Sphinx, the successor to D.M. Thomas’s Ararat and Swallow, embraces material enough for a dozen novels, although it can hardly be considered a novel itself, however liberal one’s conception of the form. It resembles a vast telephone exchange, clicking and reverberating insanely as connections are made and broken, crossed lines are uncrossed, uncrossed lines are crossed.
Part 1 is a play, “Isadora’s Scarf,” prefixed by a witticism of the poet Sergei Rozanov, famous as an improviser: “Duncan is in her grave.” Such fun is ubiquitous in Thomas, and keeps the reader going when otherwise he would throw in the towel and turn to something less taxing, like The Times crossword puzzle or the implications of the merely double helix. The unfortunate blind Olga of Swallow gets a mention, “that cunt, Olga,” the unappetizing Rozanov calls her, while ghosts of the real or once real flicker through the pages. Anna Akhmatova (glimpsed in the company of Anna Karenina), Nadezhda Mandelstam, Mickiewicz, Rachmaninov, Meyerhold, Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, Andropov, Margaret Thatcher, and—a pervasive presence—Pushkin, seemingly Thomas’s one pure admiration.
Rozanov is the less than enthusiastic lover of Sonia Vinokur, whose black lover, a student by the name of Joshua, sets out, dressed as a Zulu warrior, to kill him. In error, Joshua spears another writer, Gleb Rezanov, whom Rozanov happened to be visiting at the time. But nothing so trivial or boring as mere coincidence is at work. The enigmatic actress Nadia Sakulin, the “sphinx” (or one of the sphinxes), reckons that she is responsible for Rezanov’s death. It was Pushkin’s play, The Stone Guest, that first inspired her to go on the stage; Rozanov wanted to see a broadcast recording of her in The Cherry Orchard, but his television set wasn’t working; the repairman he sent for was involved in a road accident, and instead a plumber arrived who had been summoned by Gleb Rezanov. Rozanov thought the confusion amusing, and rang Sonia to tell her about it; Sonia thus discovered that Rezanov’s wife worked in a dry cleaner’s and then rang the Rezanovs about a carpet she wanted cleaned; Joshua assumed it was Rozanov she was calling.
Alternatively, and even more indirectly, the mix-up could be attributed to a hare. Pushkin, so the argument goes, would have been killed in the Decembrist uprising of 1825 had he not turned back after starting out for Petersburg; he turned back because a hare jumped out in front of him, and he was inclined to superstition. Thus he was preserved to write The Stone Guest, the play responsible for making Nadia an actress, and hence….
Somewhat similarly, Sir Anthony Eden appears here as “Lord Adam,” and unkind people call Sonia “Cleopatra” because she had a general, a poet, and a young boy on three successive nights, a feat of promiscuity (or versatility) ascribed to the Egyptian queen in a story of Pushkin’s. (See the fragment, “Egyptian Nights,” translated by Thomas in Ararat—and “Ararat,” incidentally, is also the name of a wine.) The rationale of these allusions, correspondences, and connections—if rationale is the right word—lies in the theory of another character, Masha Barash: “…like charmed particles—totally unpredictable yet making a pattern, a meaning—flowing together.” The theory isn’t really hers, she says. “There’s a physicist working on it in London. Simply that everything in nature is implicated, involved, folded-in like a rose. A fish twisting in Lake Sevan affects a fan whirling in—in Madrid or New York.” And it is Masha’s husband, Shimon Barash, who sketches a defense of Thomas and his literary practices. He is asked
if he didn’t think it was slightly immoral, mixing reality and fiction. Barash was emphatic in his rejection of my qualms. The trouble with most novels, he asserted, was precisely that they were fiction; in the final analysis, one knew they weren’t true, and therefore they were boringly irrelevant.
In any case, he concluded, where could one find a more fictional reality, or a more all-too-real fiction, than in Russia? The common reality of everyday life was more surrealistic than Gogol—or Vrubel—could ever have imagined.
