The Doctor’s Wife
Beard’s Roman Women
Moses: A Narrative
Sheila Redden, thirty-seven years old, married, handsome, tall, self-conscious about her height, well-educated, nursing a sense of past risks and chances not taken, falls in love with an American eleven years younger than herself. After a brief, nervous idyll, she decides she can’t go away with him, and can’t go back to her husband and her teen-age son, and disappears from all their lives, “like the man in the newspaper story, the ordinary man who goes down to the corner to buy cigarettes and is never heard from again.” The image is Sheila’s own, the best explanation she can offer for her conduct, and her novel ends with her leaving a London park as it closes for the evening, quite alone, her whole past, recent and distant, shaken off: “She went through the gates and walked off down the street like an ordinary woman on her way to the corner to buy cigarettes.”
There is much to admire in Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife, which is the story of how Sheila Redden came to disappear in this way. There are briskly evoked settings in Paris and Villefranche, the scenes of Sheila’s affair; discreet descriptions of Belfast, where Sheila’s home and married life have been. There are remarkably sharp pictures of the inadequacies of the men in this book, from Sheila’s weak, kind brother to her bullying husband, who to his own surprise is inflamed by his wife’s infidelity and rapes her in Paris when he thought he had come to talk peace and take her back. The best moment in the book occurs when Kevin, the husband, after the rape, feels master of the situation again, and thinks his wife feels his mastery too. “You’re coming with me,” he says. “Right, Sheila?” “When you’re ready, I’ll take your suitcase and we’ll go downstairs and I’ll tell your friend that you’re going home….” He doesn’t understand that he has, now, lost her for good. Not even her silence as he keeps talking persuades him, and he scarcely believes her when she tells him. “No matter what happens to me, Kevin, I’m never going back to you. That’s final.”
Moore’s grasp of Sheila’s dilemma is sympathetic and subtle. Her husband and her brother, both doctors, can see her behavior only as a sign of mental instability, for which there is some precedent in the family, and Moore has Sheila deal with this line of thought very firmly. “Falling in love is a mental crisis,” she replies when a woman friend tries to remonstrate with her. Yet it is her brother Owen, with all his limitations, who perhaps best understands what has happened. Sheila has fallen into adultery in a time and a place where it can’t properly be seen to be wrong. It seems merely damaging and inconvenient and irresistible. “It happened to me,” Sheila says. Their father, Owen thinks, would have seen sin where they can see only illness: “My father would have talked of the moral obligations involved. I can only surmise the emotional risks.” Here Owen is merely picking up an earlier hint from Sheila herself, who had suggested that morality, like religion, was a matter of faith. She had said, when asked whether the troubles of Northern Ireland were part of her trouble,
Oh God, no. The Troubles, you can’t blame the Troubles for everything. That’s become our big excuse. We have the Troubles. They’re the only thing we believe in any more…. The Protestants don’t believe in Britain and the Catholics don’t believe in God. And none of us believes in the future.
Without a belief in the future, or in something, Sheila thinks, one can’t make sacrifices in the present.
Yet the Troubles do seem to have something to do with Sheila’s plight, and this is where my doubts about the novel begin. Is Belfast simply a backdrop of violence and despair and confusion, a political stage for a personal muddle, or is Sheila, in spite of her disclaimers, a victim, or even an emblem of her country’s ills? When Sheila and her lover are compared to “survivors walking away from a crash,” is that an allusion to the bombs mentioned elsewhere in the novel, or merely a bit of careless writing? To change the ground a little, when Sheila is able to give her lover the slip because they were to take separate planes to America, is Moore suggesting a real shallowness in the American, who is prepared to spend the rest of his life with Sheila but not to give up the return half of a charter-flight ticket? Or is this merely the sound of the plot creaking, the squeal of the machinery which will send Sheila off to her loneliness? Similarly, when the narrator, who has access to Sheila’s mind and sensations, including the trickling of menstrual blood down her thigh, calls her “Mrs. Redden,” is that a distancing effect or merely a clumsy variation on “she” and “Sheila”?
All these questions can be answered, after a fashion, by an appeal to “real life.” Sheila has to come from somewhere and she has to be called something. There are all sorts of crashes in all sorts of places. The American just didn’t think of not taking his charter flight, such things happen. But then these answers all suggest that the life of the book is not fully in the book.
The limitations of The Doctor’s Wife are perhaps simply the limitations of any novel that offers only to observe its characters rather than to animate them or attack them, or engage with them in any one of a dozen other ways. The straightforward imitation of life in literature tends to produce an imitation of literature. Moore’s characters are plausible without being entirely convincing—even when the narrator is inside Sheila’s head, he seems to be there as a tourist rather than a resident:
I was lazy. The only job I was offered was teaching at Saint Mary’s and that would have meant going on living at home with Kitty…. I married to get away, God forgive me.
