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Only Disconnect

Daniel Martin

by John Fowles
Little, Brown, 629 pp., $12.95

The Sun and the Moon

by Niccolò Tucci
Knopf, 657 pp., $10.95

The epigraph to John Fowles’s new novel is a passage from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.

Gramsci is quoted again in the text itself, when the hero, Dan Martin, flicks through the Notebooks and reads a few sentences which the heroine, Jane, has marked. Jane is in a left-wing phase, and the marked passages refer to social structure, the philosophy of praxis, and a definition of the individual as “the synthesis not only of existing relations, but of the history of those relations.” The epigraph is adequately justified, in the sense that the novel is concerned with those morbid systems which occur between the death of an old structure and the emergence, premature or belated, of a new one. But it is misleading in another sense, because the new structure which emerges at the end of the novel in the renewed love of Dan and Jane has nothing to do with social structure; it arises from individual acts of will, feeling, recognition—the old idiom of consciousness and affection and need.

Daniel Martin is a love story that might take place anywhere: indeed, it mostly takes place in circumstances which liberate hero and heroine from any involvement in society, politics, or ideology, on a trip to Egypt, the Nile, Abu Simbel, Palmyra, Lebanon. The relation between social structure and individual feeling is a major theme in itself, but it does not exert any pressure upon Daniel Martin. Fowles evidently wanted to exhibit the mutual bearing of society and individual, but the design does not go any further than the device of making Dan an English writer temporarily doctoring scripts in Hollywood. This device results in several pages which make distinctions between England and America in language, social tone, and landscape. The distinctions work mostly in England’s favor, but they have nothing to do with Gramsci.

Fowles’s native theme is more accurately indicated in the epigraph to The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), a sentence from Zur Judenfrage in which Marx says that “every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself.” Much of the significance of The French Lieutenant’s Woman arises from the conditions of that emancipation: social and personal relations are shown not as separate constituents of reality but as interconnected systems of motives, values, and actions. But if we are to think of Fowles’s theme as it is displayed in his several novels and stories, we must define it more narrowly. He is preoccupied with the habit by which we turn other people into objects and take possession of them. Frederick Clegg in The Collector is only the most explicit butterfly catcher in Fowles’s fiction; the theme is crucial also in The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the stories in The Ebony Tower, and now Daniel Martin. At the end of the new novel, when Dan has his last meeting with Jenny McNeil, his discarded mistress, and Jenny is showing him that she will survive his loss, he muses with unpardonable self-pity upon “our time’s slick comedown from Forster’s Only connect…only reify.” It takes one reifier to know another. Fowles’s characters turn one another into objects, and then complain when they find their possessions missing, stolen, lost. At one point Dan is thinking about his lost years:

And then what we once were is now severed in a very special way from the present—reduced to an object, an artifice, an antique, a flashback…something discontinuous, and disconnected from present being.

Sometimes the complaint turns upon the rift between generations, in Dan’s case between himself and his father. But Dan does not realize, until it is nearly too late and he is saved only by the novelist’s charity, that he has always lived as a collector, hoarding his Mirandas in the basement.

Ostensibly, the theme of Daniel Martin is the possibility of undoing the damage, releasing our possessions to become people again, persons, presences. Ostensibly; because the possibility has more to do with Providence than with Gramsci, Buber, or the self-portraying Rembrandt invoked on the last page of the novel. The rhetoric of the book asserts that the process involves learning to feel again, practicing responsiveness as if it were a craft. But Providence supplies the conditions and provocations. Dan is divorced, his wife has married Andrew, he is on the loose in Hollywood, Jenny is hardly more than a casual possession. Jane’s husband, dying of cancer, kills himself to make her free for Dan. The new idiom of responsiveness, understanding, and feeling is genuine, a series of spiritual exercises to be practiced until their knowledge is carried to the heart. These exercises are practiced in the second, serious part of Daniel Martin; the first part merely shows why they are necessary, allows Providence to make them possible, and entrusts their future to Dan and Jane.

I have no fault to find with Jane: she is capable of anything that is required of her. The inadequate penitents are Dan and his creator, John Fowles. Dan is simply not up to the job, he is smeared with the triviality of his experience. Nothing in the book persuades me that Dan is capable of the conversion to gravity that is ascribed to him: lugubrious he finds it easy to be, whining about his job, his friends, the penury of the British film industry, the American ways of speech. But the real truth is that he and his Hollywood life were made for each other, and that he is singularly unconvincing in his new role as man of exquisite sensibility. “In her secret eyes,” the eyes being Jane’s, “Dan was eternally superficial, not an initiate, not able to see deep enough.” I agree with Jane and think her secret eyes impeccably acute. Why she decided, despite their advice, to take Dan at the end is never adequately explained.

