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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.

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