Other People’s Houses
The Burnt Ones
The effective literary treatment of violence is never easy; and it is particularly difficult for those who are obsessed with a violence of which they themselves have had no direct experience. Such an obsession can be rationalized in a number of ways: we live in a violent age, goes the argument, so the writer must, if he is to be honest, be aware of public and private cruelty and do his best to portray it. Both the justifying argument and the literary practice tend to get confused at this point; we are given a faithful reproduction of stark acts rather than a transmutation of feeling, for it is simpler to aim directly at the reader’s nervous system than at his moral sensibility. (A related phenomenon: why has “disturbing” become a term of unqualified approbation in recent criticism?) The results are familiar: for instance, the use of the name “Auschwitz” as a quick-response literary term in a way that is deeply insulting both to the victims and the survivors. One can understand the pressure of guilt—combined with an imaginative fascination—that feeds this obsession in those who have never undergone terror themselves. But it often leads to a kind of prurience as unpleasant as the obsession with sex of those who have never had sexual experience. It might be more modest, if harder, to conclude that there can be no adequate literary response, at the moment, to some of the enormities of recent history.
Most of these reflections apply with some force to the three stories about the Second World War and its aftermath that comprise George Steiner’s Anno Domini. Mr. Steiner was, I presume, too young to have been through the war himself, but he has read about it and has let his imagination dwell on its beastliest details: he insists, in calm, sophisticated tones, on pointing out how the Gestapo would crush a prisoner’s fingers in the jamb of a door, or how the S. S. repeatedly immersed a man’s head in a vat of urine. He is particularly interested in showing us what it is like to be burnt alive (such incinerations occur in each of the three stories). I can take it, Mr. Steiner seems to be implying, in his worldly manner; how about you?
The first of the three stories is about a decent, guilt-ridden German officer who returns after the war to the Norman farm house where he had been billeted in 1944. The officer had had one of the sons of the family shot as a spy, and he is received with sullen hatred, but by degrees they come to tolerate him, and eventually he even courts and marries one of the daughters. Speeches are made at the marriage feast about reconciliation between former enemies. Finally the German is invited to join in a ritualistic dance to round off the procedings; he protests that he is unable to dance—he is badly crippled from a war wound—but he is forced to take part; the marriage feast becomes a Todentanz when the German falls and is trampled to death. In the second story, a mild American scholar living in France during the German occupation is terrified of pain and yet secretly envies the tortured heroes of the Resistance:
Yet who has not been in the well of his being, in the foul lightless place, has taken no journey. Not to know how you will behave when you are strung on the bench and they walk towards you with their gloves is to know little. It is to live with yourself as spinsters do, in the brittle familiarity of mere acquaintance.
Very possibly Mr. Steiner endorses this attitude, which could be presented, in the abstract, as a noble stoicism. But the slack, cliché-ridden prose which embodies it points rather to an origin in a sick but conventional romanticism.
The third and longest piece is about the post-war fortunes of two middleclass Englishmen, still suffering from the partial disintegrations of the conflict; one of them, though married, is gnawed by repressed homosexuality. The British detail is painstakingly filled in but not at all authentic, particularly in the dialogue; Mr. Steiner has lived long enough in England to know that words like “gotten” and “a raise” just don’t occur in British speech. And at all times he leans heavily on the cliché, the tired, pretentious usage (“…Reeve’s body seemed, for an instant in the grip of a wild, secret dance”). Mr. Steiner can be granted his tough-mindedness, and a certain thin facility in writing prose; but his preoccupation with the violence of war contains no element of transmutation into compassion or heightened understanding, and still less of tragic intensity. Instead, it recalls the calculated sensationalism of the horror comic.
Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses is a more personal and more genuine record of wartime experience. The book is a collection of linked sketches whose substance is autobiographical but which have been given a certain fictional finish and structure. The author grew up as Lore Groszmann, the precocious and—by her own admission—rather priggish daughter of a well-off Jewish family in Vienna. Already harassed by the Nazis, and with the threat of worse to come, her parents sent her to England in 1938 when she was ten. The young Lore grew up as a refugee in a variety of English households, which she describes with some affection and an uncanny accuracy about physical details and atmosphere. Mrs. Segal’s account has a crisp narrative movement and great sensitivity, coolness, and charm: it combines the keen, innocent observation of the child’s-eye view and the baffled fascination with the oddities of British life that a number of Continental writers have shown. Her parents also escaped from Vienna before the outbreak of war, though she was unable to live with them in England; her father, an accountant in normal life, was unable to cope with his new existence as a domestic servant, and suffered a breakdown in health from which he eventually died. Mrs. Segal’s description of all this is very moving, all the more so for being played down. She herself won a scholarship to London University, where she took a degree in English. Later, she joined various members of her family at a refugee agricultural establishment in the Dominican Republic, before finally coming to New York. She remains an Anglophile who knows she can never return:
Behind the memory of white geese under the great plane trees on the jewel-green lawn appeared, like a double-exposure, my bespectacled self, in mackintosh and oxfords, on a cold drizzling English June day, coming across the bridge into Baker Street in such an agony of loneliness that I can recall it in my memory like an event; I remember I stood a moment to diagnose the cause and felt my feet wet and knew I hadn’t a sixpence left for my gas meter.
