Gothic Guesswork

The Wonder-Worker

by Dan Jacobson
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 191 pp., $5.95

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

by John le Carré
Knopf, 355 pp., $7.95

The Rachel Papers

by Martin Amis
Knopf, 240 pp., $5.95

Lord Richard’s Passion

by Mervyn Jones
Knopf, 368 pp., $7.95

The detective story, like the love story, is a fictional category which no one has any trouble in identifying, and both these categories can be identified among the four British novels which I am reviewing. But it is apparent that detection enters extensively into works which could not be confused with the ordinary detective story. They are something very different, and yet they apply themselves to clues and surmises and surprises. The long and tortuous history of the Gothic novel, with its special interest in magic and madness, and in doubles and Doppelgängers, may be thought to illustrate the proposition. Whether or not a Gothic tale offers, as Jekyll and Hyde does, some of the satisfactions of the detective story, it tends to offer detection. It may be quite like an Agatha Christie, it may be that the double done it: but, one way or another, it is likely to have an element of suspense, delusion, and discovery. This preamble is meant to introduce the suggestion that Dan Jacobson’s latest novel depends upon detection, while not being a detective story, and that it asks to be considered in the light of the Gothic tradition.

That in itself may be a surprise. Jacobson’s earlier fiction, which I greatly admire, was not such as to lead people back to, or persuade them to persist with, an attention to the Gothic modes. Together with his critical writings, it might be thought to inculcate a respect for stories that are straightforwardly told and rationally pondered, and a distrust of those authors, Gothic and otherwise, who believe that fiction should continuously reflect on the manner of its telling and should interrogate and explore the author’s relationship to his subject matter, of those authors who believe in making a mystery or a multiplicity of the consciousness that informs the tale. His earlier works—I am thinking of certain short stories, of the marvelous novella A Dance in the Sun, and of his enjoyable comedy about the ploys of two dealers in a South African mining town, The Price of Diamonds—were, in this sense, unsophisticated.

His last novel but one, however, The Rape of Tamar, brought a change of tune. Here was a work with a Biblical theme and a narrator who used a modern idiom and seemed keenly attentive to the presuppositions of an audience centuries-remote from the events recounted: there appeared to be two levels of experience—that represented by his Biblical persons and that represented by the ironic retrospect which invested them—and the narrator’s complex relationship to his theme appeared to be a main source of interest. It was some time since Mr. Jacobson had left South Africa for London, thereby losing touch with the people and places of his first fictions, and there may be those of his readers who suppose that the change I am discussing was produced by habituation to a new environment, that of the Anglo-American big city, and to the sophistication and artifice that were esteemed there. This seems too sweeping a view, but it is not one which would immediately be canceled by an acquaintance with his new novel, The Wonder-Worker.

Here, too, he is more metropolitan than “simple.” The novel is equipped with facets, like one of the precious stones to which he is drawn, and is cut so as to gleam with a light which might seem to call for spectroscopy as well as criticism. It contains two stories, the first of which can be described straightforwardly enough.

The story concerns a married couple called the Fogels. Gerhard is a German refugee and a humble painter of signs and of romantic landscapes. Maureen is a pathetic Irishwoman whose heaviness and doleful plainness are evoked with the tender vigilance which other novelists might want to bring to the portrayal of their Venuses. In the North London borough of Hornsey the pair have a son, Timothy, who is like a changeling. Timothy’s birth—which is |rendered primordial and portentous and yet duly obstetric—and his childhood in the little terraced house with its crumbling back-garden wall and the planes and idiosyncrasies of its pavement, are set-pieces of exceptional quality.

The couple are poor, and Maureen blankly gives herself at intervals to a rent collector. When the boy discovers this, it becomes material for the sense of estrangement which has gathered in him. He develops occult powers. He conceives himself to be an orphan of a sort, with a grand destiny—a destiny which dawns on him with the discovery that he has the ability to merge with a succession of textures and substances. At the age of four he has fallen in love with paltry Susie, who then plays a part in his grand design. Susie’s brother becomes a burglar, and Timothy, who is building up a collection of precious stones, becomes a fence.

Having been a self-constituted orphan whose oddities have alarmed his parents, Timothy has by now been perceived by the reader to be mad. The notation used to characterize his madness is this: “What he liked could make him cry. What he didn’t like—the darkly perverted taste of marmalade, say, or the sound of his father’s voice raised angrily against him or his mother—made him feel that he would never be able to cry again.” But it is also clear that this is a madness in the Gothic style, which may perhaps be understood with reference to James Hogg’s famous study of megalomaniac infallibility. Having performed his great sinful action, Timothy lights out for a foreign country, enriched, apparently, by his hoarded gems.

