- Soor Hearts by Robert Alan Jamieson
Paul Harris, 166 pp, £6.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 86228 072 9
- The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon
Hodder, 240 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 340 33228 X
- Cathedral by Raymond Carver
Collins, 230 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 00 222790 8
- The Cannibal Galaxy by Cynthia Ozick
Secker, 162 pp, £7.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 436 35483 7
- The Collected Works of Jane Bowles introduction by Truman Capote
Peter Owen, 476 pp, £10.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 7206 0613 6
- Let it come down by Paul Bowles
Peter Owen, 318 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 7206 0614 4
domingo, 30 de janeiro de 2011
Other Things by J.I.M. Stewart
An inexpert but frequently impressive first novel, Soor Hearts is set in Shetland in the early years of this century. Magnus Doull, having sailed before the mast for ten years, returns to the fishing village from which he had fled under suspicion of having murdered Thomas Pole. Nearly everyone believes him guilty, since the two young men had been seen to quarrel. Both had been drinking heavily for a fortnight, and when Pole was found ‘with his head crushed under a fearful blow’ Doull took fright and bolted from the island. Whether or not it was he who killed Pole, he can’t remember. For a time he is allowed to settle down in the family croft with his widowed mother, Meenie Doull. Meenie has the ‘sight’, reinforced by a pack of Tarot cards given her by a gipsy. She spends much time in probings of the future. She reveals to her son that a girl called Nina, who had borne him a still-born child after his flight, is now the village harlot, and that Isabella Agnes, Pole’s widow, nurses a thirst for vengeance. He seeks a reunion with Nina, but she declines it and leaves the island. He attends a church service, and is fulminated against by the minister from his pulpit. Magnus makes a spirited reply: ‘You call this da House o’ da Lord. Pah! It is da House o’ Oppression. A tool of da ruling classes to keep da poor fae rebelling ... ’ This outburst is injudicious. The villagers are affronted. Further incensed by the law’s delays, they seize Magnus and lock him up in a shed. Isabella, who knows that witches and persons possessed should be burned, not hanged, sets fire to it. Meenie hastens to the rescue and is drowned on the way. Everybody believes that Magnus is dead, but in fact he escapes through the roof of the burning building, and departs for New Zealand.
In a prefatory note Robert Alan Jamieson calls his book ‘a yarn’, and if the yarn doesn’t read too convincingly it is perhaps because he is chiefly interested in other things: the face of external nature in Shetland, and the quality of life – narrow, enduring, heroic – exhibited by ‘men and women squeezing out a basic existence from tired soil and cruel sea’. Here Mr Jamieson writes sensitively and well, with a sharp precision of imagery that gives promise of more considerable achievement as his art matures.
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil also has arson in it. Ruth, who is six foot two inches tall and very plain, is displeased with her husband, Bobbo, because he has taken to going to bed with Mary, who is small and pretty and a successful writer of romantic fiction. Matters bubble up at a family dinner party: ‘Nicola kicked the cat, whose name was Mercy, out of the way, and the cat went straight to the grate and squatted, crapping its revenge, and Brenda wailed and pointed at Mercy, and Harness became over-excited and leapt up against Andy in semi-sexual assault, and Ruth just stood there, a giantess, and did nothing, and Bobbo lost his temper.’ When the dinner party breaks up, Bobbo denounces his wife as a she-devil. She decides to be a she-devil, which means to want revenge, power, money, and to be loved and not love in return. So after what appears to be a symbolic initiation contrived with a dirty old man in a park, she burns the family house to ashes, taking care to engineer such appearances of negligence as will deprive Bobbo of any compensation from an insurance company.
Painstaking and ingenious further acts of vengeance upon Bobbo and Mary occupy the rest of the story. Mary has a mother (‘a part-time whore of a mother’) whom she has ruthlessly dumped in a disagreeable Home for aged persons; she contrives that the smelly old lady shall go on a visit to her daughter and then be refused readmittance to the Home on the score of an incontinence which Ruth has cleverly faked. Bobbo is an accountant. Ruth manages to insinuate herself covertly into his office and cook and confuse his books so successfully as both to build up a large private fortune for herself and to land him, through machinations with a judge, with a long spell in gaol. There is a great deal of this sort of fun, diversified with various sexual high jinks, as when the judge who sentences Bobbo binds Ruth ‘hand and foot to the bed, beating her with an old-fashioned bamboo carpet-beater’.
The climax of the book moves, if a little uncertainly, into the region of parable or fable. We hate because we envy, and because we envy we seek to become what we hate. Cosmetic surgeons operate agonisingly on Ruth for months, years. She has provided them with a full-length photograph of Mary, cut from the dust-jacket of one of her trashy books. She, Ruth, must be made just like that. So successful is this vagary that when Mary dies and warders bring a bemused Bobbo to attend her funeral he supposes Ruth, who also attends, to be the dead woman. Ruth now owns Mary’s former dwelling, and here she brings Bobbo on his eventual release from prison. Sometimes she lets him sleep with her and sometimes – but only for the pleasure of humiliating him – she sleeps with her manservant. It is a matter of power. ‘I have all, and he has none. As I was, so is he now.’ This is an entertaining book, but with very little of substantial human nature. Its people are like those of Restoration Comedy as described by Charles Lamb: ‘sports of a witty fancy’ set in ‘altogether a speculative scheme of things’.