It’s true. I haven’t had such a bad life, though. Nor such a great one, either. This morning, it was great. This morning I walked in the Luxembourg Gardens with someone I wanted to be with, and we laughed and it was exciting, he’s someone I could have fallen for. But that’s silly, it’s over.
She got up, changed her dress, and did her face….
The language here is close to the language that Sheila might use, if she were a real woman, but the ventriloquist’s mouth seems to move too visibly in the vicinity.
Claude Simon’s Triptych—his twelfth novel, and the eighth to appear in English translation—is less an imitation of life than an anthology of imitations, and in its reflexive, critical response to a variety of modes of representation, reminds one of Empson’s remark about Proust. Much of Proust, Empson said, read “like the work of a superb appreciate critic upon a novel which has unfortunately not survived.” If The Doctor’s Wife seems to be too much of a novel, Triptych scarcely seems to be a novel at all. It is written in that deadpan prose seemingly obsessed with appearances which one associates with Robbe-Grillet and Butor and the French New Novel—“The church steeple can be seen from the barn. One can also see the steeple, though not the barn, from the foot of the waterfall. From the top of the waterfall both the steeple and the roof of the barn are visible”—but it insists ingeniously and urgently on questions of perspective. Everything seen supposes a person standing somewhere to see it, and the major movement of Simon’s book is to explore the places where people stand.
Thus the “real” landscape of the novel is revealed to be a landscape in a movie, as a camera tracks back from it; thus a scene which appears to be taking place in a movie becomes a scene in a novel which a woman in another movie is reading; thus a man in that movie completes a jigsaw puzzle which shows us the landscape which we thought at first was the novel’s “real” scene. Posters, postcards, paintings, strips of film come to life and contain action; “life” freezes into stills; the novel takes us into cinemas and movie studios and circuses and out again. The eeriest thing in the book is perhaps its final image, where a parked car we thought we had safely located deep inside Simon’s system of Chinese boxes seems to be standing outside the movie house which is outside the film which contains the jigsaw puzzle which contains the landscape where the book began. A sort of conceptual vertigo results.
I’m making Triptych sound intricate and pedantic. It is intricate; it’s not pedantic. It is an artfully fragmented work whose hero is the reader, the patient puzzler-out of its meaning, but Simon is not really commenting on other, more linear novels, or making a foggy philosophical point about how complicated modern life can be. He is asking us, by means of jumbled samples of carefully observed reality—couples screwing, boys fishing, a girl getting lost and drowned, a drunken bachelor party, a bad movie of high life, a rabbit being skinned, a boy doing his homework—what it is that we do when we turn to fiction, what our stake is in that form of spying we call reading novels or seeing movies, what comforts we find in recurring patterns and metaphors, why we are so consoled when we can locate the “real” world inside a fiction, what the grounds are of our drive to put everything into proper temporal sequence, to incorporate every flashback into a running story without gaps. Simon’s implication, I think, is not that we are possessed by a rage for order, in Stevens’s phrase, but that we bring many varied needs to any piece of narrative. Triptych is a testing of some of those needs: practical criticism, as it were, except that we practice not upon a text but upon ourselves, upon the cheated, delayed, fulfilled, diverted, or abolished demands we bring to whatever story we have taken up.
Somewhere between Moore’s narrative innocence and Simon’s meditation on narrative lie the novels of Anthony Burgess, which imitate life fairly straightforwardly in their way, but are also recklessly untidy and very much aware of themselves as fiction. Enderby, for example, in The Clockwork Testament, is writing a long poem about Augustine and Pelagius and is teaching in New York while Burgess, as we know if we read the newspapers, was teaching in New York and writing a long poem about Moses. This suggests a leakage from life into fiction, which is quite different from a confession or the creation of a roman à clef, and which can be felt in the books, I think, even apart from any information one may collect about Burgess’s career. It is this leakage, along with Burgess’s very attractive combination of frivolity and intelligence, that gives his novels the sort of energy and complication that are lacking in The Doctor’s Wife.
Ron Beard, Burgess’s avatar in the new novel, is very suspicious of talk about motivation:
…motivation…was an ineluctable property of popular drama but, even there, sometimes turned out to be a mere bone thrown to the dogs of reason, meaning reasons, while the true force behind the seemingly inexplicable action was the really inexplicable purpose, even there. One did not produce fiction, even of the elevated Jamesian kind, in order to explain life but in order to evade life.
But Beard’s Roman Women is not an evasion of life, it is an apparent exorcism of a piece of past life, clearly successful for Beard, and perhaps useful for Burgess. The novel is based, the blurb says, on “an autobiographical episode,” but that seems to be putting it rather mildly. The death of a woman you have been married to for twenty-six years is hardly an episode, and the subject of the novel is widower’s guilt, the haunting of a man by his dead, sick wife, as he tries to start again with fresher, firmer female bodies, and to balance the loss of a marriage that he thinks of as a civilization, a system of delicate signs and meanings, by the gain of healthy sex and a sense that he is not as old as he thought he was.
