear what happens to the (very slightly) variant worlds when she dies in them, but then how would this information be conveyed? It’s a religious problem more than one of narrative technique. At some points, though, Ursula sacrifices herself for others, which would be an empty act if the world she was leaving ceased to exist.

The cosmology is opaque, just the same. If, say, Ursula assassinates Hitler before he comes to power, all she has done is to create a single world (among the infinite number) in which Nazism sputters out – unless this version of reality overwrites the previous ones like a computer file when the save button is pressed. The important thing for the character is her belief that she can make a real and lasting difference. It’s the writer’s job to make this enough for the reader too.

Ursula doesn’t necessarily remember the details of her past lives, but is given warning of potential crisis by a sensation of déjà vu attaching to particular times and places. She resembles an epileptic alerted by distortions of aura to the imminence of a fit. Her experience of déjà vu is known to her parents. They send her to a Harley Street psychiatrist who has studied the new mind science in Vienna (not many of those on Harley Street in the early 1920s, with the British Medical Association not officially recognising psychoanalysis until 1929). The topics of discussion with Dr Kellet aren’t narrowly therapeutic (though he mentions the possibility of a neurological flaw) but include reincarnation in Buddhist thought, amor fati and becoming who you are, as recommended by Pindar.

On the practical level, Ursula learns to intervene. It would be asking too much for her to disentangle her own newborn neck from the umbilical cord, but in other, less truncated versions of her life she shapes events at a young age. ‘Practice makes perfect’ – one of the refrains of the book. It takes her several goes (several deaths and new beginnings) before she succeeds, aged eight, in preventing Bridget the housemaid from going up to London for the Armistice celebrations at a time of mass infection. It’s like a GCSE module (Not Dying in, or Losing Family Members to, the Influenza Pandemic) that Ursula can retake any number of times until the result is satisfactory.

Ursula practises a sort of invisible mending on the family’s fate-cloth, sometimes performing her darning more widely. She learns to forestall the murder of a neighbour, Nancy Shawcross, who if her survival can be contrived will make the ideal mate for one of Ursula’s brothers. It’s hard to remember everything, though, and at least once she uses her knowledge of time and space to bump into a handsome local boy instead, forgetting to save Nancy from rape and strangulation. Darn! Darn again! Practice makes perfect.

Most fiction about tampering with history (since at least Ray Bradbury’s story ‘A Sound of Thunder’, published in 1952) places a lot of emphasis on unintended consequences. Chaos theory as popular culture imagines it, in The Butterfly Effect or the Back to the Future films, is more concerned with spiralling anomalies than any sort of balance. In Life after Life the neglect of Nancy is a rare failure of watchfulness, a dropped stitch rather than an irreversible unravelling. Nothing is beyond repair – but nothing is fixed in perpetuity.

Reality is resistant stuff even when you have a special ability to manipulate it. There’s a suggestion that Ursula’s character is shaped by past incidents even when they don’t recur directly. In one life she is sexually forced at the age of 16 by a young American visitor to her home. She gets pregnant and has an abortion, in a well-appointed and professional clinic that seems at least as unusual for its time (though in Belgravia rather than Harley Street) as the psychiatrist she was sent to earlier. Her sense of disgrace and damage leads her into an abusive marriage that she might otherwise have avoided – as she will next time round, not by refusing the marriage but by forestalling the assault, nipping her possible abusive future not just in the bud but in the seed. Yet her sexual choices in the next version are distinctly defensive: a liaison with a married man, guaranteed not to get out of hand, and a friendship, carrying only the most moderate romantic charge, with a fellow student on her German course. It’s as if her behaviour is being shaped by residual trauma. She has a secondary vulnerability, like a passive smoker’s, that is real nevertheless.

In the rape-abortion-abusive-marriage life she becomes an alcoholic, though this doesn’t seem to leave a hangover in later lives, where she can indulge in the occasional Dubonnet, even a nice bottle of Burgundy at the weekend, without losing her equilibrium. She takes the alcohol dependency to the grave with her, or rather (since graves seem to be irrelevant) she doesn’t take it to the next cradle.

