Death of the Hind Legs & Other Stories
“Declare your interest!” they shout in the House of Commons when an MP who owns a chain of hock shops omits to say so when orating hotly in favor of a bill to lower the tax on hock shops. So, book reviewers who also write books ought to declare their interest when reviewing books with resemblances to ones which they have written themselves. Particularly if they are going to voice a dislike of the book under review, they should feel obliged to warn the reader that their deep sense of duty may be only a mask for a most malicious prejudice.
So, having just written a novel of which one-third consists of question-and-answer interrogation of a prisoner, I must declare an indignant interest in Robert Pinget’s The Inquisitory, a novel which consists entirely of just such an interrogation. I begin, naturally enough, with the strong prejudice that my own one-third way is a good thing and that M. Pinget’s three-third’s way is too much of a good thing. M. Pinget also brings out all my insular prejudice against Continentals who have never heard of common sense and, on taking up a theory or chasing a technique, ride the damned thing so hard that it has dropped dead before it is halfway round the course.
THE INTERROGATION GAME was not invented by me or M. Pinget. Too much indulgence in it (it has been suggested) by Socrates was the real reason why the Athenians decided to shut him up with hemlock. On the more vulgar level of life, we all know that there’s nothing to beat interrogation in a play or a movie. Devote your last act or reel to an adulteress in a dock with a paid monster of the judiciary barking filthy questions at her, and you can put your feet up for life.
But can anyone imagine a whole movie so composed? Or a whole novel such as M. Pinget’s? Three hundred and ninety-nine pages long at that (what failure of stamina obliged a halt short of 400?). Think of the technical problem involved—the endless rigging of both the questions and the answers, the long struggle to give an appearance of naturalness to what can only seem to be artificial! The photograph of M. Pinget on the back of his book shows a head of immense firmness with powerful eyes staring obliguely at the world, and one is bound to feel that he needed every atom of this striking equipment to push through his remorseless project. It is made the more remorseless by the fact that M. Pinget uses no inverted commas, no question marks, no punctuation at all except the comma. God knows why he clung to this.
Faced with this sort of novel, one is obliged to ask: Was it the only way in which it could have been written? Would it have been as good or better written in a more ordinary way? Does M. Pinget’s way add depth to the subject? Does it bring out the characters more completely? Does it show us aspects of life that would be concealed if the writing were more orthodox? In short, does the experiment justify anything except the right to declare experiment a capital crime?
Some people seem to think it does. In France, The Inquisitory received the 1962 Prix des Critiques and became, we are told, “an overnight best-seller.” Samuel Beckett calls it “one of the most important novels of the last ten years.” So M. Pinget is in good company. He has been judged commendably by his peers. He has even been purchased more commendably by his inferiors. These judicious readers have been satisfied, apparently, not irritated, when the inquisitor asks the old servant:
Who was the small flat used for the bathroom apart
—although it means having to read it at least twice in order to understand it—and they have approved equally of this typical exchange:
Why are there no carpets in your employer’s bedrooms
I said no oriental carpets they’ve fitted carpets but I’ve no idea why
What kind of fitted carpet
A fitted carpet’s a fitted carpet how can I say, a fitted carpet are there fifty different kinds, a pale grey fitted carpet in one dark grey in the other there’s nothing better for the housework one go with the vacuum cleaner but with these other carpets they slide about slip out of place all the time turn up at the edges you catch your feet in them, not to speak of the parquet to be polished underneath as fussy as they can be….
What is the point of this extensive carpentry? The only point of it is obvious. M. Pinget is writing a novel. He needs to describe the interior of a French mansion and must do so by means of the technique he has chosen for the job. But there is not a single stretch of his parquet that would not have shown up better if he had gone to work on it with an ordinary Hoover. In a novel like Ulysses, the prose must slide about slip out of place all the time turn up at the edges you catch your feet in them, because Ulysses is a most deliberate study of the vagaries and peculiar associations of human thought. But M. Pinget’s novel is only a deliberate struggle—maintained with incredible stamina—to ride a one-wheeled bicycle for 399 miles. It is hardly surprising, then, that the total effect is immensely involved, generally unreadable, and appallingly boring.
NO INTEREST to declare, thank God, in Thomas Hinde’s The Village. Only Britain produces artists like Mr. Hinde—men such as Vaughan Williams, Bliss, and Bax, who arrange curious compromises between British conservatism and continental extremism and win the allegiance of neither. Mr. Hinde has quirky moments and knows how to play just off-key and do things a bit unexpectedly, but at heart he is an entirely orthodox writer and a very solid one. His novel begins:
Charles Retford, six foot three, stepped from his first class carriage and came at his own pace down the platform of Sudding New Town Station.