The other subject of the book is the conquest of death by anticipation, and this again echoes an “autobiographical episode”—Burgess’s twenty-year-long postponement of a death diagnosed as early and certain. Ron Beard decides to outwit his terminal illness by climbing several flights of stairs in order to bring on a heart attack. He tries the stairs twice without any success and then gives up, “as happy as he had ever been in his life,” reprieved, and confident no doubt that the ghost of his wife, pardon the pun, has been laid (“Tell me you’d like to screw me like a rattlesnake,” Beard’s wife’s ghost says on the telephone in one of her aural manifestations).
Where Enderby, in The Clockwork Testament, was involved in a film version of Hopkins’s “Wreck of the Deutschland” (“EXTERIOR. DAY. THE SEA. Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelléd snow spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps”), Beard in the new novel is writing a musical about Byron and Shelley and Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. His dead wife keeps telephoning him, and his Italian girlfriend Paola, precious in herself, reminds him of a past, precious infidelity (“He had never let it become a nostalgia of the senses: he had filed it away as a grace and a wonder”). But then Paola, who is a photographer, takes off for the Six-Day War, and once absent, is no more real to Beard than his dead wife. Indeed she is less real since his wife calls up and Paola doesn’t, and in the midst of his disarray Beard meets his old partner in grace and wonder at the airport. Past and present cave in, become a single disturbed space where the dead are alive and the living are away, and although Beard clings to rational explanations for what is happening to him—the voice on the phone is a trick, an impersonation of his wife, or a tape of her voice; his wife didn’t die, there was a clerical error at the hospital, he saw the wrong woman on her death bed—the novel clearly suggests that we shall do well to settle, with Beard, for the reality of ghosts. “When all other explanations fail,” Beard thinks, “the remaining one, however bizarre, has to be the acceptable one.”
The ghosts turn all of Beard’s relations with women into versions of his selfishness and cowardice, and it is a virtue of the book that this point of view is put with some authority. “Time’s been good to you,” Beard says to his old girlfriend at the airport. She, thinking of her cancer and her amputated breast, says “How do you know?” Again, Beard, referring to his wife, trying to express sympathy for the girlfriend, says, “Cirrhosis isn’t too bad a thing to die of,” and the girlfriend, speaking for the double class of women and the dying, says, bitterly, “Have you ever died of it?”
But then, once the accusations are out, Burgess helps to let Beard off the hook by making him such a likable, disorganized, drunken clown. There is some sense in this, even some moral sense: why beat your breast if you’re beyond improvement? And it is true that Burgess’s heroes are always at their best when their lives are completely out of control. But there is also a reluctance to face the questions the novel itself throws up. There is only guilt, and the record of guilt’s more dramatic manifestations, and scarcely any inspection of possible grounds for guilt. Beard’s Roman Women is a lively book but it is a shallow one, and we are likely to remember its gags—“His dentist had once told him that he was one of the lucky few whose teeth would outlive him. He would have preferred his work to, but you could not have everything”—and its language—“such thoughts panted thought his mind”; “the regular sort of cremation regularly ignited by the local funeral directors”—when we have forgotten its ghosts and the neglected brief they almost brought against Beard-Burgess.
This is perhaps as Burgess would wish, since in a note on his Moses he suggests that “our salvation lies in understanding ourselves” and that “such understanding depends on a concern with language.” I hope our salvation doesn’t depend on Moses, a rambling, amiable epic in loose verse, which Burgess used as the basis of his script for a television film starring Burt Lancaster. It is far closer to DeMille’s Ten Commandments than it is to the Book of Exodus, and although it reiterates some of Burgess’s favorite themes—the heavy burden of free will, the need to respect and yet to order the multiplicity of the given world—it is finally too much of a lumbering anachronism to be anything other than a curiosity. Its language sometimes catches an interesting rhythm and flow, and a man who can incorporate verbatim whole stretches of the King James version of the Bible without breaking his stride or his diction is clearly some sort of master of pastiche, but the verse of Moses is too often just sad doggerel. “God help me, you are all I have,” Moses says to the querulous children of Israel, and in a loftier, more meditative mood:
What shall I do with these peevish children? Lord,
Tell me what I must do. Man is strangely made.
Fill him with bread, or water, and his spirit
Comes alive, ready to brood on heaven, on you, on
Human freedom. But let the meanest of your gifts
Elude him, and he croaks like a fractious frog.
Tell me, Lord, tell me. What shall I do?
The Lord, resisting the wisecracks which might well cross even the divinest mind at this point, simply offers another recipe for a miracle.