It’s after Ursula has experienced for herself the end of the war in Berlin that she takes the decision to assassinate Hitler before he can become Chancellor. The moment of her death in 1945 seems to be a moment of particular insight. In a ruined Berlin, she decides to kill herself and her daughter (it’s the only timeline in which she becomes a mother). This must surely be a turning point: ‘She had never chosen death over life before and as she was leaving she knew that something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed.’ A few more lifetimes of wartime suffering go by, spent living through the Blitz, before she takes matters into her own hands:

German, not the Classics, and afterwards a course in shorthand and typing … membership of a local shooting club and an application for an office job somewhere, working for a while, salting money away – nothing untoward. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself, she would heed her father’s advice, although he hadn’t given it to her yet, she would keep her head below the parapet and her light under a bushel. And then, when she was ready, she would have enough to live on while she embedded herself deep in the heart of the beast, from whence she would pluck out the black tumour that was growing there, larger every day.

Ursula isn’t the first fictional character to train for a supernaturally revealed task. The hero of John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, for instance, must master a particular basketball shot in order to fulfil his destiny by saving a group of children. It may be that the literary form best suited to dramatising forks in the road, paths taken and not taken, isn’t the novel at all but the short story, with its particular affinity for turning points. Certainly Roald Dahl’s story ‘Genesis and Catastrophe’ plays its game with the death of Hitler idea very elegantly.

Ursula Todd must build up a more complex portfolio of skills than Owen Meany, moving to Munich and cultivating contacts in the photographic studio where in due course Eva Braun will get work. Yet after only one assassination she changes her approach, as if a single act of pre-emptive justice has expiated the horror of her suicide pact with her daughter. This, though, is to inhabit the fantasy more fully than it can stand. Owen Meany can sacrifice himself for those children once and for all, but according to the cosmology that has been devised for Life after Life even martyrdom is provisional. Ursula might as well try to sign her name in a bowl of soup. The reason that Ursula doesn’t kill Hitler for good is that, according to the novel’s rules of engagement, it’s out of the question for her to do so. Hitler could stay dead only if Ursula made the same choices for ever, turning her life into the equivalent of a locked groove and the book into an impossible object. Psychology doesn’t come into it – and it isn’t just the character who has painted herself into a corner.

Like any other novel, Life after Life negotiates its relationship with readers by way of detail. There’s a need for particular vividness and authority since what is being constructed isn’t monumental architecture but stage scenery, liable to be struck or at least made over at short notice the next time Ursula dies (‘Darkness fell,’ ‘Darkness fell swiftly, at first an enemy, but then a friend,’ ‘Darkness, and so on’ and so on). Even early in the book, where events repeat more or less exactly, there are off notes. Hugh and Sylvie, Ursula’s parents, move after their marriage into a house near Beaconsfield, ‘vaguely Lutyens in style’. They decide the house needs a name, which seems odd in itself since they aren’t the first occupiers and so a name would have been needed already, for the benefit of postmen and the local authority if no one else. Still, ‘the previous owner of their unnamed house had sold up and gone to live in Italy.’ They consider various names before Sylvie suggests ‘Fox Corner’. Hugh isn’t convinced. ‘It’s a little whimsical, isn’t it? It sounds like a children’s story. The House at Fox Corner.’ In fact the only reason it might sound like a children’s story is the echo of The House at Pooh Corner – a pre-echo, since Milne’s book was published many years later. It’s as if outright anachronism has been corrected at the last minute, at the cost of leaving the sense in tatters. Sylvie gets her way, and Fox Corner it is.

Dr Fellowes, who delivers Ursula in many timelines, feels entitled to refreshment after Sylvie’s labour. ‘Perhaps a little cold collation wouldn’t go amiss,’ he says. ‘Is there, by chance, any of Mrs Glover’s excellent piccalilli?’ How does the doctor know about the excellence of Mrs Glover’s piccalilli? It’s the sort of question that the detective (Belgian or otherwise) asks in the last chapter of a whodunnit. Mrs Glover has only been with the family for ‘a few weeks’, and piccalilli needs months to mature. This may only be an authorial slip-up, or it could be a way of signalling that Dr Fellowes too is on a treadmill of reincarnations and is therefore able to remember things he hasn’t yet experienced. The balance of probabilities favours the slip-up theory – unless Hugh Todd is in the same metaphysical boat, and remembers The House at Pooh Corner from a previous life.