The remaining books are by American writers. ‘The Train’ is one of the shortest of the 12 stories in Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. It begins: ‘The woman was called Miss Dent, and earlier that evening she’d held a gun at a man. She’d made him get down in the dirt and plead for his life.’ We learn nothing more about Miss Dent, except that now in the small hours she is in the deserted waiting-room of a railway station, proposing to board any train that turns up, and that ‘she wanted to stop thinking about the man and how he’d acted toward her after taking what he wanted.’ Two other people arrive together: a garish middle-aged woman and an old man with white hair and a white silk cravat and no shoes. Little passes between Miss Dent and these new arrivals. But ‘it seemed to Miss Dent that they gave off an air of agitation, of having just left somewhere in a great hurry and not yet being able to find a way to talk about it.’ But they do converse together, speaking of a house filled with simps and vipers, of ‘that imbecile they call Captain Nick’, of persons whose ‘entire existence is taken up with café au lait and cigarettes, their precious Swiss chocolate and those goddamned macaws’. This talk is incomprehensible both to Miss Dent and to ourselves. A train comes in, and the three board it. The people already on the train are not very interested in them. ‘The passengers had seen things more various than this in their lifetime. The world is filled with business of every sort, as they well knew.’ The journey is resumed and the story concludes: ‘The train began to move forward. It went slowly at first, but it began to pick up speed. It moved faster until once more it sped through the dark countryside, its brilliant cars throwing light onto the roadbed.’
Whence and whither the train, we don’t know. But what whences and whithers do we know? There is a touch of Kafka in this story, and in others in the volume there is more than a touch of Joyce. Mr Carver is an absorbed student of the demotic speech of his countrymen, and employs his knowledge much as Joyce does in Dubliners:
I had a job and Patti didn’t. I worked a few hours a night for the hospital. It was a nothing job. I did some work, signed the card for eight hours, went drinking with the nurses.
Sometimes the impoverished language has to evoke occasions of mounting horror. In ‘Vitamins’ the narrator – the man with the nothing job – takes a girl called Donna late at night into the Off-Broadway, ‘a spade place in a spade neighbourhood ... run by a spade named Khaki’. There is another spade, Nelson, ‘just back from Nam today’, compulsively showing round a gook’s ear in a silver cigarette-case. Nelson overwhelms the couple with malign obscenities, and offers the girl a large sum of money if she will fellate him. The narrator and Donna escape, and get to his car:
I opened the door for her. I started us back ... Donna stayed over her side. She’d used the lighter on a cigarette, but she wouldn’t talk.
I tried to say something. I said, ‘Look, Donna, don’t get on a downer because of this. I’m sorry it happened,’ I said.
‘I could of used the money,’ Donna said. ‘That’s what I was thinking.’
I kept driving and didn’t look at her.
‘It’s true,’ she said. ‘I could of used the money.’
This is a very black epiphany, in ‘Preservation’ a young man who has been terminated in his job of roofing new houses quickly sinks into apathy, spending almost all of every day on a sofa. Then there is a lesser calamity. Sandy, his wife, opens the fridge and finds everything thawed. The machine is awash in pools of melted ice cream. Her husband turns voluble as he mops up and investigates:
‘Goddamn it,’ he said, ‘when it rains, it pours. Hey, this fridge can’t be more than ten years old. It was nearly new when we bought it. Listen, my folks had a fridge that lasted them twenty-five years. They gave it to my brother when he got married, It was working fine. Hey, what’s going on? ... We lost our Freon,’ he said and stopped wiping. ‘That’s what happened. I can smell it. The Feon leaked out. Something happened and the Freon went. Hey, I saw this happen to somebody else’s box once.’ He was calm now. He started wiping again. ‘It’s the Freon,’ he said.
She stopped what she was doing and looked at him. ‘We need another fridge,’ she said.
They search through newspaper advertisements for something they can afford. Sandy sees that they must go to a type of auction sale that her husband feels to be demeaning. She turns away to prepare a meal, and when she looks at him again it is to find that not only the fridge has broken down. The fridge is in a puddle and so is her husband: a puddle of his own tears. ‘She knew she’d never again in her life see anything so unusual. But she didn’t know what to make of it yet. She thought she’d better put on some lipstick, get her coat, and go ahead to the auction.’ The unemployed man returns to his sofa.
In this story, and in others like it, Mr Carver is advancing under cover of seemingly flat reportage to a commanding view of character and conduct. The method is perhaps in some danger of hardening into a formula, and in the best stories it is modified, although never abandoned. ‘Feathers’ begins on the familiar note:
This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper. I didn’t know his wife and he didn’t know Fran. That made us even. But Bud and I were friends. And I knew there was a little baby at Bud’s house.
Fran and her husband Jack, the narrator, have no baby; they have decided they don’t want kids – not now and perhaps never. This may be why Fran is edgy over the invitation, and inclined to talk tartly about taking Bud and his wife a present. Perhaps they should take a bottle of wine, and drink it themselves if their hosts don’t like it. Fran eventually settles for a loaf of her homebaked bread. Bud and Olla live in an isolated house twenty miles out of town (‘It’s the sticks out here,’ Fran says) and – what is also disconcerting – own a peacock which, although beautiful, is enormous, screeches hideously, and apparently is allowed indoors. The loaf is handed over. ‘What’s this?’ Olla asks. ‘Oh, it’s homemade bread. Well, thanks. Sit down anywhere.’ The evening goes quite well, although nobody shows much conversational resource. The baby cries and has to be brought into the room. The peacock comes too, and the baby plays with it. But if the peacock is beautiful the baby turns out to be unbelievably ugly. It becomes clear that the parents are aware of this, but have accepted it and are full of pride and joy in their child. ‘He’ll by God be turning out for football before long,’ his father says. Fran asks Olla if she may hold the baby, and soon she is fondling it. Then, from Jack, we have this:
That evening at Bud and Olla’s was special. I knew it was special. That evening I fell good about almost everything in my life ... I made a wish that evening ... What I wished for was that I’d never forget or otherwise let go of that evening. That’s one wish of mine that came true. And it was bad luck for me that it did. But, of course, I couldn’t know that then.