Fowles is to be blamed, of course: or rather, his language, which is just as defective as Dan. T.S. Eliot once said of Thomas Hardy’s style that it sometimes achieved the sublime without ever having passed through the stage of being good. Nothing in Daniel Martin is sublime, but even the fine things in it are surrounded by pages of relentless falsity. The conversations between Dan and Jenny are presumably meant to be trite: the scene is Hollywood, after all, they are acting in a B movie of their own devising. But many of the conversations between Dan and Jane, Dan and his daughter Caro, Dan and the doomed Anthony are equally embarrassing. Someone in “Poor Koko,” one of the stories in The Ebony Tower, refers to “hopeless parole in search of lost langue,” and there are many other signs that Fowles keeps up with recent lore about language. His books regularly stop to make some comment on narrative problems, plot as Destiny, alternative endings, and so forth. “Language is like shot silk,” one of the narrators says in The French Lieutenant’s Woman; “so much depends on the angle at which it is held.”

But Fowles’s sophistication in the theory of fiction is compatible, I am afraid, with naïveté in the discrimination of styles. We are clearly not meant to smile when Dan Martin reflects upon “the enormous semantic subtleties of middle-class English intonation and the poverty of nuance in even the most intellectually American equivalent.” He means it. “We have evolved,” he continues, “a language that always means more than it says, both emotionally and imaginatively.” We, the English. So Fowles brings Dan back from evil Hollywood to pure, rural England to allow him to practice his spiritual exercises in a language that always means more than it says. If Fowles can hear enormous semantic subtleties in middle-class English intonation, no wonder his Daniel Martin endorses the values delivered in that intonation: a compound of Oxford, money, leisure, and mildly left politics. And this from a writer who finds his epigraphs in Marx and Gramsci.

Am I saying that Fowles has no merit? Or that Daniel Martin has none? Not quite, in either case. The Collector seems to me a decent novel, and moving in its presentation of Frederick and Miranda, their different experiences and values. The title story in The Ebony Tower is excellent, though one has only to compare it with nearly any of James’s short stories about the artistic life to see the difference between the two writers in range and exactitude of implication. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is Fowles’s best work because he found for that occasion a major theme of great historical and personal importance, and he commanded a language at least adequate. I don’t regard the alternative endings of that novel as more than a conceit; they merely represent Fowles’s somewhat wide-eyed discovery that much depends on the angle at which a story is held.

But Daniel Martin puts in doubt the claim that Fowles, in addition to being an interesting writer, is also an artist. The new novel is a big, laborious book, but I have found in it no evidence that Fowles trusts his art sufficiently to be an artist. Richard Blackmur once invoked “the principle that the intelligence must always act as if it were adequate to the problems it has aroused.” Fowles’s intelligence does not act in this spirit or with this verve: he rarely trusts his vision enough to let it disappear in the work. That is why Daniel Martin contains so many pages and chapters which have not been given the authority of vision at all: odds-and-ends which have shaken loose from the work because they were never attached to it by force of faith to begin with.

Mr. Fowles is far better known, I gather, than Mr. Tucci; but Mr. Tucci is indisputably an artist, a man of artistic faith. The Sun and the Moon is the third of his books, so far as my reading goes: the others are Before My Time (1962) and Unfinished Funeral (1964). The three books tell substantially the same story, about a dreadful old woman with a notable talent for dying who keeps rehearsing the role and postponing opening night until her performance is perfected. But Tucci does not share Fowles’s interest in epistemology. As a true comedian, he alters not his story but the convention by which it is propelled. The comic principle of Before My Time was to treat evil as folly, with an implication that folly is universal in its nature but diverse in its forms. Tucci has a remarkable flair for deriving comedy from monsters: mothers, grandmothers, husbands, daughters, lawyers, cooks, even places, Moscow, Naples, Lugano, not to speak of feuds, wills, and deaths. But he allows for a different range of feelings by translating his story into different genres. What Before My Time treated as comedy of errors, Unfinished Funeral treated as melodrama, and now The Sun and the Moon turns it into comic opera.

