A Poke of Sweeties

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Death of the ‘Fronsac’ by Neal Ascherson
    Apollo, 393 pp, £18.99, August 2017, ISBN 978 1 78669 437 9

Coleridge’s favourite novelist, John Galt, had a gift for encapsulating disgrace under pressure, and his novels of small-town Scottish life are among the early masterpieces of British political fiction. After a life of robust colonial effort, during which he founded the Canadian city of Guelph, Galt – exhausted and impoverished – came back to Greenock and died there in 1839. He admits in his autobiography that Greenock wasn’t entirely the place for him. ‘I was never there in my element,’ he wrote, and ‘something of constraint environed me.’ He felt like a pre-person there, or a post-person, which isn’t quite the same thing as a non-person, but he knew he could never belong to the place in the way that the view of Ben Lomond did. ‘We hear,’ he wrote, ‘of many who seem changed by being removed from home. I am not, however, who think mankind ever undergo any alteration. Men are like the chameleon: they take a new colouring from the objects they are among: the reptile itself never alters either in shape or substance.’

The hero of Neal Ascherson’s magnificent novel is one of these complicated amphibians. He comes to Greenock a hundred years after Galt entered the town’s New Cemetery (now called the Old Cemetery) and he thinks of Greenock sometimes as home and at other times as a very foreign place. A Polish army major called Maurycy Szczucki, known as Mike or Shoosky, he is selected to come to Britain as a liaison officer attached to the French naval forces in Scotland. It’s the time of the Phoney War, but phoniness isn’t much admired in Greenock, then or now, and Shoosky soon becomes something of an awkward man of feeling amid the hard drinkers and morose skippers of the town. He is ‘homeless, stateless’ – the transplanted son of ‘small aristos with liberal ideas’ – but pitches up at the house of a very Scottish landlady with a fierce gift for regulating the breakfast tea. Mrs Melville is the mother of Johnston, a British army officer whose young wife, Helen, is scarcely good enough for her son. They have a child, Jackie, whose nervous disposition makes the rest of them look like Dumbarton Rock, and into this set-up the man from Poland arrives, expecting little.

It is a novel in which history keeps intruding on lives, as well it might, and where fiction keeps intruding on fact. On 30 April 1940, a French destroyer of the Vauquelin class, the Fronsac of the book’s title, stationed on the Clyde, is sunk by one of its own torpedoes. (Just as, in what we used to call reality, the French destroyer Maillé Brézé was sunk by her own torpedoes in Greenock on 30 April 1940.) From this fictionalised actual event a rich and expansive literary thriller develops: who and what caused the accident? Was it an accident? Ascherson drops ideas like depth-charges into the plot, and reflections come at the reader like sonar blips, bringing us closer to the odd lives and times of the characters, as well as the odd character of the time. These people are busy with belonging, busy with national cultures and their differences, and there are clashes that would never have been noted in the Cabinet War Rooms. It is a European novel of distinctive tensions, quite new to Scottish fiction, a pas de deux of the intensely local and the deeply international, as if Milovan Djilas had met Catherine Carswell at a works dance. At first we fear that Johnston Melville died on the Fronsac. Then we fear he didn’t. Initially we believe the British story that it was not sabotage. Then we believe the French story that it could have been nothing else. And Maurycy Szczucki, our unrelenting self-investigator, is propelled into new roles as accomplice, husband, useful idiot and prisoner, going from being an existential journeyman to a deep causal agent, lifting the lid on questions of love and loyalty as he goes. He may be a victim of the 20th century, but he is also one of its splendid creations, a man in league with his times, looking out for a vital connection.

Jackie, the child of the ill-fitting Melvilles, thinks she might have caused the explosion that killed her father. She left school early and put her key in the lock just as the boom was heard. Such connections, at least in the minds of children, make the world go round, but adults too can spend their lives indulging in fantasies of complicity. Our hero helps the newly widowed Helen Melville get to Liverpool for the journey to Canada – she winks at him from the train window; he cries as he walks down the platform – and he later imagines she must have died when a boat full of internees meant for Canada, the Selangor Star (surely inspired by the Arandora Star), is torpedoed out in the Atlantic. The question of personal responsibility haunts Ascherson’s novel, with everybody, including children, quick to persuade themselves that the world-historical evils around them can only have been caused by small things they themselves did or failed to do. Everybody has need of a new identity – a new start – but those who get one are seldom grateful.