He doesn’t know it when, at parting, they all hug one another; when Olla, in return for the bread, gives Fran, with an ominousness we are trusted to detect, a bunch of the peacock’s feathers; when, later that night, and on Fran’s initiative, he begets a child. Years pass, during which the couples never meet again. But Jack and Bud still work together, and sometimes, very cautiously, Bud, during a lunch hour, asks how things go:
Once in a blue moon, he asks about my family. When he does, I tell him everybody’s fine. ‘Everybody’s fine,’ I say. I close the lunch pail and lake out my cigarettes. Bud nods and sips his coffee. The truth is, my kid has a conniving streak in him. But I don’t talk about it. Not even with his mother. Especially her. She and I talk less and less as it is. Mostly it’s just TV. But I remember that night.
If this story is less than perfect it is because of an occasional loss of momentum in the interest of liberally documenting the commonplace or representative character of Jack, Fran, Bud and Olla. Nothing of the kind blemishes ‘A Small, Good Thing’. On Saturday afternoon Ann Weiss visits a bakery and orders a birthday cake for her son Scotty, who will be eight on Monday. She finds the baker efficient but unresponsive. The cake will say SCOTTY in green icing. On Monday on his way to school Scotty is knocked over by a car and taken to hospital. His condition is judged not to be serious, but through several days and nights one or other of his parents never leaves his bedside. The doctors declare that Scotty is asleep, and will presently awake. But Scotty passes into coma. His mother is persuaded to go home for a brief rest, and the baker rings her up. He has evolved a nocturnal technique for harassing customers who fail to collect their orders. Mrs Weiss thinks the call is from the hospital. ‘Is it Scotty, for Christ’s sake?’
‘Scotty,’ the man’s voice said. ‘It’s about Scotty, yes. It has to do with Scotty, that problem. Have you forgotten about Scotty?’ the man said. Then he hung up.
Scotty dies. The harassment continues. Eventually the parents drive to the bakery, late at night. The baker is at work and surly, but when made to understand the situation he turns contrite and sympathetic. He says that eating is a small, good thing at such a time. So they eat rolls and drink coffee, and he tells them about his life. Then he brings something further:
‘Smell this,’ the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. ‘It’s a heavy bread, but rich.’ They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread ... They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
This austerely told story, with its strange sacramental conclusion, seems to me a masterpiece.
The Cannibal Galaxy presents a very different American scene. Joseph Brill, a Jewish boy brought up in Paris, survives the German occupation by hiding for years in cellars and haylofts. He manages to read widely, to study at the Sorbonne, and eventually to emigrate to the United States. A wealthy patroness establishes him as the headmaster of a school, at which he attempts to develop what he calls the Dual Curriculum: ‘one half concentrating on the Treasures of Western Culture, the other half given over, in their original tongues, to the priceless Legacy of Scripture and Commentaries.’ This noble project doesn’t go well. The pupils are very American, which means mediocre, and Brill eventually makes the mistake of pinning all his hopes on one of them for no better reason than her mother’s appearing to be intellectually distinguished as ‘an imagistic linguistic logician’. In the end everything goes wrong, including in some degree the book itself. The early part, set in France, is taut and vigorous; the rest tends to get snagged in strained dialogue and verbal superfluities. Here, for example, is Principal Brill, as he is called, meditating on his own name: ‘This title, with its syncopated engine, its locomotive rapidity, its tongue-twisting undercarriage, its lightfooted vibration, brought one to attention like an approaching express. The urgent stutter of its imperious syllables invested the air with civilisation and authority.’ How does a very intelligent novelist come doggedly to overwrite in this and sundry other ways? A solution to the puzzle is perhaps afforded by her publisher, who tells us on the dust-jacket that her academic employments have included that of ‘fiction workshop instructor’. Habituated to urging upon ranks of dull apprentices the importance of keeping language lively on every page, Cynthia Ozick has conceivably allowed herself to become her own pupil, with unfortunate results.
Pupillage at any stage of her career is inconceivable of Jane Bowles. Two Serious Ladies, a novel begun when she was 21, is a strangely mature and confident achievement of a totally original sort. When her characters speak it is to an effect at once inconsequent and inevitable, piercing and tangential, wholly authentic to some seldom-explored region between the outward and the inner man. And her narrative is in perfect consonance with this. Other writers are adept at passing from grave to gay: Jane Bowles presents a faithful vision of life as simultaneously humdrum and bizarre. Her career as a writer was cut short by tragic illness. The present gathering together of all her surviving work makes an important book and an enduring monument to her genius.
Let it come down, now reissued in this country after more than thirty years, is the strongest and most impressive of Paul Bowles’s novels. It is also the grimmest. As one follows the story through the vice and drug-ridden labyrinths of Tangier, one almost expects to meet Mephistopheles himself, muttering that this is hell nor is he out of it. Not that Mr Bowles’s attitude to his subject holds any hint of diablerie, or offers even the most fleeting concession to gratuitous melodrama. We are simply told – and in a dispassionate prose of unvarying excellence – that thus things are, even to that point of total terror upon which the action concludes.