The big idea of the novel, if that’s what it is, can’t be expected to explain itself, but it can shyly aspire to consistency. Ursula assumes that she’s unique in her privileges and responsibilities, but perhaps everyone has these multiple lives (though it’s rather odd that they run in sequence), and what makes her special is actually the incompleteness of her forgetting. So for instance Hugh’s irresponsible sister Izzie runs off to the Continent some time before Ursula’s birth and has a baby in Germany which she gives up for adoption. This German cousin kicks his heels on the substitutes’ bench for hundreds of pages. In timelines where Ursula travels to Germany it seems likely that he will be sent on to play his part, but he only puts in an appearance in the last fifty pages of the book, in a version of reality according to which Izzie gives birth at Fox Corner instead, and Sylvie raises her son. Other hinted-at possibilities (for instance that Sylvie is unfaithful) never earn their moment in the narrative’s spotlight.

It seems settled that Ursula is the only one to carry the conscious-destiny-mutation gene. It’s not as if there’s any shortage of awkwardness, in terms of worldview and story construction, with the set-up at its simplest. Then near the end of the book there’s a scene (one of the recurrent nativities) in which Ursula is again strangled by the umbilical cord. There’s no doctor or midwife to help. But this time Sylvie opens the drawer of her bedside table and produces a pair of surgical scissors.

Snip, snip.

Practice makes perfect.

So Sylvie also has the gene! Perhaps, even, that’s how Ursula comes by it. This can hardly qualify as a twist, since it’s the same twist with which the book began – and that’s the whole problem. A twist in the tail is all very well. A twist in the nose is never going to work.

*

Having one chance is the norm. To get a second chance is a rare privilege, though it’s the basis of almost every sentimental film ever made. To have a million chances, without any of them able to reach finality, is to be in hell. It’s odd that Atkinson doesn’t seem to see this, as she and her heroine doggedly churn through the possibilities. The writers of Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin (Ramis also directed), made it more or less the basis of their film. Bill Murray’s Phil is a sour narcissist trapped in a recurring day, able to act without restraint but knowing that he’ll wake up on the second of February again whatever he does or doesn’t do. In some way it can only be a punishment. He behaved as if he was the only real person in existence, and is now chastised by its becoming the truth. Everyone else in town follows a script. He can write one, but how is that a privilege if there’s no audience to share it with and he has to go on writing it for ever? His ordeal is Dantean in its own way, but it’s also constructed on the lines of a video game, so that as he goes on living his endless February-the-seconds Phil learns shortcuts and keys to higher levels in the long search for a way out.

The difficulty, shared with Life after Life, is the looming impossibility of a satisfactory ending, given that the premise of the game rules out any such thing. The film can hope to leave people happy by entertaining them so fully that wish fulfilment is finally nodded through. That isn’t on the cards for the novel. A film is like a train, it has momentum. Hundreds of unseen people – lighting technicians, constructors of sets, make-up artists – give it the impact of reality. A novel is different. A novel is a bicycle, and readers must pedal.

The recent film version of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas gave a vivid demonstration, almost a bullet-point presentation, of how differently narrative works in the two media. The book presents the reader with a number of openings, which break off without explanation. Readers who persevere (and there are many who don’t) discover that there are internal resonances and references between stories apparently scattered across genres. The vulnerability of the whole is that two of the six strands – a 1970s noir thriller and a black comedy about a publisher on the run – are unsatisfying, planned to fill out the pattern and executed without flair. But after the halfway point the structural satisfactions become unexpectedly intense, with each narrative completing itself and modifying the others. The film (written by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer) drops the Russian doll principle of construction, braiding the stories together from the beginning. For the first half, this cinematic version seems to have all the advantages, but after that the theme of universal connectedness, lightly touched on in the book, becomes dull and hectoring. A little eternal return goes a long way. If everything comes around in time, why care about anything in particular?

