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Lost Allusions

Cockpit

by Jerzy Kosinski
Houghton Mifflin, 249 pp., $8.95

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.” Frances Wingate, much-traveled and middle-aged, a famously successful archaeologist and a brisk brusque blithely fragile divorcée, is the heroine of Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold. On first looking into The Realms of Gold, one sees at once that Miss Drabble, deep-browed and middle-browed, has chosen to rule a wide expanse of private and public life. Frances Wingate is more connected than she would like to be to her family relations: her vice-chancellor father and her birth-controlling mother; her hypersensitive suicidal nephew, Stephen; her professionally armored geologist cousin, David, and her very differently armored cousin, Janet, a challenge in her suburban demureness; and even—and this is the true surprise of the book, as it is the true surprise to Frances herself—her aged great-aunt Connie, who dies alone, starving, in her ruined cottage. The past of Aunt Connie and of her cottage moves Frances as nothing else in her family world or her professional world had ever done, and it moves us too. It is the distant relation who comes closest.

But then Frances has found herself to be all too little related to the man with whom she had for seven years been having an intimate and abrupt relationship: Karel Schmidt, a smoldering pedagogue with a fiery wife misnomed Joy. Frances, with her characteristically arbitrary decisiveness, had suddenly broken off relations with Karel. He said that he would always be there for the asking. And now—as the novel opens—she asks. What, we ask, will be the fate of her postcard? And what will be the fate of those good qualities of hers—her sense of the past or rather of the pasts, her nimble responsiveness to the present, her sense of herself, her quick-witted verbalism—which so often plunge her somehow into neurasthenic weeping and wailing?

This neurasthenic yet generous woman has obscurely made of her realms of gold a waste land. So it is not surprising that T. S. Eliot puts in appearances, spectral and substantial. At one point Frances is talking about funeral pyres with her nephew Stephen:

A brand from the burning. To Carthage then I came,” said Stephen.

Who said that?”

T. S. Eliot. Or St. Augustine, as you prefer.”

The novel itself prefers Eliot, who is seen as a kind of archaeologist: he dug up that fragment of St. Augustine. And then again, Eliot’s own words are in the soil, waiting to glint or clink, as when Frances listens to the minister of culture in Adra: “To hear him talk of tradition and the individual talent was to enter into a world where old labels had meanings.” Including, presumably, the old title-label “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—a presumption which means that there is something odd about Frances’s believing that she couldn’t altogether comprehend the minister because she “came from the wrong culture.” Or again, a stratum lower, there is the Eliot-excavated memento after Stephen’s suicide:

She taught herself, over the years, to see his death as a healing of some kind, the end of a long illness, a sacrifice. Taken from them for their better health. Her own children, certainly, mercifully, showed no inheritance of the more unwelcome Ollerenshaw traits.

There the unlabeled signal, the archaic trove, is Middleton’s The Changeling (Stephen is a changeling, more Frances’s child than her nephew, and perhaps more her child than are “her own children”), where the dying child-woman cries to her father: “I am that of your blood was taken from you / For your better health.” Middleton created it, but Eliot exhumed it, not just in his essay on Middleton but in the cadences of “Gerontion”: “I that was near your heart was removed therefrom….” (Eliot had been helped toward this by his preference for the erroneous text “I that am of your blood….”) Or there is the authorial parenthesis, calling up Eliot, though not by name, in order to part company with him, while at the same time doing an Eliot-like amending, most said, soonest emended (for Eliot wrote, not “the human mind,” but “human kind cannot bear very much reality”); Cousin Janet sits dourly at home:

It must be admitted that despite the prevailing melancholy, she enjoyed this meal, and felt a little cheered by it (the human mind can bear plenty of reality but not too much unintermittent gloom).

It must be admitted that this literariness raises one awkward question about the novel: isn’t Frances really a novelist, merely rigged as an archaeologist? The point is not that no archaeologist has any nodding acquaintance with such as Homer—archaeologists read, and when Frances recites poems to herself to stave off a toothache, there is no chicanery. But there is artfulness rather than art when the soil of a character’s consciousness is so fecundly literary that there is no perceptible difference, once an allusion crops up, between the authorial consciousness and the character’s. All the archaeological stuff is massively got up—women novelists, from George Eliot in Romola to Iris Murdoch in toto, have always been worthy at this. But got up is what it is, and I didn’t believe a shard of it.

Frances’s energy, self-attention, self-pity, and sense of the past are in their nature more those of a writer than of a digger (she can’t bring herself even to use the noun “dig,” with a fine but literary scruple). The impersonation or imposture matters, because its fancy dressing up precipitates the novel’s major flaw, its need to have an acknowledged novelistic consciousness within its world, and hence a series of gratuitous costly interruptions by a nonexistent narrator, playing boldly fictive vieux-jeu games like “So there you are. Invent a more suitable ending if you can,” or:

But meanwhile, we must look briefly at David Ollerenshaw, the third of the Ollerenshaws, and I fear much the most impenetrable. I must confess I had at this point intended to introduce him in greater depth: indeed, I had a fine leap, from Janet staring at the small crater in her melted wax candle to David staring into the crater of a small volcano. It would have been an arbitrary link, but I liked it, and am sorry that I have messed it up by this perhaps unnecessary fit of explanation. The truth is that David was intended to play a much larger role in this narrative, but the more I looked at him, the more incomprehensible he became, and I simply have not the nerve to present what I saw in him in the detail I had intended.