You are logged in as email@example.com and have access to all subscriber-only content.
STEWART, J.I.M, Other Things. London Review of Books, Vol. 6, no.2, February 2, 1984. P.16-17
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 20:26
Cold Winds by Walter Nash
- Answered Prayers by Truman Capote
Hamish Hamilton, 181 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 241 11962 6
- A Rich Full Death by Michael Dibdin
Cape, 204 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 224 02387 X
- Leaning in the Wind by P.H. Newby
Faber, 235 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14512 4
- The Way-Paver by Anne Devlin
Faber, 155 pp, £8.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14597 3
The narrator and protagonist of Answered Prayers is one P.B. Jones, failed writer and competent sexual athlete, a scurrilous charmer who – to lift a pithy phrase from the poet Martial – tantos et tantas amat. Latin allusions are appropriate to the style of a book which oddly suggests the libertine rhetoric of some later Roman text: in the sly elegance of the syntax, the jaunty terseness of phrase, the not infrequent obscenity of the lexicon (there are words like ‘muffdiver’, which you will not find in your Funk and Wagnall’s); most of all, in the calculated scabrousness of some episodes. Truman Capote’s title, which is also the title of a book his hero has written, is taken from St Teresa: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’ What this may foretell – other than, perhaps, that couplings will end in comeuppances – we cannot readily judge, because what Capote has left us is only a sample, in three chapters, of a novel begun more than two decades ago, published in piecemeal extracts, and never finished.
PB’s versatility in the sins of the flesh secures him employment as a peripatetic stud on the books of an agency called Self Service. The agency is run by a butch lady called Victoria Self, who wears hausfrau braids and a blue serge suit, and who hints at painful punishments awaiting those who infringe the rules of her exotic craft. This is one apparent strand in the plot. Another is that PB, an operator so unabashedly mercenary that he can describe himself as a Hershey Bar whore, has seemingly contrived to fall in love and to taste some of the torments reserved for venal souls who stray into sincerity. From such indications we might predict the development of a story, but of course the clues may be misleading. All that really happens in the three chapters is that PB is set free to travel, to tattle, to be a man of discriminating parts (I’ll pitch,’ he tells his employer, ‘but I won’t catch’), to be privy to all manner of miching mallecho, to betray benefactors, and to reveal the unlovely, possibly fictional, secrets of known persons on life’s real stage. It is not surprising that the third chapter (called ‘La Côte Basque’, after a well-known restaurant in New York) should have alienated some of Capote’s best friends. What is surprising is that he was surprised.
Capote could write, not a doubt of it; he was never boring; he had the enviable rapidity, the stride, of a powerful wit; and like all good bar-companions, he could compel amusement. Armed for morality, and determined to read with a visage as crusty as Cato’s, I am nevertheless forced to laugh at the voluble impudence of some passages, the suddenness of the comic assault. But there is very little innocent laughter in this book. The prevailing tone is the giggling of the vicious, beside which the crackling of thorns under a pot is a pleasantly musical sound; and it is a melancholy thing to see, in the space of a hundred and eighty pages, a writer become a raconteur, a raconteur become a gossip dishing the exclusive dirt. The reader looks on at the shameful spectacle, a wincing outsider, a visitor to the privileged unenviable zoo, where all the animals are deluded and lonely monsters.
Monsters and delusions of a more agreeable kind lurk in the stylish, elaborately skilful pages of Michael Dibdin’s A Rich Full Death. Ostensibly this is a detective story, a species of Holmesian charade penned by a paranoiac Dr Watson: yet even at this level it teases the reader with mysteries that go beyond the conventionally mysterious. The story is set in Florence, in the year 1855, and the narration takes the form of letters written by a young American, Robert Booth, to his friend Professor Prescott, an authority on Theoretical and Practical Ethics. Booth, in retreat from rejection in love and a sense of his own failure in literature, has known at least one stroke of luck: he has become, he tells his friend, ‘the confirmed acquaintance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband’. It is, in fact, the lesser luminary, Robert Browning, who catches Booth’s interest from the outset, and in a strange way: for on the very evening when Booth is introduced to the poet, news comes of a horrible death, a suicide, and it is coincidentally the death of the lady with whom Booth has been in love. Browning is not willing to accept the death as a suicide: his acute and busily observant mind detects the marks of murder. This is the beginning of an association between the two men, a relationship as of master and disciple, growing – at least on Booth’s side – more intimate as further deaths occur. These deaths are unmistakably murders, performed by someone who leaves taunting clues in the shape of cryptic references to Dante’s Inferno. Reading cryptograms is Browning’s game, and his associate watches admiringly, though not without a sly amusement when the master’s ingenuity draws a blank.