Timothy’s story is entrusted to a narrator who is also intent on telling a second story: his own. This narrator is a disturbed young man quartered in a Swiss hotel or clinic, where he is attended by a Dr. Wuchs, who purveys a fashionable magic medicine, conjuring with cells and selves as well as with pills and jabs. The young man occupies his time with schemes and, allegedly, with a fiction about the scheming Timothy. He is visited by his father, a European refugee again, but a rich one: a London art-dealer, a successful Gerhard. The two narratives run parallel to one another for much of the book. Is Timothy not only the narrator’s “contemporary” but also his double? The Hornsey events—occurring in a London which can seem somehow Victorian, with Timothy in the role of a Dickensian waif or David Copperfield, making good in a bewildering world—start to look like a low-life version of whatever happened to make the narrator, imaginatively, an orphan or stepchild, and disturbed. Eventually the narratives start to converge, and at a certain point it is evident that the Hornsey people are infiltrating the Swiss locale.

Toward the end, Timothy, on the run, arrives at a place which is a fresh version, or conception, of the narrator’s Swiss surroundings. The narrator’s mental condition is deteriorating, and his father explains to encroaching medical men that his son’s writings are merely a collection of squiggles and curlicues. The relationship between the two narratives is left unresolved, but my own view—though I am not confident that I am right—is that Timothy and his teller are one and the same person, or, at any rate, that each has the status of a fantasy generated by the other’s derangement. Some of the force of the novel must depend on how persuasive it proves on the subject of fantasies in general and of the inventing of fictions in particular.

And yet the novel has a force which is perhaps barely connected with its thoughts about fantasies and its apparatus of duplication. The story of Timothy’s infallibility has a kind of dignity. It has an intrinsic appeal, and so, to a lesser degree, has the story of the watchful, sardonic son encountering his glib, well-dressed physician. The question that arises is whether either is enhanced by confrontation with a mirror image and by incorporation in a Gothic scheme. I don’t myself object to the detection which is enjoined on the reader; nor do I object to the deception which is practiced—to the element of trompe-l’oeil. These things are traditional to the genre to which the writer may be felt to be adhering. It is perfectly all right that the novel should have you guessing and leave you guessing: guesswork, in relation to creativity and to sanity, is, after all, what it’s about. But the tradition of Gothic duplication is one in which it has been difficult to move beyond the making of mysteries and the coining of conundrums in order to create a lifelike predicament for the hero, and a convincing relationship between the hero and his double, and the second half of that difficulty may possibly present itself here. Gothic duplication tended to thrive on the internal conventions of the genre rather than on an awareness of the phenomenon of fragmented consciousness in the world outside. It was always a trouble, I think, that there were more doubles available on the page than in Victorian parlors, or even on the streets of Covent Garden or wherever at the stroke of midnight.

I suspect that Dan Jacobson would not altogether welcome comparisons between The Wonder-Worker and the Gothic tales, but there are definite resemblances, and there may be those who will think that the novel inherits some of the old hazards. They will not be surprised by its surprises. They will think it metropolitan, literary, and think that it shows an excessive virtuosity. Those who do not take to doubles and detective work may not respond to the excellence of each of its twin narratives, and they may refuse to see in its equivocations a gifted contribution to a sometimes preposterous genre which has also spoken movingly about delusions of grandeur.

John le Carre’s novel is absolutely bursting with detection. It is, in its own idiom, “extremely conspiratorial.” His first novel was the very good spy story Call for the Dead: later he published the acclaimed Spy who Came In from the Cold, and then a very prosy spy story entitled A Small Town in Germany—on this, the present book, in which, after an interval, spying has been enthusiastically resumed, is a distinct improvement. George Smiley, who also figures in the earlier fiction, is drably English-looking, with all that absence of charisma which the English love, and he is no James Bond: for all that, he is extremely conspiratorial, and about the best that Britain has got in the way of spies. He is deep and sensitive, and perhaps these qualities are plausibly attested by his seldom having anything to say for himself. His wife Ann keeps on going to bed with other men, including a Russian agent, and Smiley keeps on silently loving her.