Life after Life isn’t hard going compared to the book of Cloud Atlas, much less of a strain on the mental leg muscles. The gradient of the prose isn’t steep, but the thigh-taxing effort of tackling even quite small narrative hills is made daunting by the knowledge that sooner or later we’ll be back at sea level. There is never going to be any free-wheeling in the reading because there will never be any downhill.

In every area of the book Atkinson has a strong idea of what she doesn’t want, but doesn’t know how to avoid it. Having an unlimited number of chances to get things right sounds like a description of the writing process, but you wouldn’t know it from these pages. Despite a steady supply of literary references and quotations that suggest high standards (Mann, Conrad, Forster, Shakespeare, both Eliots, Colette, Dante, James, Ibsen, Shaw, Proust, Shelley, Burke, Milton) her sentences are generally lethargic. Here’s some of Sylvie’s back story: ‘They sank into genteel and well-mannered poverty. Sylvie’s mother grew pale and uninteresting, larks soared no more for her as she faded, consumed by consumption.’ ‘Well-mannered’ adds nothing to ‘genteel’. ‘Pale and uninteresting’ tweaks the formula ‘pale and interesting’, removing in the process the faint residual piquancy that was all it had going for it. The allusion to larks soaring refers, bizarrely, to Sylvie’s mother euphemistically informing her about the sexual act, in terms of ‘larks soaring at daybreak’. ‘Consumed by consumption’ isn’t any sort of play on words but a tautology – tuberculosis got that name because sufferers seemed to be consumed by it. Language isn’t being woken from sleep here but encouraged to doze on, with a tender adjustment of pillows.

A heroine who, like Ursula, aggregates an unusual range of experience across her many lifetimes calls for a wide social responsiveness on the part of the writer, but a number of the excursions seem very unreal. When Ursula goes to bed with a working-class man she knew in her childhood, now (wartime) a train driver, there are references to Donne, to Keats, to Bach, to Marvell and inevitably to Lawrence, and the sense of being out of her depth doesn’t seem to be the character’s alone.

The Second World War changes life at Fox Corner, but not all that much. Sylvie takes in two boys displaced from their homes, Barry and Bobby, and Ursula notices that though Sylvie treats them well they aren’t regarded as individuals. Everyone but Sylvie refers to them simply as ‘the evacuees’, ‘as if they were entirely defined by their status’. All the same, they aren’t given any individual history or developed as characters. While Sylvie calls them ‘my two busy bees’, Ursula promotes them to the level of mammals: ‘If they had been dogs their tails would have been constantly wagging.’ But they have no story of their own. And all this would have been fine, passing for normal middle-class blindness, if the narrative hadn’t flagged up its nervousness so strongly.

*

The war in Europe is a more serious subject. It can be approached from this side of the Channel by way of persons more grievously displaced than evacuees: refugees, for instance. ‘“I also have some records,” Mrs Appleyard said with the earnestness of a conspirator. “But, alas, no gramophone.” Mrs Appleyard’s “alas” seemed freighted with all the tragedy of a broken continent. It could hardly bear the weight it was asked to carry.’ Who or what is asking the word to take on so much weight, if not the narrative voice that also doubts its ability to bear it?

The Continental tragedy can also be considered by the book’s characters at close hand, in the timelines where Ursula sees Nazism on the rise. Sylvie, on a visit, makes blinkered comments whose inadequacy is very obvious. She’s an example of how not to respond to a world crisis in the making, ‘But what do they see in him?’ she asks. As the crowds go wild with excitement, she says: ‘Am I the only one to be unmoved? What is it, do you suppose – mass hysteria of some kind?’ Sylvie has wanted to see for herself ‘what all the fuss is about’, though she sees nothing when it’s right in front of her. The narrative voice editorialises smoothly: ‘How very British of Sylvie to reduce the Third Reich to a “fuss”.’ Comedy is deployed on this rare occasion to reinforce the point: ‘The street was a forest of red, black and white. “Their colours are very harsh,” Sylvie said, as though she were considering asking the National Socialists to decorate her living room.’