For indeed Booth is disposed at times to be critical of Browning. He applauds his prodigious mental and physical energy, wonders at the diversity of his reading, greatly admires his poems – but, as an upright Bostonian moralist, deplores Browning’s preoccupation with the psychology of the deranged and the maimed in spirit. He treats Prescott to a two-page exposition of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (a poem which sends eerie sonorities quivering through the whole narrative), expressing the strongest moral indignation at its depiction of a grotesque murder which is allowed to take place with a ‘total lack of censure on the poet’s part’. By the time the reader reaches this delicious exercise in literary criticism he has become accustomed (thanks to Mr Dibdin’s extraordinary mimetic flair) to the rhythms and rhetorical devices of Booth’s discursive style, and it has begun to dawn on him that Booth talks like a Browning character. It is as though one of Browning’s poor world-rejected monsters had stepped out of his secure poetic frame and come alive to worship and mock the master. At about the same time, the reader also starts to suspect that the whodunnit is not such a mystery, because, surely, Boothdunnit. There is no better candidate than Booth, admiring Browning, hating Browning, taunting and testing him, proving him with his own literary weapons. The reader murmurs self-congratulations on these shrewd insights, and is only occasionally assailed by the uneasy thought that if Booth in this book is a Browning character, Browning in this book may be a Booth character. Is Browning like this? With these acts does Browning unlock his mind? If so, the less Browning he.
Now it is at this point, when a reviewer should really begin to enjoy a walk through a wonderful warren of literary devices, drawing attention to the significance of this, the curious pattern of that, and the sheer diabolical cleverness of the other, that he has to halt, hard by the church of St Mustadunnit and all the Royalties. To go farther would be to spoil the telling of a tale that combines the sweaty excitement of a chase, the intellectual challenge of a seminar, and the wounded pathos of all our sad days and deathbeds. Let prospective readers therefore take notice: leave no admonition – epigraph, heading, allusion – unobserved; take nothing for granted; and above all, resist the temptation to peep unseasonably at the ending.
The end can wait its turn, for the book is full of pleasures, a box of comfits – which Mr Dibdin would perhaps have me call confetti. Foremost among them is the style. A pastiche running to two hundred pages, immediately characterising the English of an educated 19th-century American, and more distantly yet pervasively evoking the speech-style of Browning’s monologuists, is no mean achievement. The lapses in accuracy, as far as I am able to judge, are very few. I doubt if the expressions ‘not to bat an eyelid’ and ‘glad rags’ were current in the 1850s, or the phrasal verb ‘to dream up’; and I am reasonably certain that the construction of ‘convince’ with an infinitive clause, as in ‘I had convinced Beatrice to leave Florence with me,’ is a quite modern development. But these are trivial matters, costume details. What is totally pleasing is the ingenuity of the book as a literary game with ethical consequences. It is a gift to structuralist critics, out of whose bony, mirthless clutches, however, may it be safely kept. For the rest of us it raises, in the most engaging way, such problems of mind and matter as were formulated by the mandarin who, waking from a dream, said he did not know whether he was a man dreaming about a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming about a man. Behind the detective fable are such tremulous questions about this dream of life, this life of dreams – leaving the reader, as he closes the book, to ponder on the meaning of its title.
A lesser Victorian than Browning, a minimus poet called Arthur O’Shaughnessy, said that the dreamers of dreams are the movers and shakers of the world for ever. Perhaps they are; and perhaps Dorothy Parker was also right, who sang that authors and actors and artists and such never know nothing and never know much, and who concluded:
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
God, for a man who solicits insurance!
Either view could be supported from the pages of P.H. Newby’s Leaning in the Wind, in which one of the principal characters, as it happens, is both a poet and an insurance man. Edwin Parsler, poetic and foxhunting Englishman, works in the legal division of an insurance company, in order to keep his gadding wife Harriet in the state to which she is accustomed. Theirs is one of the seminal relationships (if that is a proper expression) in the book. The other is that of their country neighbours, Aston Hart, ex-colonial farmer and soldier of fortune, and his wife Lisa, who is of German-American extraction, and who is convinced that her husband is descended from the sister of her favourite poet, Shakespeare.
This description of what I take to be the framing partnerships of a complex and sometimes rambling narrative ignores the surrounding dance of other partners, the husbands and wives or parents and children, the gossips, the plot-fillers, the bearers of theme and variation, whose collective busyness gives the novel an air of Forsyte Sagacity. If the book were simply a social and personal chronicle, it would be a dull and watery specimen of the genre: say what you will about Galsworthy, his soap made a creamy lather. But the story is not, after all, about marriages and adulteries and childbeds and neurasthenic girls and bad plumbing and folk who fall off their horses and jigger themselves; nor is it about the folly of planting Shakespeare forgeries, even in jest, nor yet about the menace of Idi Amin. If I understand it aright, it is about people who are haunted; who are in one way or another spooked, and a little crazy with it; who perceive the realities of life in principalities that are not of this world.
Of the four main actors, only Harriet Parsler, thoroughly realistic in her appraisal of the occasionally conflicting claims of bed and board, is not ‘spiritual’ in any sense of the word. For this she has her reward: she is able to live without terror or despair, without much aggrievement, perhaps without much enlightenment. She repeatedly describes herself as ‘a bitch’, but perhaps ‘a hard case’ would be a better description. Each of the three remaining principals has a belief in immaterial powers which invade and in some way condition their lives. Aston Hart, bluff, pragmatic, quite unimaginative, takes witchcraft for granted and believes that a man must watch his back for demons. (You turn your coat collar up, because they go for the nape of the neck.) Lisa Hart, the Shakespeare enthusiast, comes to believe that she has inherited psychic energies, the protective and regenerative powers of a white witch. The poet Edwin Parsler sees in Lisa the embodiment of his Muse, the joyous and angry goddess who awakens him to creative life. All have a conviction of spirituality. ‘There’s something else out there,’ Lisa tells Edwin at the close of the story. ‘Spirits. Some of them bad. But all leaning in a great wind.’