Brusquely fired from the Intelligence Service at a time when his boss Control appeared to be losing his grip and was shortly to die, Smiley is recalled to deal with the likelihood that there is a bad apple in the barrel: that an enemy “mole” is operating in the Circus, the headquarters of the service. A mole is a traitor planted long ago at the heart of Intelligence activities to which he himself ambiguously contributes. London Station is contending (and occasionally colluding) with Moscow Centre, which is presided over by the extremely conspiratorial Karla. One of the incidents in the past when something went suspiciously wrong involved a British agent named Jim Prideaux, who was led into a trap in Czechoslovakia, where he had gone to plant a mole, and was shot in the back. Smiley combs through this and other incidents, and probes the former impasse where Control was in competition—over the provision of Intelligence—with an odious clubman with the scarcely pronounceable name of Alleline.

Most of these high spies are patriots, the type of public-schoolboy who once ran the British Empire, and they are upset that their country now counts for less than it did. “Englishmen could be proud then. Let them be proud now,” cries a dear old hyperemotional female ex-spy, expelled to Oxford with the collapse of Control. As Ian Fleming’s ebullient Bondage once did, le Carré’s tales, for all their disenchantment, seem to be trying to make Britian great again by feigning a situation in which she still has secrets that the world covets: and there are moments when le Carré’s characters seem to be doing the same.

Le Carré is attached to his technical terms—to words like “legman,” “pavement artist,” “lamplighter,” and so on. He can give the impression of upstaging the reader by alluding to matters, including plot matters, which the reader can’t sensibly be expected to know about or remember. He stresses the expertise of his characters. Prideaux aims at an “infinite capacity for suspicion,” but he let himself be sent off to Czechoslovakia by a colleague who was once, it seems, his lover, recognizing that it was a very fishy assignment but suffering his patriotism to get the better of his infinite capacity for suspicion. The coarse and ignorant reader may catch himself feeling that London Station is staffed by coarse and ignorant and angry fools. Alleline grates: “All I want is a place at the top table. God knows my record entitles me to that!” The Secret Service has always been deeply penetrated by Civil Service mores, and by the kind of innocent mole who burrows about in Whitehall generally, and it is not easy to imagine these words being spoken by anyone within earshot of any top table.

The novel seems to allude to the true story of Kim Philby. The mole here is expansive, eccentric, charming, untrustworthy-seeming, is a bohemian and the son of an authoritarian father, was credited in his Oxford days with right-wing leanings, and has long been a dedicated Communist: well, Philby was like that. The mole Philby was nailed very late, on the brink of promotion to head of the Secret Service. When Philby was found out, he was allowed to depart in the direction of Moscow’s top tables, and the mole here is treated with the same fine reticence by his colleagues. At about the same time as Philby’s departure some Bondish working-class train-robbers were sentenced to decades in prison for stealing money. All Philby had done, you see, was to arrange for a number of his compatriots and their associates to be murdered.

Who is to spy on the spies? le Carré’s book inquires, and there is the related question of what the public and politicians can do, or know, about the spies. The British Secret Service is deadly secret and extremely conspiratorial. Like the Queen, it cannot answer back when criticized. When it triumphs, it must do so in silence. But it can also appear virtually undiscreditable. The public seems meant to accept that it isn’t in a position to make judgments about the performance of its Intelligence Service, or about what used to be called “the great game” as it has survived into the powerless present. If le Carré’s portrait is anything to go by—and he appears to have some professional knowledge of the subject—the great game now rests on the assumption that spying must be a continuation by other means of a now moribund British diplomacy. And perhaps it should be rechristened Kim’s game, since it appears to require a fair measure of consensus between Britain’s spies and their adversaries.

British Intelligence is reputed to have been at its stealthy work in the course of Ireland’s current convulsions, and the affair of the Littlejohn brothers, who have loudly claimed that British Intelligence arranged for them to rob banks in order to defeat the IRA and who escaped from prison in Dublin with ostentatious ease, will certainly suggest to the reader of this novel that Alleline and company have been lending a hand. Alleline and company may even have helped to convince Harold Wilson that he should say in public that the people of Ulster are nice and peaceable, and have been bullied by a few thugs. The novel makes Britain’s spymasters appear incompetent—more so, perhaps, than its author, who is just sufficiently enchanted to make a savior of Smiley, may have intended. And the little that is publicly known about their activities will not encourage many patriots to protest at the emphasis conveyed. I should add that the novel has an engrossing end, and is very lively throughout.