Ascherson is the most talented journalist of his generation, the kind one can argue with on all sorts of matters, and grow with the argument. But one can’t argue with the elegance of his prose or with his powers of intellectual inflection, which bear new fruit in this novel. Journalists can’t write good novels unless they already have some bend in their imagination, as did Hemingway, Orwell and Joan Didion, towards self-excavation. The urge may hide itself, but you can see it in their language: the words don’t just arrive; they are bred in the bone and the actions they perform are specific to that writer. This is what we call style, and Ascherson’s best work has always had it. In The Death of the ‘Fronsac’, the sentences reveal characters within character, but they also carry history within sounds, which means that nothing on the page is without inner resources or resonance in the story. In the best journalism, there isn’t laziness but its opposite, the application of known quantities, but the novel asks for something else, something native and essential but unknown. Many fiction-writers, despite what they say, betray a little romance about the question of belonging, as they surely must, otherwise, like the opinion-writer, they will merely know the price of everything and the value of nothing. There may also be, in any novelist, including good journalists with the novelist’s mania, a certain passion for what can’t easily be said, and a zeal of conscience. In the better cases all this gathers itself rhythmically at the level of language. In the Greenock of Ascherson’s novel, people don’t look, they ‘keek’; people don’t cry, they ‘greet’; and children don’t yearn for a bag of sweets, but ‘a poke of sweeties’. When people get fired they get their ‘jotters’. When Maurycy performs the task that will draw him into possible collusion with someone he doesn’t like, he doesn’t go to the window to turn the latch, he ‘turned the snib’. This isn’t just local colour: the Polish officer has English as a second or third language, and the perfect use of ‘snib’ shows us something that has changed in him, over the years, not only in his affections or his habits, but in his conscience.

A journalist tussles with people who know things, but the novelist must reliably conjure with people who don’t. Ascherson set himself quite a test with this novel, because it is one in which many of the characters never truly know the whys and wherefores of what is going on. To make this work, the writer has not merely to choreograph the uncertainties, but to animate the minds of people who don’t know what they don’t know. If you’re Tolstoy, you can make this seem a breeze, but in fact it’s a feat of artistry, and the magic (for the reader) comes when she realises that all this incremental giving and withholding has resulted in the movement of a novel acting somehow like the weave of life itself. Our Polish hero is at the heart of a modern miasma: not only Poland and the Second World War, but the Soviet Union’s mistreatment of Poland before and after it. ‘All refugees need to be actors,’ he quotes Mrs Melville saying. ‘Foreign soldiers too, especially those whose homes and old lives had gone for ever, had a duty to invent new realities.’ Maurycy has the virtue of never being overly heroic or overly likeable – he’s weepy, indecisive, pale, and too charitable – but he has the internal dynamics of an actual person in a history that we think we know, but not like this. In some ways, Ascherson had created an existential Eastern European Untermensch who could almost have jumped ship from Graham Greene or Darkness at Noon, where men in uniform appear as ghosts. But the mood and its placement are really its own.

Some novelists wouldn’t dare to, and wouldn’t know how, but Ascherson must be credited for a quite vertiginous marrying of milieux. Though he doesn’t owe much of a debt to what I think of as the Clydeside novel, he does share with George Blake’s The Shipbuilders (1935), Edward Gaitens’s Dance of the Apprentices (1948) and Hugh Munro’s The Clydesiders (1961) a strong feeling for the life of the people who lived by the River Clyde during a time when it was recovering from its oft-cited role as the ‘workshop of the world’. Though Ascherson doesn’t make too much of it, there’s a sound in the novel of metal on metal, and the Clyde in these pages is a familiar place of endeavour and work and strong humour – familiar to me, anyhow, from growing up near there and hearing the songs of Glasgow and reading those small, realist novels by excellent Scottish writers, many of whom had seen active service. Ascherson’s novel finds a natural and very fresh place among them and he shares some of their instincts. Those Clydeside novels, like his, held to a sense of local decencies, a strange, old-fashioned notion that might seem curious now. ‘When the dance was over,’ Edward Gaitens writes in his best-known novel,

