Peroxide and Paracetamol

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Unexploded by Alison MacLeod
    Hamish Hamilton, 340 pp, £16.99, July 2013, ISBN 978 0 241 14263 9

Hindsight is the way we make sense of the world, and the events and impressions of the morning are reworked any number of times before evening, with the result that any historical novel is bound to be as processed as spray-on cheese. What makes a narrative come alive is the Stendhal touch, a flick of the tail that propels the reader up past the rapids to a pool where things haven’t happened yet and Waterloo is just a place name. Alison MacLeod’s new novel sets out to defamiliarise almost the opposite situation, an inevitable conflict that didn’t actually happen. Unexploded takes place in Brighton over the course of the year 1940-41, when an invasion by Hitler’s forces was universally expected and the town likely to be his first port of call.

MacLeod’s main characters are the Beaumonts: dependable Geoffrey, whose mother died in an asylum, so that he longs for a solid conventional life, and clever, arty Evelyn, in revolt against her oppressively snobbish parents. Her choice of Geoffrey, a bank manager, secured their disapproval, since he didn’t drink enough to fit in at her father’s club. The young couple’s decision to do without a live-in maid particularly scandalised her mother. Their son, Philip, has reached the grand old age of eight without being sent away to school (‘Think of the opportunities already lost,’ Evelyn’s mother laments), so it’s clear the rebellion continues. Now Geoffrey has been made superintendent of the camp that has taken over the town’s racecourse, where those who fit the description of ‘enemy aliens’ are interned. The head office of his bank has instructed personnel to disperse each branch’s cash holdings in the event of an invasion. He will be expected to take some of the money to a place of safety, travelling with four chosen men on military passes. As a precaution he has buried two hundred pounds in the garden, along with (as Evelyn discovers when she digs it up) two cyanide pills rather than the family photograph he thought it more tactful to mention.

From the characters’ point of view they are caught up in a desperate defiance of Hitler, but from the reader’s, necessarily, they are taking part in World War Two (1939-45), its end date fixed, its outcome known. It’s not easy to put aside our knowledge and inhabit their innocence. In The Stranger’s Child Alan Hollinghurst went to some trouble to shake the patronising certainty of retrospect, setting the first part of his novel before the First World War, the second part in the 1920s. Readers had to piece together what had happened in the interval, a lesser disruption than anything experienced by the characters, but preferable to being served up horrors on an orderly schedule unavailable at the time.

It can seem that MacLeod wants to enlarge the scope of hindsight rather than restrict it. A sentence like ‘It was to be the last Royal Pavilion Midsummer Ball until the peace’ holds out (from our point of view) a reasonable expectation of resumption, while for people at the time it meant the indefinite and very likely permanent suspension of the life they had known. When the first fifty-kilogramme bomb is dropped on the town, she adds: ‘Seven others would follow, whistling terror,’ but at the heart of the terror must have been not knowing how many more there would be.

Brighton’s sufferings were relatively mild, though there were many casualties when the town’s Odeon was bombed in September 1940 (MacLeod bases her description of the event on an account from the Mass Observation archive). There are bombs that need to be defused at a couple of points in the narrative, but this is not a major concern of the story – as it is for instance in Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room, published in 1943 and therefore (astonishingly) in print before the first flying bomb landed on London. None of the characters in Unexploded is bombed out of a home, which makes a passage like this one seem oddly abstract: ‘Imagine it. You are lifted from your bed even before you hear the blast. The walls of your house are sucked in – a full ten inches – before they are pushed back out by a blast wind that is, briefly, of hurricane force.’ The description goes on for another two pages, and is powerful, but would be much more so if it was rooted in a character’s point of view, less of a guided exercise in historical imagination.

What is really unexploded in the book isn’t a bomb but a more primitive mechanism, the English heart. Repressed emotions, flammable prejudices, these must be detonated in a controlled explosion to make the future safe: ‘A blast wave of the unsaid moved through the four walls, permeating every dovetail joint, every knot of wood, and every bubble and warp of the windowpanes.’ ‘We are broken,’ Geoffrey comes to understand, ‘by everything we cannot say.’ Even eight-year-old Philip experiences something of the kind:

A fuse of words was burning through his gut, up his throat and into his mouth.

