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Stranger than Nonfiction

The Girl in a Swing

by Richard Adams
Knopf, 339 pp., $11.95

Fantasy, children’s literature, and science fiction—alternatives to the realistic novel—are becoming more common, not just as popular literature but as subjects for academics to teach. The fictional techniques of Malory, Dumas, Conan Doyle, of tale tellers sitting around the fire, all are much discussed and adapted. Leslie Fiedler, in his essay “Cross the Border—Close the Gap,” wants to know if it isn’t Robert Louis Stevenson rather than his contemporary Henry James who lies closer to the heart of modern literature. After Tolkien, it would seem, the deluge.

I once saw a group of PhD examiners sitting around a table discussing John Gardner’s Grendel, the only recent novel they had read, apparently, except for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which also plays contemporary games with old-fashioned narrative. Gardner’s book On Moral Fiction, which struck me as a small-time magician’s bag of tricks, was much read and discussed a few years ago. Lead us not into the post-modernist temptations of Barthelme. Back to Basics.

The basics of Gardner’s new book are mostly allegorical. Freddy’s book, within Freddy’s Book, is called “King Gustav & the Devil,” and takes up three quarters of the pages. The rest introduces us to a hearty psychohistorian (the modern breed of academic), a professor of Scandinavian history (the old-fashioned kind of professor), and the latter’s fat monster son Freddy (the ancient sort of monster). Freddy is eight feet tall and locked up by himself in the upper stories of a Gothic mansion outside Madison, Wisconsin. The psychohistorian, who has just lectured on “The Psycho-Politics of the Late Welsh Fairytale: Fee, Fie, Foe—Revolution,” is to be maneuvered into Freddy’s house so Freddy can give him his book. Presumably Freddy knows that his old-fashioned father will pay the wrong sort of attention to his work, whereas the new breed of academic, a John Gardner type, will get it right. These opening fifty pages are written with nervous self-consciousness; Ellery Queen could get people into a haunted house more adroitly. Worse, after he and we get there, Gardner tells us too little about Freddy to justify the creaky buildup. Worse still, after we start with Freddy’s book the introductory matter fades into a symbolic background and we never return to it.

So we must find the fun of Freddy’s Book in Freddy’s own composition “King Gustav & the Devil.” The interest does pick up a bit in this tale about early sixteenth-century politics, mostly Swedish. Just as the rioters in “The Pardoner’s Tale” laugh at the old man when he says they can find Death behind a tree, so too do young Gustav and his older relative Lars-Goren feel surprise but little fear or dread when they meet the Devil:

First of all,” said the Devil, his hand on Gustav’s arm, his face pressed close to Gustav’s ear—though he did not for that reason lower his voice—“you see only the evil, not the good in the bloodbath of Stockholm!”

Good!” exclaimed Gustav, jerking back his head for a look into the Devil’s eyes.

By all means good!” said the Devil with a roaring laugh. “Think about this, my hot-headed little friend: no one in Sweden will be fooled any longer about the character of the Danes! It’s not new, this murderous way they have, but people will turn their head—I’ve watched it for centuries.

Nothing so crude as a pact is made, but Gustav does rise to power in Sweden, rid the place of Danes, become a mediocre king, fall in and out with the towns of the Hanseatic League, get ready for Lutheranism, fight pirates. Presumably in the rise and fall of power it is always the Devil who wins.

He doesn’t, though, and that, as it turns out, is Gardner’s point. Gustav and Lars-Goren never did take the Devil all that seriously, and later on Gustav even sends Lars-Goren out to kill him. As if he could? Well, he can:

What a fool, what a poor, stupid fool, thought the Devil, smiling in his despair. First Sweden, then the world! For it was now all perfectly clear to him: after the bloodbath of Stockholm, there were only the people—no kings, no lords, only fools like Gustav Vasa and a few threadbare bishops. There he lost his train of thought. That’s my problem, he thought. I lose my train of thought. What wonder, though, he thought, in this utterly senseless….

But when he does find his train of thought again, it is the fully predictable: I repent me that I ever made man.

So God dies when the Devil dies, “and now, like wings spreading, darkness fell. There was no light anywhere, except for the yellow light of cities.” Magic, superstition, God and the Devil—all are gone, the modern world has been ushered in, with no place for big lads like Freddy, now called, wrongly, a monster. It all fits as Gardner has planned it. But the work suffers because the mythology he is using is the modernist myth of nostalgia for a lost unity given us by the very people Gardner would wish literature to circumvent, Henry Adams, Eliot, Pound, Yeats. The message of the allegory he has created with older fictional forms was composed in the yellow light of cities; as this becomes clear, all the trappings of Freddy, King Gustav, and the Devil appear as a kind of fraud. To tell the kind of tale Gardner wants to tell, The Waste Land is a better medium than Freddy’s Book.