And what does she have the nerve to see in this rigmarole? The good things in the novel—its fidelity to domestic infidelities, its minute dismay at what a suburban High Street has so loweringly become, and above all its puzzled respect for the stanchly starch moral world of the stubborn young cousin Janet (who embodies a true challenge not just to the TV interviewer’s professional curiosity but to the novelist’s professional curiosity too: “I think people should mind their own business,” and “They hadn’t gone round nosing into other people’s affairs”)—all these good things have nothing to do with the good thing that the novelist is trying to get on to, the up-to-the-second narrator-fixated self-consciousnesses. Such tics discover nothing but the author’s uneasiness.

It is impossible to be sure just what Miss Drabble was so uneasy about, but the best guess is that it has something to do with the central disguising of a novelist as an archaeologist, and the subsequent eruptive revenge taken by the novelistic consciousness asking for an open recognition of its claims. Pitchforked out of the door, and so clambering back in through the window, are the novelist’s nature and nurture.

Do we credit a self-communing of this sort?

While she was having breakfast, she had a good idea for her lecture—nothing much, just an interesting new connection about Phoenician trade which would interest, from what Galletti had said, this particular lay and local audience. She got out her notes again, scribbled a few more, crossed out one quotation and decided to use another. The breakfast was delicious—nice doughy rolls, thank God, instead of those hard crusty things one sometimes got, and the coffee was hot.

The tone is, in more than one sense, bluff. For the snag is that Miss Drabble is so good at gliding with us into the current of consciousness, so deft at making us hear the appraising cadences with which a person talks to herself (“nothing much…”), that we can’t help hearing too all the implausible silences of withholding. And of course Frances wouldn’t, to herself, be other than excitedly specific about what this “interesting new connection” was. We’re asked simultaneously to enter into Frances’s inner talkativeness (excellently done in the novel’s opening pages) and to be barred from her good idea, her professional aperçu. Reluctant to fake a professionally archaeological instance, Miss Drabble is pushed into faking a professionally literary one.

To find Frances unconvincing as an archaeologist is to find that the book wins at home but not away. The large reaches of the novel exceed its grasp; its realms of gold, whether historical, geographical, or imaginary, are too evidently part of a grand design, imperious and imperialistic. Vistas are posed and disposed. Frances’s other cousin, David, keeps his distances:

As a geologist, he took a long view of time: even longer than Frances Wingate, archaeologist, and very much longer than Karel Schmidt, historian.

But there is a signal absence from that list: a writer’s or artist’s view of time. It is not enough that the book itself should manifest such a consciousness (as it does); the ambition of the book is to include, and not just manifest, all such consciousnesses. So in Frances’s pieties of memory (the magic of the thronging frogs, or the disillusionment of the childhood ditch) the writer’s or artist’s view of time is to be found. But distorted, as it is again distorted in the intrusiveness of the explicitly literary farcicality with which books do furnish these rooms, whether it is the difficulty of reading Stendhal (odd), or this:

Blood was running down the side of her face from where the glass had hit it, and now Joy was beating her over the head with a copy of the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse which had been conveniently lying around.

Conveniently for whom?

For Miss Drabble, the essential story is that of Frances’s love for Karel Schmidt, and how—after quitting him for no good reason, seven years into their faithful adulterous relationship—Frances got him back as soon as her strike-delayed postcard finally reached him. I did not believe in Karel and his weird saintly magnetism: nor did I believe that their separation was really anything other than a very good turn which they were doing Miss Drabble. (But then I must admit that I have never seen any reason to believe that Anna married Karenin in the first place.) Miss Drabble’s heartache may be in this story of how God joins what God-knows-what had put asunder, but her heart is elsewhere: in the death, in the family and yet out it, of the old aunt who breaks her leg and starves to death. What we have there is not the willed mystery of Karel’s European charisma or of archaeological realms of make-believe and of fools’ gold, but a consternation and concern which are doggedly British, and which are valuably at one with the book’s pervasive and persuasive vocabulary of “nice” and “really.” (The first couple of pages compress us with “this rather nice hotel room”; “Silly, really”; “It was a nice room”; “But really, she did like a nice modern bath”; “It was madness, really”; and “he was a nice man.”)

Connie Ollerenshaw, her grandfather’s sister, dying like that in a cottage with her stomach full of undigested cardboard and pages of newspaper. (The Sunday Examiner had not spared all details.) It was not nice to think of such a thing happening to anyone, let alone to a blood relation.

Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, Cockpit, likewise has a lonely old death:

They found the old man at his kitchen table in front of a portable television set, his shirt unbuttoned, his tie loosened, his body already decomposing. The coroner confirmed what the police assumed from the date of the newspaper under his hand: he had been dead for two months.

Such an event, which is at the heart of Miss Drabble’s novel, cannot be said to be at the heart of Cockpit (where it warrants only a short paragraph), since Cockpit doesn’t have a heart, both in the sense that its flickering sequence of fantasy-violences and outwittings deliberately eschews any center or reassuring coherence, and in the sense that it is heartless. For whereas Miss Drabble, like her heroine, thinks that “it was not nice to think of such a thing happening to anyone,” to Mr. Kosinski’s hero there is only one thing that it is not nice to think of happening: anything nice.

Cockpit is a reel of such willed nastiness as to constitute perhaps the most coldly odious reading I have ever been subjected to. No doubt it will be claimed (the publishers brazenly praise its “compassion”) that the icy unfeelingness is not the author’s but the narrator’s; but Mr. Kosinski has chosen to achieve his laceratingly disturbing effects precisely by making it impossible at any point to get behind or beside or outside the narrator’s hideously perturbing imperturbability. Tarden, the hyper-secret agent, rancid prankster, and psychopathic Walter Mitty, can in no way be distanced or placed, placed anywhere other than in Tarden’s own brutally sadistic solipsistic world of Faustian fustian. It is a world where every kind of murderous piratical joke and humiliation is perpetrated, where power of every kind is to be had for Tarden’s asking, and where there are enacted such revenges as would make even Clint Eastwood scurry toward the forgiving bosom of Lord Longford (whose legendary notice says, “Trespassers Will Be Forgiven”).

I cannot see what the retailing of such sick fantasizing can do but minister to wholesale sickness, and I believe that a writer has a duty—as even Kipling at his most cruel realized—to help human beings not to thrill to cruel imaginings.

His only fear in the peepshows, he confessed to me, was that he might encounter the Snapper, a well-built blond youth who prowled the porn houses. None of his victims could describe him accurately because he had never been seen in bright light. Like everyone else, the Snapper would stand in front of the booth and nod at an older man, who would promptly follow him into a booth. The young man would squat on the floor while the older one dropped a quarter in the slot and unzipped his pants. The boy would take the man’s flesh into his mouth, easing it gently into his throat, then suddenly bite down. With one bite, the victim’s organ was severed. The Snapper would push through the booth and run down the center aisle, his mouth full of blood and scraps of flesh. Once on the street, he would disappear into the crowd. The man left in the booth would crash against its screen and walls like a blind moth, then stagger out, mad with pain and terror, screaming, his guts erupting. The other customers would scurry from their booths like silverfish and flee into the street. With blood oozing through his pants, the victim would clutch his groin and beg the peepshow manager not to summon the police.

This is itself terrorism and intimidation, and its biting brusquerie is the artistic counterpart of the Snapper himself. And like all literary and political and sexual terrorism, it is also centrally sentimental and conventional. For the cockpit of the title is that from which Tarden murders his most brutalized victim, Veronika—murders her by switching on the radar as she stands in front of the plane, so that she will later die from radiation with agonizing slowness. And the shallowly fashionable moral-amoral equivalencing on which all this collusive vengefulness rests (collusion not just between Tarden and the pilot but between Mr. Kosinski and his right-minded readers) is clear in this exchange, fifteen pages from the end:

But what reason have I got to expose a perfect stranger to radiation?”

You found reasons to machine-gun, bomb and napalm thousands of perfect strangers. All I want you to do is switch on the radar. Instead of a village, its screen will show a single, human-shaped target. After a moment too brief for proper identification of the object, you will simply switch the radar off. Your mission will be over and for it I’ll pay you as much cash as you were paid for all your combat missions put together. How’s that for a logic tree? Can you override that?”

Napalm has a lot to answer for.

For Tarden is not a secret agent at all; he is, displaced and warned, the diseased fashionable novelistic imagination (“Now I’m in charge of the plot. It’s my novel”), licensed to commit the cruelest irresponsibilities in the name of administering salutary shocks to the complacent liberal imagination. Mr. Kosinski treats his readers as Dr. Stanley Milgram dutifully treated his hoaxed subjects. Cockpit is designed to thwart and hurt human sensibilities, or—in the folie de grand guignol of the blurb—to leave us “with the wreckage of our most vital support systems.” Any implicit claim (is there one?) that it is doing so in the interests of some higher sensibility and higher creativity is untestable and untenable. It seeks to defeat its readers, and it defeated me. Compassion? Look here, upon this picture, and on this. The latter, after all, comes from a writer who, notoriously, can hardly be accused of any facile compassion and yet lets compassion be intimated in his very cadences:

I know that behind the countless walls in the thousands of buildings that fan out around me, flaccid bodies, winding in their blankets and dreams, begin to open their eyes, stretch their aching limbs, detach their bodies from brief embraces, and begin the daily ritual: soon they will grope toward narrow doors and shuffle out onto dirty streets.

The morning comes to conscious- ness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

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