At last it exploded: ‘I know where there’s a real Jew.’

The door blew off its hinges.

This means only that it was opened very quickly. Some passages are pitched at a higher rhetorical level: ‘There is no invasion as fearful as love, no havoc like desire. Its fuse trembles in the human heart and runs through to the core of the world. What are our defences to it?’ This fevered tone, unassigned to a point of view, would be more persuasive in a novel where actual invasion wasn’t being feared, and very sensibly, by all of the characters.

MacLeod’s understanding of fictional fair-dealing is set out in her acknowledgments:

While great care has been taken to create an authentic picture of the period and place, it is not always possible to serve the literary demands of a narrative and each historical fact in a single work. This novel features major and minor events from the period May 1940 to June 1941. This said, it should not be taken as an entirely accurate historical record of that year.

This seems reasonable. The past can legitimately be bent a little, to make a shape, but not broken.

There are wobbles early on, such as Geoffrey referring to gasoline rather than petrol, and it seems odd that Evelyn’s father could have been a lifelong tobacco-chewer without her mother seeming to notice the lower-class associations of the habit. Then Geoffrey reflects on Evelyn’s sensible treatment of his infected tooth with a peroxide gargle and some paracetamol: ‘The swelling in his cheek had gone down. The abscess must have burst in the night. A bit of penicillin, and he’d be human again.’ Human again perhaps, but no longer living in 1940. Penicillin had been known since 1928, but that didn’t mean it was available as a product – by June 1942 enough penicillin existed in America to treat just ten patients. Paracetamol was also known as a substance in 1940, but it wasn’t something found in the family medicine cabinet or available at a chemist’s. No literary demands are met by these departures from possibility. The past has been thinly imagined, without the doggedness of research that might make good the lack.

If Geoffrey and Evelyn are bombs waiting to explode they also have ideological abscesses that need to be drained. As their marriage unravels Evelyn wonders if ‘her own rot’ doesn’t run deeper than his. Belatedly she discovers that on the night they met, at the Midsummer Ball of 1926, immediately before they struck up conversation, he had bullied a Jewish guest. Now she wonders if she wasn’t obscurely aware of his state of mind, excited by nastiness before she was drawn to decency. Geoffrey’s anti-semitism is one of the few things that counted in his favour with her father. The young couple regularly listen to Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts, but doesn’t everybody? Geoffrey despises homosexuals, but this doesn’t exactly make him stand out, though the neutrality of his language – the lack of prejudice within his prejudice – is rather surprising. Evelyn is more accepting in her private thoughts, though she has never challenged his views: ‘What had happened to all the reprobates in town? … Where were the pretty boys and the men who walked the prom, their white socks flashing their code beneath the hems of their trousers? … Had Fear made good citizens of everyone?’ The answer to her question, in terms of subcultural history, would have to be no, since the war transformed gay men’s experience, with its double blessing of enforced troop mobility and all-forgiving blackout. It’s understandable, though, that the book should configure the darkly charged Other, the Other that must be embraced, exclusively in racial terms. It’s not enough for the Beaumonts to be taking part at their humble level in the struggle against Hitler. They must confront and overcome the demon of purity within themselves.

There would be something schematic about the way the novel propels each of them towards involvement with a Jewish lover even without the insistent counterpointing of their adventures:

Two weeks later, as husband and wife passed each other on Elm Grove, on opposite sides of the broad, tree-lined street, neither felt any peripheral tug of awareness. She was going uphill, and he, down. He didn’t glimpse the curve of a familiar brimmed hat or the particular tilt of a chin; she didn’t recognise a certain loping stride. Neither turned suddenly to stare or to call. ‘Evvie! Wherever are you going?’ ‘Geoffrey! Goodness! What on earth … ?’ Each walked on, in a tangle of private thought.

This is an alienating way of presenting narrative information – hard to call it a point of view when it’s so much the opposite of such a thing. MacLeod is fond of symmetrical formulations (‘Neither could have imagined the reality of the moment’, ‘she’d learned to feign pleasure and he’d learned to believe’) where neatness of patterning is allowed to take precedence over the subjectivity of the characters, their sense of uniqueness, however mistaken.