Richard Adams is a much more popular writer than John Gardner; Watership Down was read on trains and buses, not discussed in PhD examination rooms. The Girl in a Swing will also, I suspect, delight most of the fifty thousand people who are expected to buy its first printing. Whereas Gardner uses allegory to proclaim the death of allegory, Adams banks everything on the clue, that telltale narrative device that came in with the detective story and was perfected by Freud. Adams’s job is to keep going a plausible tale about Alan Desland, a young, talented Berkshire ceramics dealer who falls in love with a beautiful German stenographer in Copenhagen, while dropping enough clues so that he can drive his story to the ordained awful moment toward which the clues have been pointing all along.

The first clue is a dream in which the young man sees some figures come to life from his ceramics collection—“the Bow Liberty and Matrimony, the Four Seasons of Neale earthenware, the Reinicke girl on her cow; yes, and she herself—the Girl in a Swing.” They are all weeping in the dream. We learn that the swing is on the lawn outside the man’s house, which is also his childhood home, and clearly one task of the narrative is to get the beautiful young woman, Käthe, into that swing. The second clue is a psychic vision young Desland has while in school: “The world, I now saw clearly, was nothing but a dreary place, a mean, squalid dump, whose inhabitants were condemned for ever to torment each other for no reason and no purpose but the pleasure of cruelty: a wicked Eden.” And, as it turns out, the place where he has the vision, in a living room looking out on a garden, matters too.

What Adams does pleasantly and well is weave his story in and out of places and things that seem to provide clues pointing to impending horrors, but don’t. Thus the Girl in a Swing is, as well as Käthe, a piece of eighteenth-century china, quite real and there, with no significance beyond its great value and ability to make Desland and Käthe rich. Thus, as well as Desland’s vision, several harmless scenes take place in living rooms looking out on gardens, and what seem to be other visions of Desland turn out to have simple rational explanations. The most important clue of all, a vision of a drowned child, turns up at one point as part of ancient family history, at another as part of a dream involving the daughter of an eighteenth-century potter, at yet another as a log that looks like a body lying at the bottom of a river in Florida.

Adams is not, I think, much interested in hinting to us that the strangest things in life are the common things that appear in everyday lives. He seems from the outset interested in strangeness itself and in making it seem strange to us, and the realistic surface of the story is there just to make that strangeness seem even more haunting than a dream or invented world might be. As the rabbits in Watership Down are quite rabbity, so the people in The Girl in a Swing are also ordinary, as much Berkshire folk as Celandine and Cowslip. Much of the mystery of the tale depends on Käthe’s sinister past remaining unknown until near the end. So Adams works hard to make Desland the sort who doesn’t want to know about her past because he is jealous of it, and he makes Käthe’s sexual aura sufficiently elusive as well as powerful so that Desland is taken up entirely with chasing her.

Since The Girl in a Swing is a pleasure to read but not a book that will bear rereading, a reviewer is obliged to say no more about its ending. Of course to say this suggests its limitation, but that is not necessarily a decisive fault. The book is after all an entertainment. Still, some drawbacks can be suggested. First, there are more hints and clues, more balls tossed into the air, than Adams can catch near the end. Hints involving a green tortoise, for example, and an unconvincing suggestion that Käthe is not only a girl in a swing but a sex goddess as well.

A more important defect, though, is the high gloss Adams imposes on this book. There are too many knowing allusions—from Beatrix Potter to German poetry, from local Berkshire lore to pagan dieties. Moreover, Käthe is too composed and charming, the Anglican clergyman knows too many right answers, the Scottish doctor at the end derives too obviously from All Things Bright and Beautiful, Desland’s Berkshire-accented assistant is cute beyond price. Everyone is so scrubbed, so decent, that one begins to long for some nastiness well before the end.

Moreover, the prose often becomes portentous and brittle at the same time:

I went towards her. She arched herself forward, dropped to the ground and we stood facing one another, I with the day’s heat still upon me, she smooth and cool, bare-footed in the grass. I might have fled, for I was very much afraid: or I might have knelt before her; but she grasped my hand.

You know now?”

Yes.”

Who I am?”

You are not to be named. You have many names.”

And yet I have need of you, my subject, my lord.”

Then, making me naked, she knelt before me and, having for a while done as she pleased, drew me down with her on the green, sun-baked sky.

This may be the worst passage in the book, but there are many similar passages.

It is not always fun to contemplate what goes on in Richard Adams’s imagination. Nonetheless, Adams can keep a story going, and that can make up for many sins. His handling of the central clue of the drowned child is fair, in the detective story sense, and cumulatively exciting. I was reminded at different times while reading it of such different stories as William Sloane’s fantasy To Walk the Night, Arthur C. Clarke’s science-fiction novel Childhood’s End, and the horse-racing thrillers of Dick Francis. To put it another way, The Girl in a Swing could make a wonderful movie, because film has always been a form where a certain amount of fakery is assumed, even asked for, when the style of the narrative is confident and dense. We ask of Alfred Hitchcock that he get away with as much as he can. The superiority of The Girl in a Swing to Freddy’s Book is that one makes the strange seem ordinary and the other, at least, makes the strange seem strange, no mean accomplishment.

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