In other words, while life without the insurance man would be a very leaky vessel, without poets, magicians, believers, and attendant spirits to swell the sails and puff the gales, the voyage would be pointless and unrewarding. Only those who feel what is blowing in the wind are truly alive. If the book has a paraphrasable meaning, I take it to be something like this: but I am not sure, and I am not sure for various reasons of style and narrative structure, the most important of which is Mr Newby’s apparent reluctance to lend an interpretative hand now and then. I do not expect him to buttonhole his reader with directives and admonitions. I mean that he describes unwearyingly, but less often appears to ascribe – an interpretation, a pattern, a connection – through the page-by-page management of the text.
A minor instance may help to illustrate the point. There is an episode in which a piece of Edwin Parsler’s verse is quoted, a stanza which any reader of modern English poetry will recognise as an imitation, and not a very good one, of a poem by W.H. Auden. Parsler composes it while he is lying supine and fully clothed in a stream. We are told that ‘it took some minutes of playing with words and rhymes until he arrived at something he could accept and then forget about.’ In fact, Auden has supplied two out of the three rhymes, with the rhyme-words, and has provided the syntatic structure and most of the vocabulary. The ‘playing’ requires no more than the substitution of one or two new words for old.
It does not especially matter that a character fakes a poem, but still the episode raises a point of authorial etiquette. Mr Newby, who in other instances is scrupulously careful to supply facts that may have eluded his reader – explaining who the Mau Mau were, for example, or what Oxonians mean by ‘gaudy’, or the sense of the expression ‘drag hunt’ – gives no indication that Parsler’s ‘poem’ is mimetically framed upon one by Auden. The omission creates a real difficulty. Does Mr Newby assume that his readers, unprompted, will recognise a parody, and will possibly correlate the eccentric verbal act with the deviant behaviour of a man who – at this point in the story – is possessed by disturbing emotions? Or is this too elaborate a fancy? Is Parsler’s verse-exercise meant to be accepted as the genuine article, an authentic specimen of the poet at work? I lean to the supposition that I am intended to recognise a parody and understand what it implies, but I am not finally certain how the ‘poem’ is to be read. Perhaps Mr Newby would like to have it both ways.
This is one instance of a problem with diverse occurrences: the problem of having to choose between the purely descriptive reading – one that treats the book as a social chronicle with a few peculiar happenings thrown in for spice – and an ascriptive reading that detects a unifying significance in its catalogue of events and destinies. To have it both ways is of course perfectly possible, but in the end the reader looks to the author, the master of ceremonies, for a casting vote, and this note of authorial conviction is what I miss, perhaps obtusely, in Leaning in the Wind. The book is not to be lightly put aside: but I am left with the impression that Mr Newby has raised a theme which he has not completely grasped and realised.
For Anne Devlin there is no problem in seeking a theme. Her problem, by her own confession, is to escape from a theme – from Ireland, from the troubles, from Belfast, and indeed from haunting visions known to so many of us, whether we are Irish or not, of the tented terraces of grey slate, of mothers and fathers and lugubrious aunts, the grave-breaking cry of kindred, the passions that squat sullen and famished in the heart. You do not have to be Irish to understand this: but you do have to acknowledge that it is uniquely Ireland that makes Anne Devlin a writer. There is no getting away from it. Of the nine stories in The Way-Paver, only three have no narrative root in Ireland and the family. The title-story is beautiful, made like a lyric poem, round the complementary images of the newborn infant slipping into the world like a seal, the seal as it breaks the surface of the sea, the Irish girl who looks across the water to her future – the way-pavers.
Anne Devlin has a remarkable power of dispassionate narration, which is at times almost bleak; her characters can give you the impression that their hands are always cold. They live a lot of the time in dreams and memories, but their creator allows them no indulgent sentiment. The narrative method is often abrupt, relying on significant cuts and juxtapositions. Like any good artist in the short story, Devlin demands unwavering attention from her readers, at times relying on it to achieve extraordinary speed of narration. Take a brief example from ‘Sam’, the only piece in the collection that could be called a comedy. The narrator, having just met Sam, discovers that he is writing a novel:
‘What’s your subject-matter?’ I asked. ‘Or am I not allowed to ask?’
‘War,’ he said firmly.
I decided to ignore this. I invited him to come on a peace march with me. After the second peace march I decided to seduce him.
‘I’ll go to bed with you,’ I said.
In barely six or seven lines we have made a fine comic skedaddle from the first meeting through two peace marches to the bold Irish girl’s offer of her body. It is the sentence beginning ‘After the second peace march’ that marks the turning of the trick, of course. Of course. Things like that always look easy. Anne Devlin ought to attempt more in the comic genre. She has a sense of the absurd, and the mordant gift that makes the Irish such formidable humorists; and perhaps among the drifting ghosts that haunt her particular imagination there is a kindly spirit that will allow her to find her own green place and innocently laugh.
You are logged in as firstname.lastname@example.org and have access to all subscriber-only content.
NASH, Walter. Cold Winds. London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 22, December 18, 1986. P. 19-20
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 20:18
Late Capote by Julian Barnes
- Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote
Hamish Hamilton, 262 pp, £7.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 241 10541 2
Start at the back: with the photograph. Traditionally, author’s vanity and publisher’s lethargy combine to make a writer look much younger than he is. Truman Capote’s portrait does the opposite, and for a particular reason. Study recent press photographs of Mr Capote, or those published last year in Andy Warhol’s Exposures, and what do you see? A plump, jowly figure in the flush of vital middle age, capering into Studio 54 on the languid arm of a heavily beringed dress designer: a man, it appears, of active sensuality verging on self-indulgence. Now compare the Irving Penn photograph for the back jacket of Music for Chameleons. Emaciated fingers delicately support a frail skull: without their help, you feel, the head might simply snap off. One hand, indeed, supplies the vertical hold, the other the horizontal. The skin looks as if it might tear if grazed by a butterfly’s wing. The eyes stare hauntedly out. It cannot be a living author, let alone a man of 55. It reminds one most of those perfectly-preserved bog people dug up in Scandinavia and described by P.V.Glob. In other words – or rather, in words – Mr Capote is announcing his Late Period.
