Enigma Variations

Long Distance

by Penelope Mortimer
Doubleday, 204 pp., $6.95

Tatlin!

by Guy Davenport
Scribner’s, 261 pp., $7.95

Penelope Mortimer’s new novel is so witty you think it’s a comedy, and so troubling you think it’s a confession. I suppose the best description is an allegorical romance drawn from elements of the author’s life. But the meaning—translucent at best—is never narrow, for it touches the ocean floor of sexuality. Whoever remembers The Pumpkin Eater remembers Mrs. Mortimer’s detached scenes of absurd but revealing dialogue, with ominous hints dropped among the bright inanities. He also remembers the luminous, tragic ending, with the mother, in flight from her own guilelessness, captured inside a tower retreat by her ignorant children and calculating husband—a mother triply betrayed, and drained of forgiveness.

In Long Distance the heroine (and narrator) has the simplicity and vitality of her predecessor. But she learns to preserve the blessing of a candid, ardent, harmless nature by at last shielding it behind an appearance of “normal” conduct. The fable of her progress is intricate and bewildering, much too unusual to be taken for granted. To so enigmatic a story the most useful approach is an interpretative summary, even if parts of my account will have to be guesswork.

The heroine seems to be named Dora. She has apparently fled from her husband because he deceived her too cruelly; maybe another woman has had a child by him. Certainly, Dora has had a number of children; and she yearns miserably for this impossible partner, irresponsible father and fickle lover, in whom she sought “the body of a boy, the wisdom of a father, the sensibility of a woman and the strength of Almighty God.” Here is the dangerous addiction from which she must liberate herself. When she grows tired of flight, she comes to live in a mysterious mansion where time is abolished and the present blurs with the past. The residents must submit themselves afresh to the formative experiences that they have repressed from their memories. In funny and puzzling ways, therefore, they treat one another as surrogates for parents, lovers, children. Most readers will feel uneasy about the mixture of farce and pathos that flows through the fantasy of life in this setting. If my analysis sounds bathetic or dreary, it is because I cannot include the passages of brilliant parody, self-ridicule, and word-play that interrupt and enrich the riddles of the action.

One of the men, named Gondzik, becomes Dora’s confidant and adviser, her attachment to him seems analogous to transference in psychoanalysis. As the story proceeds, one recognizes bizarre parallels to the Watergate scandals. The management of the institution, located in a separate office. building, is remote and imperious. Yet rumors keep suggesting that the staff is shaky and corrupt. Gondzik, who acts so sympathetic, turns out to be an agent of the management, spying on and manipulating the other residents in the name of security.

Existence at the mansion is punctuated by phantasmagoric re-creations of old and archetypal events, lived in reverse order of time. So …

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Letters

The Life of the Mind February 20, 1975