The Rachel Papers has caused a stir in Britain—and, it may be, a dreadful thrill of excitement at what may by some be regarded as the spectacle of a crusadingly nasty adolescent unburdening himself in print. In fact, Mr. Amis is witty, clever, and concise, and has devoted himself to writing about, more than to being, a young person out to shock. But it’s quite true, too, that there’s an interest in its being a book by someone recently an adolescent: in Britain, adolescents don’t often drop their cool long enough to write a novel, and don’t usually divulge at any length what it’s like to be cool.

Living out the fateful last days of his teens, Charles Highway is at a crammers’ (a private school which prepares the dull or difficult children of the better-off for university entrance, on a basis of intensive care), and later achieves admission to Oxford. He also achieves emission with Rachel, whom he then leaves more or less disgracefully in the lurch. He dispatches a carefully composed letter of dismissal, one of a collection of documents—pensées and memorabilia—which are stitched into his carefully composed |narrative. He hates and disapproves of his father, who maintains a vulgar mistress, thus presenting his son with an excuse not always afforded such conscientious objectors. There may be nothing personal in this phobia about his father: it may be the sort of thing which arrives, like acne, at its appointed hour.

Compared with the long and complex annals of the British Secret Service, as rendered by le Carré, Mr. Amis’s novel is nasty, British, and short. This is nastiness aforethought: the scabrousness and scornfulness are highly calculated. Mr. Amis believes that the nastier things are, the funnier, and the distinguishing feature of his first novel is an unrelenting stress on the hero’s sweats, secretions, orifices, and erections. One might want to say that he has found a place in literature for the blackhead, and for some pints of sperm and sputum, except that he no doubt has his precursors. The hero cherishes as he endures his spots and bronchial cough. Such afflictions also have the advantage of being a reproach to others. One blemished lout is baited by Highway: “Tell me, Mr. Sebum, tell me, Monsieur Têtes-noires, how does it go down with the girls?”

The writer is the son of the well-known Kingsley Amis. It is thought indecent for a reviewer to mention kinship in this way, but Martin Amis almost compels the reference by producing an account of filial pugnacity which is at times divertingly filial. It is made a black mark against the Oxford don who interviews the swinging Highway, and who is discovered to be an out-of-sight trendy long-hair in his own right, that he uses the adverb “hopefully” in contexts such as “hopefully, he will buckle down to some work”: this is a strong point with Martin Amis’s father in his role as defender of the English language. Highway sneers, very much as Lucky Jim did, at pretentiousness. But Highway also sneers prolifically at himself. And while Lucky Jim was a loser, Highway is not. His bad behavior is chronicled, but really he is a prince. No wonder Rachel says yes. No wonder he gets to Oxford, which has always been friendly to princes.

It may be that the novel, which is marshaled as a satire on the writer’s age group, does not altogether take the measure of its hero’s charm and success. He is a winner, and I would bet that this has helped to make the novel a winner. Equally, I would bet that many of those attracted to the novel are older, by a bit, than its author. The British have gone in fear of their exotic young, from whom they expect a nasty princeliness, by whom they expect to be thrilled and despised. I wonder if Mr. Amis knows the pleasure he has given.

Mervyn Jones, who may be indecently identified as the son of Freud’s biographer, is a prominent left-wing journalist and, latterly, a copious novelist, one of whose recent books was a panorama of working-class life in London’s East End. Now it is the turn of the West End—of the toffs, in Edwardian parlance. The English, it is said, dearly love a lord, and so, it is rumored, do the Americans. Mr. Jones dearly loves Lord Richard, second son of the Duke of Berkshire, who comes of age during Britain’s Imperial heyday and weathers the reckoning of the Great War. Is this a popular novel, in the line of Ouida, and about the old ruling class, but written by a melting latter-day leftist? A wild thought.

Lord Richard falls in love with Lord Farnham’s daughter, a pale, austere, golden-haired, piano-playing, Pre-Raphaelite beauty called Ellie Colmore, and he loves her unhappily ever after. Ellie is very squeamish and declines to be the usual sort of debutante. She is not in any obtrusive way interesting: she has practically no human presence at all, though she does summon the energy to condemn as uninteresting the hussars and Members of Parliament among whom she is forced to move. She has a secret sorrow, which presently earns the period diagnosis of dementia praecox. As a girl, she had stumbled in the middle of the night through a bedroom door (left unlocked by novelistic license) to be astonished by the sight of a hairy major lying on top of her sister. This confirms Ellie in her horror of possession by a man. She loves Lord Richard but does not wish him to lie on top of her.