The career began in photographs, too. When Other Voices, Other Rooms was published, ‘the press seized upon an infant prodigy,’ wrote Kenneth Tynan, ‘photographing him crouched behind bushes, lurking in the depths of chairs, or rolling on rugs, always with a lock of fair hair obscuring one wicked eye.’ The cover picture to that first novel was itself notorious: the author, in check waistcoat and bow-tie, lolled knowingly on a chaise longue, angelically diabolical. Shortly afterwards Capote himself spotted two Philadelphia matrons gazing at a pyramid display of his book in a Fifth Avenue shop window. The elder woman adjusted her spectacles, motioned towards the photograph, and commented beadily: ‘Daisy, if that’s a child – he’s dangerous.’ And not just to others, as it transpired.
For the past 35 years, Capote hasn’t merely written: he has presented his career. To begin with, there was the matter of Streckfus Persons becoming Truman Capote. Subsequently, the writer has always been at hand to guide us through his development: the Southern Gothic phase; the New York phase; the confidant-to-criminals phase; and now, the Late Period. These latter two phases have involved not just rousing pre-publicity but also the trumpeting of a new aesthetic. In Cold Blood, an assiduous and at times brilliant work, came packaged as the first ‘non-fiction novel’, as if Dreiser and Stendhal had never existed. And one might add that it wasn’t altogether a new mode even for Capote himself. The writer’s first published work, which appeared in the Mobile Press Register when he was 10, was a prize-winning short story, ‘Old Mr Busybody’. Only one portion of the work ever came out, because ‘somebody suddenly realised that I was serving up a local scandal as fiction, and the second instalment never appeared.’
Since In Cold Blood (1966), Capote has published nothing but reprinted items. For the past few years there has been the constant tease of Answered Prayers – that promised concoction which will be half Proust, half Nigel Dempster – but in the meantime a new aesthetic was getting overdue. The Preface to Music for Chameleons, reprinted from Vogue, provides it. It opens with some routine bravado – ‘Writers, at least those who take genuine risks, who are willing to bite the bullet and walk the plank, have a lot in common with another breed of lonely men – the guys who make a living shooting pool and dealing cards’ – then turns to discuss ‘my fourth, and what I expect will be my final, cycle’. This involves, we are told, radical shifts of stance and voice, evolved during work on Answered Prayers. A new outlook has been provoked by ‘my understanding of the difference between what is true and what is really true’, while an all-encompassing technical problem has finally been faced down: ‘How can a writer successfully combine within a single form ... all he knows about every other form of writing ... film scripts, plays, reportage, poetry, the short story, novellas, the novel. A writer ought to have all his colours, all his abilities available on the same palette for mingling ... But how?’ Assuming the advisibility (and the novelty) of this mixed-media quest, what is its key? Rather surprisingly, it lies in the welcoming into the text of the bullet-biting, plank-walking, pool-shooting writer himself: ‘I set myself centre stage, and reconstructed, in a severe, minimal manner, commonplace conversations with everyday people: the superintendant of my building, the masseur at the gym ... After writing several hundreds of pages of this simple-minded sort of thing, I eventually developed a style. I had found a framework into which I could assimilate everything I knew about writing.’ A grand claim: in fact, you can’t get claimier than that.
Music for Chameleons divides into three parts, according to contents and to its fiction-fact mix. It begins with six leisurely, untaxing short stories, with Capote varyingly active as animator or agent. Then comes the most substantial piece, ‘Handcarved Coffins: a non-fiction account of an American crime’. Finally, there are seven ‘Conversational Portraits’, interviews and rambles with friends and celebrities: these are vivid, funny pieces of journalism, especially one in which a quickly fatigued Capote follows his pot-smoking charwoman on her rounds, rootling inquisitively in her clients’ apartments and getting squawked at by a Jewish parrot. This section ends with the affable grilling of Capote’s favourite friend and celebrity – himself (the piece, commissioned for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, effortlessly attains the paper’s required tone of frangible self-regard).
The Capote ear remains as responsive as ever to a spectrum of diction, from psychopathic killer to Martinique aristocrat; there are some wry digressions, and some interesting information. But the pieces remain formally irritating. Take the second story, ‘Mr Jones’. Capote once roomed (or says he did) in a brownstone in Brooklyn; next door lodged a blind cripple, Mr Jones, to whom Capote never spoke, and who apparently lived off giving people advice. After a few months, the writer moved out; returning later to collect some belongings, he was told that Mr Jones had disappeared. How? Whither? No one knew. Ten years pass, Capote is on the subway in Moscow when he spots Mr Jones, who isn’t blind, and has sound legs, sitting opposite him. But before he can speak the man gets off.
