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Coming Up for Air

Sweet William

by Beryl Bainbridge
Braziller, 204 pp., $7.95

Heat and Dust

by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Harper & Row, 181 pp., $7.95

Selected Stories

by Nadine Gordimer
Viking, 381 pp., $10.00

Jill

by Philip Larkin
The Overlook Press, 247 pp., $8.95

These are all pretty good books, or better than that; and all of them deal, though of course in very different ways as varying talents and interests dictate, with the constraints and distortions inflicted on individuals by society—and especially by forms of it that derive from the historical circumstances of British culture.

Beryl Bainbridge is probably the most gifted of these novelists; her talent has been very justly celebrated in these pages by Karl Miller (NYR, May 16, 1974). It is an odd and in a muted way fantastic talent, as is perhaps necessary in modern English writers who manage to escape the rather stifling conditions of normal contemporary competence. Her book that best demonstrates it is The Dressmaker, in which an illiterate GI is murdered by a dedicatedly deprived old lady in a small Liverpool house; she stabbed him in the neck with her scissors, “she was that annoyed.” But the pathetic slaughter with which Bainbridge likes to end her stories is little more than the gesture with which the disgust heaped up in the course of accumulating lacerating details, the pain of all the accurately depressing dialogue, is swept off the page. Though they are sometimes funny, and often very compassionate, Bainbridge’s novels cannot really bear themselves.

Deprived and exploited women are probably her main interest, their minds and bodies drained, like their environments, of value. Into the dreck of their lives erupts, at random intervals, the bizarre perception of an observer from another culture.

I just wondered, I’m not easy in my mind,” said Margo, watching Nellie picking at the ham crushed in the paper napkin, strands of silko adhering to her skirts, and Jack packing shreds of Kardomah tea into the bowl of his pipe.

How you can smoke that stuff beats me,” said Nellie. She stood up, grasped the dressmaking dummy in her arms, as if she was tossing the caber, and staggered the few steps into the hall. Parting the brown chenille curtains under the stairs with her foot, she trundled the dummy safely into the darkness.

Suddenly Nellie, a heavy old woman, is lifted out of the small period domestic detail and matched with a Highland athlete, running crouched with a tree trunk in his arms. Meanwhile the wretched girls dream of pleasure, of America. They are as empty of real knowledge as the wartime shops are of cigarettes or the future of hope. Fail-safe mechanisms ensure thought-control:

Don’t you think,” said Margo, when Nellie had gone, “that we had a rum childhood—I mean, thinking about it—“

Rum,” said Jack, not understanding.

Restricted. The way Mother was—all them rules, going to church.”

What rules?”

Don’t you think we were damaged?”

Don’t talk daft.”

He sat up, clutching his belly, filled with irritation at the way she carried on. Whenever Marge started to talk in this fashion it made him angry: he was defending something, but he didn’t know what. It was like when Lord Haw Haw had been on the wireless—he wanted to jump to his feet and wave the flag.

The Dressmaker has a horrible accuracy of place and period—Liverpool, 1944—that authenticates its fable, and gives it a central place in Bainbridge’s rapidly developing oeuvre. The Bottle Factory Outing is wilder and funnier. The hopeless aspiration to love and a brilliant future is more cruelly put down, and this time it is the game, deprived heroine herself who has to be disposed of, her corpse huddled away so that, representing anyway only a lack, she would not on removal be missed. The latest novel, Sweet William, though very effective, is a shade less impressive than the earlier work, partly because the mess is still there at the end.

Ann is a dim girl, though a rung or two up the social ladder from her predecessors; and it is for the most part through her dim eyes that we see William, a playwright and a real card. So it is all the more striking that, by means of an arbitrary switch of the point of view, we occasionally find ourselves looking at Ann with the cold unsympathetic eye of some intrusive narrator: “He looked at her smooth face, the small wanton mouth, the gullible eyes that watched him greedily.” William claims to be divorced but is still living with his second wife when he takes up with Ann, whose fiancé has gone off to teach in the US, here as always a sort of inaccessible blank on the map, a geographical scramble vaguely connoting escape and success. William says his life is very compartmented, and so it is, including a love affair with Ann’s girlfriend, sleeping with his wife, and the production of his working-class play. We actually get a bit of this play, one of Bainbridge’s spurts of real farce. The play succeeds, and he will go off to America on the Queen Elizabeth to supervise the movie. William is written out, rather than off, at the end, leaving Ann with a baby; which is almost, though not quite, as bad as being dead.