Geoffrey starts a sexual relationship with Leah, a refugee from Odessa by way of Poland, once a pianist, with a small son. ‘Are you a Jewess?’ is almost his first question, and she seems to indicate (‘You say …’) that it’s up to him. He pays her, and his first idea is to see if he can perform sexually with a stranger, after a string of failures with Evelyn. He can, but he learns to respond to her more deeply and to understand something of her life. Evelyn meanwhile, against Geoffrey’s wishes, starts reading aloud to the two prisoners in the camp’s makeshift infirmary. At first her concern is all with Mr Pirazzini the tailor, and she resents and despises the other man being treated, a sardonic German. Then after Pirazzini dies her attitude towards the other man begins to change. She continues making her visits with – as any reader of romantic fiction would expect – a growing emotional investment.

He is Otto Gottlieb, an artist whose work was suppressed by the Nazis. He was also tortured in Sachsenhausen, after being made to use his skills as a draughtsman to document sadistic ‘experiments’ carried out on children in the camp. A section in flashback explains how he fell foul of the authorities in the first place. Life seemed pretty good to Otto on the day after his first exhibition in the spring of 1937. The reviewer for the Berliner Morgenpost acclaimed his invention and technical bravura. ‘His parents rejoiced. His neighbours were amused. He was relieved beyond words.’ Then it all went wrong. The reviewer retracted his praise when it turned out that Otto wasn’t an accredited artist, and his paintings ended up in the famous Entartete Kunst exhibition before being burned.

This part of the story has clearly been researched – you don’t just make things up about the Third Reich – but not researched enough. The Nazi campaign against modern art wasn’t an ambush but a meticulously implemented policy. Otto’s exhibition is supposedly put on by a ‘small, avant-garde gallery’, just the sort of place that a lot of administrative effort had gone into making impossible. ‘It was only a matter of time [after the review] before the Culture Chamber took a devastating interest in his work.’ Hardly. The Culture Chamber was the channel through which art was controlled, was displayed or was not. That was the whole point of it. And the 1937 exhibition (selected from public holdings, so Otto’s work wouldn’t have qualified) may be the best known, but similar shows had been put on in regional museums under titles like ‘Chamber of Horrors of Art’ or ‘Abomination Exhibition’ since 1933. An artist who in 1937 attempted to exhibit paintings of synagogues and ‘Hungarian women in their Shabbat shawls, shpitzels and aprons’ wouldn’t just have been unworldly but someone with a death wish, whose parents would not rejoice, whose neighbours would not be amused. Otto seems not to have noticed that in September 1935, being Jewish, he had lost German citizenship.

Why was Otto regarded as an enemy alien, if he had been in Sachsenhausen? Because he had been given counterfeit British banknotes and had used them, having nothing else to live on. This would be a workable plot mechanism, except that counterfeiting at Sachsenhausen didn’t start till 1942. This isn’t an obscure area of knowledge, at least since the 2007 film The Counterfeiters, and advancing a major Nazi initiative like Operation Bernhard by a couple of years exceeds the little latitude permitted to the historical novelist.

When Otto is released from the Brighton camp he gets a job painting a fresco in a church. Here MacLeod requisitions an episode from the career of the German émigré artist Hans Feibusch (1898-1998), who painted murals at St Wilfrid’s, Brighton and St Elisabeth’s, Eastbourne (his commission for St Wilfrid’s, over three walls like Otto’s, was painted in 1940-41). Feibusch’s work really was included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937, though the man himself had left Germany in 1933. He was a Christian convert, which made it easier for George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (who in the novel less plausibly commissions the unbeliever Otto), to give him work. Feibusch painted directly on the walls of the two churches, but didn’t attempt actual fresco, as Otto does, a crazy enterprise for someone with no experience and no one to assist. Otto gives Evelyn a rundown of the work that is involved, right up to ‘some tempura work for the finer detail at the end’ – an unfortunate slip, tempura being the Japanese style of batter, usually made without egg, tempera the artistic medium that requires it. But at least after its various excursions into impossibility Unexploded is back on the safe novelistic ground of the unlikely.