The story hasn’t lost much in abbreviation, being only two pages long to begin with. Given Capote’s new aesthetic, there are three possibilities. If the story is entirely true, it is quite interesting, surely worth $25 of the Reader’s Digest’s money for their ‘My Strangest Experience’ column. If it is invented, then it still has a quizzing echo, but is far too thin. If it is a mixture – say, if Capote added the Moscow envoi to an otherwise true incident – it still doesn’t go far enough. It’s not, especially, that one wants to be told the why of the events (the answer, presumably, will be a palms-upturned ‘Search me; these things happen’): the problem is simpler – there isn’t enough matter there to fend off the mildest critical So What.
The non-fiction novel veers about in its claims (though it never extends its denial of workaday truth to the point of existential puzzlement, of the nouveau roman); sometimes it merely seems to be asserting that the best journalism can be literature, and that a byline may be fleshed out into a participant. But its proponents do have one thing in common: a desire to have it both ways. They claim to be adding their imaginative insights to their reporter’s facts, to be moulding brute reality with artistry while never losing sight of the truth – the real truth, as Capote prefers it: truth squared. If a reader is tempted to find something boring – when he’s freezing to death on the tundra of The Executioner’s Song, for instance – he’s told that it can’t be boring because it’s true. On the other hand, when he complains that something isn’t true – because, for example, the author couldn’t have been there, couldn’t have heard a particular conversation – he’s told he’s a blockhead and ought to be grateful for the deeper imaginative truth he’s getting given.
In fact, as Music for Chameleons shows, you can’t have your cake and eat it, and the reader may well discover in himself a self-contradictory stance to match the author’s: he may prove capable of both admiring and despising the book at roughly the same time. Having Capote physically present in all his pieces is rather like having an estate agent show you round a house: you’re very grateful to begin with, you’re pleased to be told how the place works, and then after a while you terribly wish you were alone. It’s no coincidence that the best story in the opening section, ‘Mojave’, a box-within-box tale of a couple’s emotional withdrawal from one another (with a powerful, desolate central metaphor), is the only one that fails to feature Capote directly.
Moreover, once the author has put himself centre stage, he simply can’t avoid showing off. The estate agent in him will insist on showing you where all the electric points are, and telling you to mind your head on that obsolete gas-meter which you didn’t need to know about in the first place. An interview-adventure with Pearl Bailey dives off into a cute and pointless paragraph about an earlier professional connection with her and with ‘many gifted men attached to that endeavour: the director was Peter Brook; the choreographer, George Balanchine; Oliver Messel was responsible for the legendarily enchanting decor and costumes.’ Fey, Warholish asides about literature just can’t be shut out (‘I like Agatha Christie, love her. And Raymond Chandler is a great stylist, a poet. Even if his plots are a mess’); nor can assorted chunks of information about the Capote life. It’s undeniably interesting to learn, for example, that he once bedded Errol Flynn: but it’s a hard fact to lodge in an otherwise acute and touching profile of Marilyn Monroe without its being the main thing we remember from the piece. At one point Capote asks himself what he fears most, and replies: ‘Real toads in imaginary gardens.’ It’s hard not to see the writer at times as a toad squatting in among his own fiction.
‘Handcarved Coffins’, Capote’s centrepiece and the direct descendant of In Cold Blood, concerns a series of bizarre murders in a Western state (victims are despatched by amphetamine-crazed rattlesnakes, liquid nicotine, beheading etc), and the writer’s spasmodic involvement in the investigation. For most of its length it is so compellingly narrated that you suspend inquiry into its literary mode; and for once Capote’s own presence, his doubts and excitements, help things along. He adroitly works into the narrative an incident from his childhood when he was frighteningly baptised by a wayside Bible-puncher. This hedge-priest and the supposed killer gradually coalesce in Capote’s mind, leading finally to a climactic meeting (appropriately by a river, with the killer dressed in a rubber suit, as if for mass baptism) in which the writer’s private hauntings and the case’s public resolution join hands. It is a precisely calculated and stunning finale. It is also much too good to be true.
Capote claims it is all true – that only the names have been changed. And perhaps, the tempter whispers, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not: isn’t Capote merely offering an aesthetic construct, and shouldn’t we accept it as such? Perhaps, but that’s asking rather a lot. For instance, if we knew that ‘Handcarved Coffins’ was what it feels like – a skilful, pacey piece of fiction – we should give it high praise and say that it reads like a cross between Harry Crews and Ed McBain (with a few silly clichés, like having the hero play chess against the villain, and letting the killer pseudo-confess in the last paragraph). Whereas if we knew it was true, it would be hard to leave the story where Capote leaves it. What about the case? What about justice? Is it the writer’s task merely to muse elegantly on eight murders and then depart? We are back with the questions Tynan put to Capote at the time of In Cold Blood: questions about the exploitation of human material, about decadence – questions which are both irrelevant and central at the same time.
Music for Chameleons is more, and more simply, enjoyable than all of this suggests: it’s light, funny, smoothly-written and smoothly readable. It’s also quite minor, and the claims made for it by its author are risible. Most of all, one regrets the way in which its qualities are visibly distorted by that worst of pressures in American literary life: the demand for the writer as event. Capote, alas, seems no longer capable of merely writing. He performs, he presents himself, he happens. At the close of this book, he declares sympathy for the idea of an after-life. He would like to come back ‘as a bird – preferably a buzzard. A buzzard doesn’t have to bother about his appearance or ability to beguile and please; he doesn’t have to put on airs.’ That should make a nice change.
You are logged in as email@example.com and have access to all subscriber-only content.
BARNES, Julian. Late Capote. London Review of Books, vol. 3, no. 3, February 19, 1981. P. 10-11
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 19:58