The Jealous God
Full Fathom Five
It was not a good sign when John Braine’s last novel turned out to be a sequel to Room at the Top. If it suggested that Mr. Braine had a commendable faith in the possibilities of his character Joe Lampton, it also implied that his novelistic talents, which had never struck one as particularly fertile, were being forced into the sad and dangerous course of self-imitation. His new novel, however, sweeps away any suggestion of failing inventiveness. The milieu is still what Mr. Braine knows best and what we have come to expect from him: middle-class life in and around a small, fairly scruffy Yorkshire town. But in this novel he adds a dimension that seemed to have been deliberately left out of his earlier books. Though Mr. Braine is by birth and upbringing a Yorkshire Catholic, it seemed significant that there was no mention at all of Catholicism in his novels, which in other respects drew heavily and obviously on the environments which had moulded him. One of the most interesting things, initially, about The Jealous God is that it is a study of life inside the English Catholic community by someone who grew up in it; usually novels about English Catholics are written by converts. In Mr. Braine’s novel the Catholics of Charbury are mostly of second or third generation Irish origin, who still sardonically refer to themselves as “Micks” and who occasionally frequent, in a rather embarrassed way, a decaying institution called the Hibernian Club, with its portraits of the Pope, De Valera, and James Connolly. The surrounding streets, which once housed poor Irish families, have now been taken over by Pakistanis.
In the hero of The Jealous God, Vincent Dungarvan, Mr. Braine has drawn with remarkable accuracy a familiar type: the not-so-young Catholic bachelor, who wants to get married but who takes seriously the Church’s warnings against mixed marriages, and who goes on for years anxiously hoping for the right Catholic girl to come along. Mr. Braine’s study of Vincent is a fine piece of characterization, with a degree of subtlety that goes well beyond the forceful but crude outlines of his Joe Lampton. Vincent is a schoolmaster of thirty, happy in his work at the local Catholic grammar school, and dutifully though unfervently devout in his religious practices. Still a virgin, he has never entirely given up the idea that he might have a vocation to the priesthood, a notion assiduously encouraged by his widowed mother. There is something Prufrockian about Vincent; drawn with just a slight degree of exaggeration or imbalance he might have been a memorable comic character. He is content to live at home with his mother, an emotionally parasitic woman with whom he engages in constant semi-humorous bickering. Vincent keeps experience at arm’s length: he has a reasonably sensual inner nature but an aloof, even rather frigid manner; his general mildness is occasionally countered by a remarkably sharp tongue. He might have been married by now, but he despises the local Catholic girls, and he might have become a priest but he isn’t certain of his vocation. So he does neither, and goes on with a life that is an embodiment of gentle accidie, bounded by visits to the cinema or to his married brothers, and a little dilettante dabbling in local history at the public library.
This unruffled and empty course could have continued for years, but it doesn’t. He meets and falls in love with Laura, an attractive girl in her late twenties who has come to work at the library. The fact that she isn’t a Catholic no longer worries him; but his subsequent discovery that she is divorced is another matter. On the face of it, he must give up his religion or stop seeing her. He chooses, in great bitterness of spirit, to break off the relationship, though this is not, in fact, the end of it. After a good deal of pain, and some violence, the novel reaches what might be called, in a thoroughly bruised way, a happy ending. There is contrivance, admittedly, in reaching it, but of an unsentimental kind: if Braine chooses to remind us that these things don’t always end unhappily this is no more than a fact that experience will verify. He writes well in his account of Vincent’s spiritual grapplings, though the mantle of Graham Greene falls rather awkwardly on him in places: “Pride, a voice said, lust, despair; he fixed his eyes on the Madonna on the mantle-piece and tried to pray.”
Parts of the book fail. Though a good deal of care has gone into Laura, she doesn’t come to life much, any more than Mr. Braine’s earlier studies of attractive women. But this is compensated by the excellence of the Dungarvan family, Vincent, his mother, and his two philistine brothers, one a cheerfully obtuse and cynical solicitor, the other a boozing business man. And, one must add, by the energetic and often humorous account of the Catholic community of Charbury, which illuminates a way of life that has received little attention so far in English fiction. If Mr. Braine seemed to be in a rut, with this book he has climbed out of it with great finesse.