Genres are precious to Tucci because they testify to human possibilities, including human absurdities. Naturally, much of his comedy is occasional, that is, it arises from occasions, mostly public: meals, parties, theaters. The story of The Sun and the Moon is played, to begin with, in a theater, where the play is Tolstoy’s The Resurrection: “Didn’t fate bring us together in the theater,” the fallen woman cries to her lover, “where the resurrection was being played out? Don’t you see the hand of God in all this?” The hand belongs not to God but to a comedian skilled in the history of theater.

But the deepest source of Tucci’s comedy is language itself. Characters are derived from linguistic forms to which, in moments of stress or self-consciousness, they insist upon returning. In The Sun and the Moon the Chief of Police thinks of himself as an epic poet and speaks accordingly, but his true vocation is to compose epitaphs. When the central character, Leonardo, a country doctor, asks to be shown the villa where Galileo was held prisoner by the Inquisition, the Cardinal answers:

A prisoner? A most honored guest of the Florentine ambassador, you mean. Galileo was a prisoner of his habit of talking, like all Italians.

Tucci agrees with the Cardinal. Things happen in his books, his Italians do them, not because they want to but because, leaving them undone, these eloquent men and women would keep their tongues idle. Leonardo’s visit to the Cardinal, “that paradox—mad old lecher,” is totally pointless, except that he is interested in his paradoxes, the verbal equivalent of his arthritic pains. At the end of the book, Leonardo knows that he is trapped by the family of the awful old Sophie when he finds himself speaking their language. To speak is to be human, to be silent is divine. “The voice of God is only heard in silence; in fact, it is the silence of all other voices on earth.” Meanwhile Leonardo thinks of his experience as a fairy tale. Each new event only increases his memories, and is not allowed to alter his fate: those who are resigned to their fate are condemned to have memories instead of purposes or actions. So Leonardo speaks of his “lost future.”

There is a plot, of sorts. Dr. Leonardo Claudi mayor of the village of Laterza near Brindisi, comes to Rome to ask the authorities to build an aqueduct for his people. The mission sends him running through the streets, meeting cardinals, professors, rascals, the scholar Mommsen, the poet D’Annunzio, the socialist Salvemini, the futurist Marinetti, and sundry folk lost to fame. Meanwhile, the beloved Mary is waiting, surrounded by her terrible family, dominated by Sophie. But the real plot is in the paragraphs, sentences, phrases. Tucci’s genial spirits never fail. He says of an unsmiling grandmother:

They took pictures of her on elephants in India, on camelback in Egypt, on the Pyramids, inside the Pyramids, under the Sphinx, and in the ruins of Pompeii. (She did smile in that one, as if to imply, “See what I do to cities when they make me angry.”)

That comes from Before My Time, but no matter, the same imaginative verve is at work and play in The Sun and the Moon and Unfinished Funeral. In the melodrama, the change of tone sharpens the edge of the sentences. Tinti says to Eloise:

Your mother has the power to make others stay out of their own lives, because she needs their company. And for what purpose? No purpose at all. She has only the joy of prevention.

Again:

Ermelinda behaved as if God had nothing to do on earth but be faithful to her in exchange for her faithfulness to him.

And for a sample from The Sun and the Moon:

He felt the way he had always felt in a church since he had lost his faith—on vacation from prayers and penances, therefore hopelessly exposed to the spiritual comforts it offered (more so than back in the days when he had sought that comfort without finding it).

I have quoted these fragments partly for the pleasure of reciting them, but mostly to show what I mean by an artist’s trust in his art. Tucci is in possession of his art, his vision, his language, at ease among its possibilities. The comedy of politesse comes naturally to him, or at least comes with every achieved appearance of being natural. Nothing shows the slightest sign of escaping from his art or of being only loosely attached to it: he is more fortunate than Fowles in that respect.

At least until he is compelled to bring his sentences to an end. The comedy in his work reminds me of Italo Svevo’s; a shared gaiety of language in the company of ostensible morbidities. But Svevo’s endings are better than Tucci’s, because Tucci feels called upon at last to make his finale convincing: he should have been content to make it memorable. As it is, he sends Leonardo off with Mary: a show of probability, for the first time, raises the question of probability which should not have been raised at all. Despite that lapse into cause and effect, The Sun and the Moon is a wonderful book, richly comic, and most moving when it does not try to move at all but merely to please. It pleases.

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