The milieu now is the flatland of Camden Town and Hampstead, sub-Bohemian, very triste, and full, no doubt, of women like Ann’s landlady Mrs. Kershaw and Ann herself, emancipated from her lower-middle-class background but without much change—a victim of sexual freedom rather than of sexual bondage. A Christmas party at her parents’ house has the full tone of amazed horror, and a confrontation between Ann and William’s wife (whose letter pleading with Ann to give her husband up has been written by William himself) gives us one of these excellent moments when Bainbridge’s implied author stops pretending merely to record and arranges matters like a dream or a ballet:

They both began to pace the room—Ann, lost and fearful, dragging her feet. Edna skimming across the bare linoleum in her ballet slippers. They passed each other several times with despairing eyes and faces wet with tears…. They stared at each other—Ann against the wall, skinny and hunched, Edna fleshy in the peach-coloured nightdress. They were like rodents on the floor of a cage, dwarfed under the ceiling.

As usual, the action is set sometime in the past—not so long ago as in The Dressmaker, but when the “fivers” were still white, and people went to the US by sea, and the working-class drama was getting under way. Nostalgia would not be the right word for Bainbridge’s attachment to the past; she is always looking back at something from which it was imperative to escape. But our lives are distorted like the feet of Chinese women, forever, and all Bainbridge’s women are evidence of whatever it was that ruined England and made it absurdly small. Even America is only a dream formed from the residues of that corrupted culture and dreamed by frustrated emigrants; like the present, it is preferable to the past only because we have not yet mined its guilt and missed its illusory opportunities.

It may be that some sense of our lost chances and former corruption lies behind the minor vogue of the modern imperial novel, a genre to which Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s new book belongs. It won the Booker Prize; and although that desirable honor has been in existence only a few years, this is not the first winner that has been about Empire, indeed not the first to be set in India. In this case one sees why the judges liked the book and preferred it to Bainbridge’s; we are bound, it seems, to have a special feeling for novels in the Forster tradition, having exported our metaphysical disability to get on together and proved that we can’t get on with anybody, proved it on a catastrophic scale.

Heat and Dust is about two generations of the English in India, one before and one after Independence, the earlier immediately following Forster’s; so we have a continuing tradition of liberal-mystical fiction on the subject. I gather without much surprise that Indians have as many reservations about Jhabvala as they do about Forster, but she suits the English and is undoubtedly a writer of some talent.

The narrator is a woman living her own life in India, and at the same time catching up with the disastrous career of Olivia, the first wife of her grandfather, who in 1923 got pregnant by an Indian, a minor Mohammedan prince or Nawab, and eloped with him. Meanwhile the narrator has her own chilly modern affair with a young English hippy who is acquiring Indian religion, and she then becomes pregnant in her turn by her Indian landlord. The Indians seem interested in Englishwomen, but regard them as something a little anomalous, closer to the hijras, eunuchs who perform in drag, than to Indian women.

An Indian friend assures me that Jhabvala is very unconvincing as a recorder of Indian city life, and it is true that the crowds, the cripples, the sufferers from elephantiasis, the hopeless hospitals and the easy death are, though represented, rendered without much strength or interest. Instead we have the story of Olivia, left too much alone by her upright official husband, falling in with the Nawab and his company of idle young men, falling almost by accident out of a happy marriage into a sexual relation with a man regarded by British officials as childish and treacherous, an enemy as much of his own people as of the forces of law and order.

Olivia is at first obsessed by death; for her the British graveyard combines death and empire, duty and suffering. There is a child’s tomb, and she particularly fears the death of any child she might bear. Without falling out of love with her husband she finds herself aborting the child of another man; she has loved India the wrong way, with feeling. She retreats to a house of the Nawab in the holy mountains. The modern narrator is not much interested in India except for its spiritual possibilities; she rejects abortion but also heads for the Himalayas. The two narratives are quite subtly plaited, with magical chiming between the two. Heat and Dust is certainly not wanting in skill, whether in this matter of contrapuntal writing or in the coolly registered ambiguities of the Nawab, or in the drilling of little holes for samples of the past of British India. By the end one feels that Jhabvala has conveyed the sense of a failure to reconcile individual lives with the social order—a failure registered impassively, almost incuriously. All that mitigates this conclusion is her hint that women, with a feeling that men do not have for the peculiar hierarchy of sex and spirit, might come to terms with the Indian mysteries.

Nadine Gordimer is a South African woman who, instead of emigrating, has stayed on and allowed herself to become calmly obsessed with the spirit of her half-mad country. This book is selected from five collections of stories written over thirty years. It is full of pondered, significant details, the symptoms of that dementia—the bureaucratic and social combinations that make everybody ill, white and black alike. The stories are not all about race relations and the stresses they place on people who suffer, enforce, try to mend, or even to live with them; some are about the restricted lives of the whites themselves, their self-imposed and paralyzing mental suburbanism. Gordimer splendidly observes the remnants of persons beneath the repulsive stereotypes, an imaginative effort paralleled by her view of Africa itself, its extraordinary beauty showing through the obscene mess that has been dumped on it. So here too is a fiction of protest; and here too the sense that the truer the protest the more certainly it will end in death.