The later chapters contain some vigorous anecdotes and a measure of sharp self-examination, but, for me, the heart of this admirably unmawkish book lies in the precise evocation of the Viennese child’s discovery of the English.
Wartime England, and in particular, wartime Oxford, also provides the setting for Philip Larkin’s first novel, Jill, now reissued after twenty years. Larkin, the finest British poet of his generation, has written only one other novel since. But Jill, written at the age of twenty-one and a work of remarkable assurance, makes it clear that his novelistic gifts, had he chosen to develop them, were potentially as impressive as his abilities as a poet. On the face of it, Jill is a novel that rather invites being categorized: it can, to start with, find a place in that particular genre, the Oxford novel, which includes such characteristic works as Zuleika Dobson, Sinister Street, and Brideshead Revisited, and recent representatives by younger writers like Julian Mitchell’s Imaginary Toys and Wilfred Sheed’s A Middle-Class Education. From another point of view, Jill has been described—notably by James Gindin—as a forerunner of the later British post-war novels about displaced working-class heroes. In his introduction to this new edition, Mr. Larkin rather resignedly calls this remark “fair trend-spotter’s comment,” but adds that he hadn’t been consciously concerned to deal with social differences. It is certainly true that John Kemp, Larkin’s diffident scholarshipboy from a northern working-class home plunged into a seedy upper-class set during his first term in Oxford, looks forward in some ways to more robust later figures like Amis’s Jim Dixon or John Braine’s Joe Lampton; but at the same time he is also reminiscent, in his sad collisions with the intricacies of the British class-system, of such earlier exemplars as Pip in Great Expectations. The tradition, though given a fresh emphasis in the novels of the Fifties, is, in fact, a venerable one.
John Kemp becomes so psychologically battered by his first direct encounter with the mores of the young English gentry that he retreats into fantasy, inventing a beautiful and talented schoolgirl sister called Jill. He writes letters which she is supposed to have sent him: these are a triumph of novelistic invention. Life becomes fatally complicated for Kemp when he notices a young girl in the streets of Oxford whom he totally identifies with his invented Jill; eventually he meets her—she is the schoolgirl cousin of his roommate’s girl-friend—and his attempt to pursue the acquaintance, to incorporate her into his myth has wretched though not quite catastrophic consequences for him. This is a beautifully written and observed novel, firm in its characterization and delicate in its evocation of autumnal Oxford in 1940, where the war was apparent only in the black-out, the columns of troops marching through the city, and the news of air-raids in other parts of England. Larkin presents the character of Kemp with just the right degree of control, tempering sympathy with a degree of ironic detachment and, occasionally, of overt humor. In his new Introduction, Larkin discusses the background of the novel in his own experience of wartime Oxford, and provides some forceful vignettes of Kingsley Amis as an undergraduate.
Having a certain qualified admiration for Patrick White’s large-scale, more-or-less epic novels, I approached The Burnt Ones, which is a collection of short stories, with a certain suspicion. In the event it proves to have been justified. Mr. White, it seems to me, is mistaken in trying to use his talents, which demand the broad brush and the large canvas, to cope with the short story. Admittedly, there are good moments: examples in this collection come from “The Woman Who Wasn’t Allowed to Keep Cats,” about an off-beat marriage in Athens between a frankly crazy but amiable Greek woman and a left-wing journalist; or from “Down at the Dump,” where death and young love are centered on a rubbish-dump in an outer suburb of Sydney. This last story, together with “A Cheery Soul,” a funny and cruel account of a kind-hearted old lady who is an insufferable do-gooder, suggest, as did parts of Riders in the Chariot, that Patrick White could write a biting social comedy of Australian suburban life if he put his mind to it. But the deflections which make this unlikely are as apparent in these stories as they are in the novels. They pull in opposite directions; on the one hand there is White’s tendency to strip his characters of everything that he considers irrelevant to their fundamental humanity, so that man is reduced to the bare forked animal, which in practice sinks the narrative level to an account of mere biological process, as with much of The Tree of Man. On the other hand, there is White’s inclination to mythologize his characters, to draw them substantially larger than life: this did enable him to produce Voss, which in my opinion is his masterpiece. But either tendency pulls against any prolonged concentration on man as a social being, and against the effective construction of social comedy. As I say, there are good moments in these stories, but they could have come from White’s novels, and the best of the stories could, in fact, have been extracts from fairly episodic novels. His talents don’t enable him to make good use of the difficult and unsatisfactory form of the short story, and his prose is often astonishingly clumsy; as, indeed, it often is in his novels, though here the awkwardness shows up more. White is always a powerful and remarkable writer, but a good deal of this book seems to me to indicate a misdirection of energy.