Many readers, particularly American readers, may find The Jealous God a decidedly old-fashioned work, for it has many of the customary features of the novels of fifty or more years ago: a strongly drawn central figure, who is the consistent focus of interest—an Edwardian might have called the book Vincent Dungarvan—and a clearly marked “plot,” with initial predicament, crisis and resolution; and a straightforward chronological development.
This conservatism of technique is the most obvious feature of Mr. Braine’s generation of British novelists, and one which distinguishes them from their American counterparts. This point emerges clearly enough if one compares The Jealous God with the two other novels under review, both by Americans. One Day is an imposing book, remarkable for the high efficiency of its writing and the skill with which it is assembled; and it is in a recognizably experimental manner, even though the experimentalism is itself a convention. Wright Morris, unlike many British novelists, is aware of Joyce; but the very awareness has become a fixation. If Ulysses was about one day in the lives of a handful of people in Dublin on 16 June 1904, then One Day does the same thing with the small town of Escondido, California, on 22 November 1963. Not many events occur: in the early morning a baby is found abandoned in a basket at the city pound, which normally only receives dogs and cats; at midday the news arrives of the assassination of President Kennedy; that evening a carelessly parked car rolls forward and crashes into the front of the pound, killing its passenger. Mr. Morris elaborates these isolated events by telling, or rather showing, us a great deal about the lives of the inhabitants of Escondido in the form of extended flash-backs.
I must confess that I found One Day a difficult book. Not, indeed, because Mr. Morris offers the opacities and discontinuities of a William Burroughs or a Nathalie Sarraute, but because I could see no reason at all for a good deal of what was going on. Why was this incident described rather than that? If Luigi, the local barber is knocked down by a hearse and suffers a lacerated buttock, so what? What were all those animals doing? Were they symbolic, and if so, of what? It may be that One Day belongs to a growing class of novel, the kind written directly for explication which aims to by-pass the fairly relaxed reader altogether. Possibly harder work on my part might reveal that what seems merely arbitrary in One Day may have a point, but my immediate conviction is that this is an elaborately lifeless work. Although Mr. Morris is careful not to intervene in the action, I had a strong sense of a Thackerayan puppet-master resolutely manipulating his marionettes somewhere behind, or above, the scene. The one large exception to these strictures is a girl called Alec Cartwright, a very interesting character, whose story provides the most absorbing part of the book. She is a beatnik poet and Freedom Rider, and the abandoned baby is hers: a pity Mr. Morris didn’t write his whole novel about her, leaving the rest of Escondido to slumber on.
I had difficulty, too, with John Stewart Carter’s Full Fathom Five, a novel that won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award this year. The substance of the book is of a not unfamiliar kind: the narrator grew up amidst wealth in the Twenties, with lots of aunts and uncles with vigorous and well-developed personalities moving in and out of his life, together with some richly interesting friends of the family. But the real, the dominant Influence on his life was his father, a very remarkable man indeed; their relationship is lovingly described. Even when one outlines the material thus baldly the dangers are apparent: deep gulfs of sentimentality and whimsy lie in wait for the author, and it cannot be said that Mr. Carter has made much effort to avoid them.
He is sophisticated in his use of time: like Ford in The Good Soldier, he avoids a straight chronological recapitulation of events, but reproduces them in the seemingly haphazard non-sequential way in which memory restores the past to us. The result, with such an undisciplined writer, is a sad goulash of isolated gobbets of experience bobbing about in a stew of over-written prose. Except near the end of the book, when he describes with real power and tenderness the father’s final illness and death, Mr. Carter writes in a hideously slushy and self-indulgent way; at least, he makes no visible attempt to distance himself from his narrator’s breathy rhapsodies to the Twenties and all they stood for: “Bertolt Brecht, you see, not No, No Nanette, but the Twenties just the same. Zelda Fitzgerald in the sanitarium….” This mythology needs to be handled with more tact, I feel, if it is to preserve its magic. The sacred name of Scott Fitzgerald is frequently uttered—he dominates the work like a tutelary deity, along with such flanking figures as Proust and Edith Wharton. And this is a bad mistake of Mr. Carter’s, for the comparison can do him no kind of good: how melancholy that someone so confidently attached to these great practitioners should have learned so little of what they have to offer.