Richard had previously kept a servant girl as a mistress, but she could not hope to compete with Ellie. After Ellie has broken off their engagement, he marries a third woman, who can’t hope to compete with Ellie either. He lives with the virtuous and managing Geraldine for a number of years, and has two sons. An army officer at the outset, he is now a politician, having noticed that the House of Commons was pretty much like Eton: an insight achieved by more than a few. He is promised the Foreign Secretaryship by Lord Salisbury, for which mark of favor he has groomed himself by acquiring a favorable opinion of Germany, and the belief that Britain and Germany must come to an understanding. In time, the Great War proves that he was right all along.

He divorces Geraldine after renewing his friendship with Ellie and prevailing on her to agree to marry him. But she cracks under the strain of thinking of “the thing he would do to her as her husband,” and takes leave of her senses. Richard sets up house in Florence with an Englishwoman, who, once again, means far less to him than Ellie does, and he leaves her like a shot when the time comes for him to be the Duke of Berkshire and inhabit the palace of Severalls. At this point Ellie drowns herself. Neither kicking nor screaming, but distinctly perplexed, Richard enters the twentieth century, with its suffragettes and assertive women. Then comes the Great War, and the Somme: the novel treats very well the gradual realization, on the home front, of the scale and futility of the carnage. Late in life, liked and deferred-to, but put off by the politics that has emerged from the war, Richard takes to believing that he is visited by his Ophelia.

Lord Richard’s Passion is agreeable to read, and the social and political bearings which it devises for its hero do not disturb. The fluency with which the story is told can appear to get out of hand. When Richard and Geraldine travel to Berlin, he feels “honoured” to be asked to dinner by the British Ambassador, though the Ambassador is the new Lord Farnham—Ellie’s brother and a man he has known for a long time. But the real worry with the book has to do with the question of how far it can be seen as a celebration of its hero. Does it come out with what socialists generally repress? There is no way of knowing. Is it a quiet way of saying, through a scrutiny of what this kind duke gets up to, how awful these ruling classes were: does its anodyne air conceal a stratagem, which may even involve some use of the fact that Severalls is the name of a psychiatric hospital? I am inclined to reject this idea too, but there were times when it gained a certain potency.

Looked at with a dispassionate eye, Richard’s politics are fairly thin, and his private life is calamitous, though by no means for the reasons he supposes. His noble passion has, in fact, some of the attributes of a natural disaster. Three women at least are sacrificed to it: those women, including the mother of his children, are held to impose claims on him which it would be laughable to compare with the claim imposed by the phantasmal, almost speechless Ellie. He couldn’t desert his Florence woman “without feelings of pity, of uncertainty and—it had to be faced—of guilt.” The novel continues: “He could make out a solid case in his defence.” The novel hardly seems to be making out a solid case here in favor of Lord Richard’s passion.

Nevertheless, it can’t seriously be doubted that it is chiefly his passion which is meant to make Lord Richard sympathetic. All for love, and the Foreign Office well lost. Amor vincit the Duke of Berkshire, amid clouds of cigar smoke and odors of dementia. The Duke’s devotion is enough to make George Smiley’s loyalty to Ann look like criminal negligence. Mr. Jones goes to great lengths, and inspires the uncouth thought that such loves belong, as doubles do, mostly to books—to masterpieces and penny dreadfuls alike. In one respect, however, there is nothing bookish about the scenario which accompanies Lord Richard’s passion. Ellie’s refusal of life is not veiled in euphemism: it is revealed and explained as an illness.

When I was reading this book, I wandered into a derelict church in the Scottish Borders. It was built by the Presbyterian Free Kirk after its break with the Church of Scotland in 1843. Now it’s a dump for secondhand furniture. I came across an album containing photographs of Queen Victoria’s generals. Almost all the faces were hard, shallow, and well-bred. All the names were grand. For none of them would the world in any circumstances be well lost. Here in this cold, bronchitic vault, banged by Berwickshire winds, were the relics of a vanished empire. To get divorced, as Richard does, and to settle down mournfully, for that reason, as a backwoods peer, is something which these Victorian men of war would have been reluctant to do. And yet the novel seems to say that Richard was like his peers, and like other peers, and a person of his time and class. Mr. Jones may have set out to show what an awful time it was by describing a conditioning, and by retailing the harmful illusions of a kindly man, while at the same time paying homage to squeamishness and to inconsolable landed grief. But the awfulness of these haughty, silly snaps was well beyond anything intimated in the novel. Remembered in that kirk, it did seem anodyne.