Neil asked her to come to the door for a breath of fresh air. It was a starry moonlit night flecked with thin racing clouds. Laura said she was tired and was going home. Neil did not propose to see her home but when she left him to get her things an unknown force impelled him in the direction of the gents’ cloak-room and few moments later he was walking, like a man in a dream, a dancing-pump in each overcoat pocket and his arm around Laura’s waist, along the towpath leading to Oatlands where Laura lived in Rowanglen Road.

You can almost sniff the tar in the air. You can almost hear the riveters’ gun and the risp of boots on the wet streets.

Ascherson’s Clydeside is more sophisticated, closer to movements in the great world, but he knows a poke of sweeties from a general display of confectionery. In time, Maurycy – now very much ‘Uncle Mike’ – meets Wisia, a woman he had known in Poland, the daughter of a reserve officer who disappeared into Katyn Forest and almost certain annihilation by the Red Army. Wisia is only 26 but the war has put years on her. She also has TB and the novel begins to revolve around the possibilities she and the narrator held for each other. He is shunted about, and the novel’s revolving doors of agents and old chums keep spinning, but in the long run Maurycy learns that he comes not so much from a country as from several configurations of brutality. He probably articulates it too well, but, by the end, we are ready to hear him give voice to what violence has done to his sense of national character:

I had no illusions about the brutality of Soviet power. I had no problem in believing that Russia would always be, as it had always been, the enemy of a truly independent Poland. But I was also convinced that the prewar regime in Poland – super-patriotic, super-conservative, blind – had been responsible for our national tragedy. Was there a slim chance to build a new nation which would be both democratic and strong? Would the Polish communists and Soviet masters agree to share power in the long term? In our officers’ mess nobody believed that. I wanted to believe it, but the evidence was against me. So I held my tongue.

He holds his tongue for a long time. And yet, in the holding of it, we come to know him, and the blowing up of the Fronsac begins to reveal itself as a horrible event that created and unravelled many lives, including the many lives people contain within themselves. There’s a war memorial at the top of many Scottish towns, and the novel shows us, in the old style, how the old men who gather there might have multiplicities not suggested by the poppy. Belongings are left behind; marriages end; the places people once doubted are found to be the best they had. This is the stuff of life and the stuff of novels that take an interest in life. There is also a tincture of something more modern and alien in Ascherson’s novel: everyone meets everyone again, until they don’t. Everyone is on her way to somewhere else, until that’s gone, too. In this context, Greenock comes to seems like a place that is finally knowable: a place that doesn’t admit of perfection but is firmly there on the map, a decent place to live. In that way the novel is a kind of love note to Scotland. Coming back one night from a dance and concert arranged by the ‘friends of Poland’ in a small town, Maurycy appears both to lose and to find himself on the dark walk home:

It was a friendly night, rich with country smells, and on the road I met an owl, a pair of whirling bats, two half-seen beasts plunging in the hedge which I thought were deer. Once I heard the rumble of many aircraft passing overhead until their sound died away towards the North Sea. As I tramped, I felt emptied and even happy, thinking of nothing but the noise of my boots as the miles went by.

There is no sentimentality in the air, just a sense that one can grow with a place, and establish a home there, even if the waters are grey and the rain unceasing. The joke may be that only a deracinated Pole could spend the Cold War basking in Greenock. But Europe is the dark backing on the mirror that allows us to look clearly into this novel: Europe is out there and fully animated in a way it too rarely is in contemporary British fiction, and the book reminded me, by and by, of those men I used to know on that coast who would study German and ‘keep up’ with Europe and never forget the ones that were also lost in the war.