Indeed Gordimer sometimes begins with a death, as she did in her last novel The Conservationist and in the story called “Six Feet of the Country.” As to the final death, there is a good story called “A Company of Laughing Faces” which ends with a girl’s certainty that her glimpse of the body of a lost white boy under the water of a lagoon is for her “the one truth and the one beauty,” kept apart in her mind from the conventional lamentations and stock reactions of her ruined elders. The body may not be of a human being; in “The Gentle Art,” another exceptionally fine story, it is a crocodile. The death may be averted, as when an old woman in “Enemies” clings to her privileged existence; but death, in itself, seems preferable to the distortions and constrictions, the unconscious lies and ruined sensibilities, of the living.

Gordimer is always an artist, within but never of the society she writes about. After holding this difficult position for so long she is able, in her preface, to speak interestingly about it. It was as a woman, she says, that she most belonged to the culture into which she was born: “Rapunzel’s hair is the right metaphor for this femininity: by means of it, I was able to let myself out and live in the body, with others, as well as—alone—in the mind.” Thus, she claims, she was able to achieve solitude without “alienation,” two conditions she wants to distinguish, while remaining aware of “the serious psychic rupture between the writer and his society that has occurred in the Soviet Union and South Africa, for example….”

On this larger topic she does not here expatiate, but the discriminations made are fine, and they indicate that she understands her peculiar situation, and her peculiar talent, with a completeness that is wholly beneficial. In the same cool way she also distinguishes between her imaginative activity as a novelist and as a short story writer: “a short story is a concept that the writer can ‘hold,’ fully realized, in his imagination, at one time,” whereas a novel must be “taken possession of stage by stage.” She is, I think, by nature a short story writer, and some of the best things in the novels are episodes “held” in the manner of the story; for example, the seven pages in The Conservationist describing a furtive sexual adventure in an airplane. The stories lack the heavy self-consciousness that occasionally oppresses the reader of the novels. But by and large Gordimer’s work, never raucous, always subtly considered, gives one the sense of an educated imagination focusing on the exemplary issues her intelligence presents to it; it includes and transcends the world of constriction and distortion.

The last book in this group is an old one. Jill was written at the end of the war, when Larkin was twenty-one, and it was first published in 1946. Rather unexpectedly, but very pleasantly, he prefaces the book with an account of his time at Oxford, the time of which the novel gives its own account. He tells us something about his seedy publisher, already immortalized by certain intrusive and venomous allusions in the novels of Kingsley Amis; and the legendary “imitations,” perfected by Amis at Oxford and palely registered in Lucky Jim, are also admiringly described. Jill is not autobiographical, since Larkin was not really a working-class boy; but he claims, modestly enough, to have given the modern English novel that “displaced working-class hero” who is more generally associated with the first novels of Larkin’s friends Amis and Wain.

As the author himself remarks, some of the charm of Jill lies in the almost incredible archaism of its detail; the effect is very different from that of Bainbridge’s virtuoso performance, for Larkin’s record is naturally more naïve, affectionate, and closer to the period described. Yet Jill is a subtle book and a worthy predecessor to Larkin’s very distinguished second—and, as at present appears, last—novel, A Girl in Winter. Jill is very directly about the extraordinary bonds, social and sexual, in which the English then loved to tie themselves up; they still do it, and only the equipment described here is archaic. Larkin’s working-class boy progresses, and this is a bit labored, to Oxford, there to be shamed and honored simultaneously by his minor-public-school roommate. He is quick to imitate the class that is quick to exploit him. The book takes off when it gets to its central theme, the sudden materialization of the girl Jill, who had existed only in the hero’s fantasy. Partly in self-defense against the pressure from the higher classes he wrote her story, and then she actually appears, a real schoolgirl, all lack and limit.

This affair is managed with an idiosyncratic delicacy; Jill is a poet’s novel (or, as Larkin prefers to think of it, a long short story) and in the end one remembers not the conscientious rendering of class dialects and Oxford streets and colleges, but a sort of ironic romantic excess, very familiar from Larkin’s poetry.

That poetry is the best the modern English have, and it is also a poetry of constriction. There is a wry beauty in the fantasies such constriction produces; Larkin discovered it in 1946, and Bainbridge is working the vein thirty years later, while, out in the old Empire, Gordimer and Jhabvala record its effect on other lives and wait, like the narrator of Heat and Dust, for the mist to clear and allow them a view of mountains in which the spirit might, at present unimaginably, be free.

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