If Sylvie is so clearly being signalled as blind to the reality of Nazism, then Ursula’s response must be in contrast to it. She lives in Germany, after all. But her reactions seem very similar. In the conversation about mass hysteria, she suggests that it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes: ‘We’re the only ones who can see the naked man.’ ‘The Reich, Ursula had concluded a long time ago, was all pantomime and spectacle.’ Landscape plays a part: ‘German Romanticism, it seemed to Ursula, was writ large and mystical, the English Lakes seemed tame by comparison. And the English soul, if it resided anywhere, was surely in some unheroic back garden – a patch of lawn, a bed of roses, a row of runner beans.’

Her many previous lives have taught her a fair bit about the world, so she can spot something about Eva Braun that others may miss, a psychological deficiency she has noticed before – in the neighbour Nancy Shawcross’s sister. ‘There was something of Millie in Eva – a restless, empty gaiety that needed continual feeding.’ She uncovers a dark truth by parochial analogy, in the manner of Miss Marple. Fox Corner is always the yardstick:

Watching [Hitler] holding Eva’s hand while humming along to Lehar, Ursula was struck by how ordinary (even silly) he was, more Mickey Mouse than Siegfried. Sylvie would have made short work of him. Izzie would have eaten him up and spat him out. Mrs Glover – what would Mrs Glover have done, Ursula wondered? This was her new favourite game, deciding how the people she knew would have dealt with the Nazi oligarchs. Mrs Glover, she concluded, would probably have beaten them all soundly with her meat hammer. (What would Bridget do? Ignore him completely probably.)

The verdict is clear: no sensible Englishwoman (and Izzie isn’t even sensible) would fall for what elsewhere Ursula calls the Führer’s ‘hogwash’.

Years later, with the pantomime spectacle of the Reich falling apart, starving in Berlin, wondering if being two floors up, with the staircase partially blocked, will deter the Russians when they finally arrive on their rampage of rape and brutality, she soothes her sick daughter, Frieda, with stories of ‘another world’. ‘She told her about the bluebells in spring in the wood near Fox Corner, about the flowers that grew in the meadow beyond the copse – flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion and ox-eye daisies. She told her about the smell of new-mown grass from an English summer lawn.’

There’s cosiness here even in extremity. Englishness is a resource that can never run out. There’s nothing to set beside the moment in Sebastian Faulks’s ‘novel in five parts’, A Possible Life, published last year, when the consolation available to the hero from his past is finally exhausted: ‘He stuffed pieces of straw and paper into his ears to cut out the noises of Bedlam and turned to his memories of living. That night, nothing of England would come to him: no river, almshouse or cricket ground. It was these places that had now taken on the vague outlines of something he had dreamed.’

A Possible Life has its own light dusting of the eternal return, more conspicuous in the cover copy (‘Every atom links us/Every feeling binds us/Every thought connects us’) than in the text itself. It could have been written before Cloud Atlas, but it might not have been considered publishable before the success in the marketplace of that composite narrative. Luckily the asymmetrical integrity of A Possible Life dispels the suspicion that writers can now stitch together not quite successful manuscripts from the bottom drawer with contrasting New Age thread and pass them off as organic wholes. Faulks and Mitchell may imply some sort of immortality in their novels, but they administer the transcendent tincture with a homoeopath’s gingerly approach to titration. More than a drop of this anomalous essence and the engine of narrative loses traction.

Narrative needs some form of necessity. A writer who dispenses with necessity is like a householder knocking down load-bearing walls to create a lighter, airier interior. The usual form necessity takes is a plot, but it’s possible to have a plot full of incidents (murder, rape, abortion, abuse, tyrannicide) without necessity, which is what happens in Life after Life, and it’s also possible to have necessity without a formal plot. Metamorphosis doesn’t have plot, exactly. It’s enough that Gregor Samsa must live his life as an insect. If everything will be redeemed or can be mended then nothing matters, or everything matters, which in this context amounts to the same thing. It’s hard for a novel whose basic premise makes consequences conditional to be anything but inconsequential in its own right. The stakes are lowered rather than raised, and fiction risks putting itself out of a job.