Why do nearly all novels nowadays begin like that? “Setting her teeth against the blizzard, Maisie James battled her way down Madison Avenue.” “Glancing at his watch, Arthur Stapleton groaned: ‘I’m late again.”’ And yet the opening words of a novel should be like the opening of a secret door. Compare with the above Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” or Goldsmith’s “I was ever of the opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population.” Even Goethe’s immensely bland beginning to Elective Affinities: “Edward—we are referring by this name to a rich baron in his prime—“ suggests instantly that no matter how rich, how baronial, how primal Edward may be, Goethe means to see him up the creek.
BUT MR. HINDE’S opening indicates exactly the way he means to handle his subject—straightforwardly, stoutly, and stoically. His subject is a village and his characters are the villagers in it—every last man and woman of them. Each of them takes up the story in turn, each of them plays his part to the end—which means a novel as long as M. Pinget’s but not as irritating. The weakness of Mr. Hinde’s method is that it is heavy and unimaginative: he often plods but rarely flies. An author with the gifts, say, of the late Evelyn Waugh would have found a more economical way than Mr. Hinde’s of dealing with a whole community and would have provided a running story rather than a dogged narrative. Mr. Hinde, in short, is edible but not irresistible.
This is a pity because his subject is a very touching and interesting one. The village of his title is one of those little masterpieces of English rural beauty that Mark Twain said should be kept under glass, to keep the weather out. But the government planners have decided that it must disappear under the waters of a new reservoir, which is essential to an expanding city nearby. Led by their squire, the villagers fight against their inundation for five tedious years, and it is the nature of their fight that interests Mr. Hinde.
He begins (and ends) with an important proposition—that a fight to preserve beauty is not of interest to most people. Particularly when people live in ancient dwellings on which even a pig might frown, they see no reason why these should not be swapped for snugger nests in which concrete and M. Pinget’s parquet replace the charm of moldy bricks and old-world thatch. Mr. Hinde understands this very well, and his description of the dear old village pond, from which the local school children are supposed to net instructive tadpoles, makes the point clear enough. No longer required by horses, no longer a “common” for geese and ducks, the pond is merely:
Five feet of grey mud, three empty oil drums, the rusty skeleton of two bicycles, a zinc bath, a doll’s pram with torn plastic hood, and a burst sack of broken bottles… Anyhow there was no frogspawn this year because the frogs had been killed by chemical sprays.
The New Town into which the villagers must move requires no description here. Every reader knows what that dreadful conception means in terms of hygiene, sterility, nonentity, perfect cleanliness, better telly reception and “the concealed fluorescent lighting behind the cedar arches” of the spanking new church. And behind these novelties sit the new men who plan the new way of life—the departmental men, the statistical men, the whole tribe of men who cause the novelist to muse:
How strange that to individuals…you gave such sensitive needs: love, reassurance, comfort for their broken hearts…while you only allowed communities the crudest wants: food, bathrooms, motorways, main water and drainage.
Only a handful of Mr. Hinde’s villagers follow their squire into battle for their old homes. As Mr. Hinde makes clear, the day is past when squires can be followed. The man who can fight bureaucracy today cannot be he who plays father figure to a community that has ceased either to fear or to need him. Like the enemy he is fighting, today’s champion must be a degraded type—a cagey, well-paid lawyer who knows how to “obstruct” everything, good or bad, or a television producer whose only aim in life is to make himself famous by spewing sentimental “stories” over the public and arousing a popular indignation at which he secretly sneers. Such are the leaders of today’s village Carsons and mute, inglorious Mumfords, and it is a tribute to Mr. Hinde that he regards such types not as allies against bureaucracy but as part of the general disease that includes bureaucracy. In short, Mr. Hinde’s village is not just a village but a representation of the Western world, so that although his book is cumbersome and artless, it carries a considerable weight of truth and hurts the reader in all the right places.
JOHN WAIN’S new collection of short stories, Death of the Hind Legs, appeared for the most part in The Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s Bazaar, The Ladies’ Home Journal—publications to which one does not turn for works of imagination. To read the stories is to wish that they had stayed in their original nests, because they will only mislead readers into thinking that Mr. Wain is a very middling sort of writer. In fact, when he writes criticism and autobiography he makes most interesting reading—which none of these short stories do. Nobody minds stories about very ordinary people in very ordinary homes with very ordinary lives, so long as the author refuses to be very ordinary himself and stretches his wits to avoid becoming a carbon copy of his material. Mr. Wain has not stretched a single brain cell and has even, in the few stories that deal with more extraordinary people, managed to make them seem ordinary too. Would M. Pinget, who has more ambition than he can use, be so kind as to press the surplus on Mr. Wain?
Purity August 24, 1967