The reader soon begins to ache from this incessant nudging, presumably intended to remind him of what he may easily be forgiven for having forgotten, or for never having known. Still, there is sport to be had much of the time, even though not all the connections are registered, let alone found meaningful. In one of Thomas’s more engaging feats of legerdemain, Settembrini—the pedantic yet eloquent progressive of The Magic Mountain—materializes briefly as a prize-winning improvisatore and vice-president of the Italian Communist party. “My God, he can still do it! Impassioned, revolutionary stuff! At eighty-eight, he’s still totally naive! He still thinks he can change the world!” The antics of Soviet bohemians make a change from the steady flow of standard spy fiction and the stock machinations of the KGB, the CIA, and the British secret service. It would be pleasing to believe that Thomas was parodying such fiction, but in the end we may come to think he is only tarting it up.
“This is Russia, my dear!” says Masha, who works as an Intourist guide. “Put this in your notebook! Everything confused, shapeless, turbulent, ghostly!” She is addressing Lloyd George, a Guardian correspondent, son of a Welsh miner, and defined as “an anti-smoking peace-loving, left-winger”; his notebook is to be filled with the confidences of “sundry refuseniks, Baptists, homosexuals and other dissidents.” George, whose story occupies much of Part 2, is a member of Women Against Violence, one of the committees of the Inner London Education Authority. Shimon Barash, though keen to be invited by the ILEA to the European Improvisation Championship, mocks the committee (“squeamish, bleeding hearts”), and refers to the sponsoring body as “your English censor, Ilya.”
George falls abjectly in love with Nadia Sakulin, beautiful, noble, and Christian, and dreams of defecting to the USSR and marrying her. What does he have to lose? “Liberal values that seemed every day more threadbare, though every day I had to pretend as much enthusiasm for them.” Since she is a heavy smoker, he hastens to explain that the badge he is wearing stands for “Aid State Health”: from which we may deduce that its inscription is ASH, the logo of the British pressure group Action on Smoking and Health. Nadia shows reluctance, reminding him that he has three rights they would give anything for: “to believe in God or not, to read what you like, and go where you like.” In a tedious and maudlin scene, George rapes her, if rape it is; either way, unbefitting conduct for a supporter of Women Against Violence. Actually Nadia is a “swallow,” a KGB seductress, and her bedroom is bugged. There is little point in framing George, and the implication may be that blackmailing, of both foreigners and Soviet citizens, is largely an automatic or autonomous activity.
We gather from Part 3, couched in deft or at worst ingenious Pushkinian measures, that as a reward Nadia is “expelled,” that is, she is free to go West, to go to Rome as it happens. The Vatican is expected to back Polish dissidents, and therefore the Pope must be discredited, in the person—Thomas quails at going the whole hog—of his closest confidant who
has a taste for gracious women.
No one has put him to the test.
But see his face—it’s only human!
At heart, he is a sensualist….
With a little help from Mickiewicz and Chopin, and red fishnet stockings, Nadia succeeds. “‘On Peter’s rock, yes!’ He lay on her,/His robes her pillow, and cold stone.” Here too, smearing proves superfluous since the Pope has withdrawn his blessing from Solidarity: “Freedom is a drug;/Hunger for God would be diminished.” But never mind, it has provided the author with yet another sensational, indeed unique copulation.
By another of those “coincidences” that “come in swarms,/Like bees or ants or summer storms,” it turns out that Lloyd George could be held responsible for the killing of Rezanov in that, years before, he had contributed to a fund to educate a clever Soweto boy, Joshua N’dosi. George returns to England, goes off his head, a victim of Holy and unholy Russia, and is finally blown up by the Christmas bomb left outside Harrods. Is he meant to be a spineless bore? Or a good socialist sadly betrayed? Like Thomas’s other characters, he is a puppet, fluttering and floundering against a backdrop of Chernobyl, Greenham Common, the Falklands war, AIDS, Hampstead clinics, and Soviet psychiatric hospitals.
There appears to be a slight disagreement between Thomas and his publishers, the publishers announcing Sphinx as “the concluding volume of a ‘troika’ of novels dealing with improvisation and inspiration,” and the author describing it as “the third of four improvisational novels.” Sphinx doesn’t read like any sort of conclusion. Given an inexhaustible supply of coincidences and connections, and given Thomas’s knowledgeableness and artistic highhandedness, there is no reason why the sequence should ever end. Even so, it is doubtful that the world is as comprehensively and inexhaustibly priapic—“’Christ! the whole fucking universe,’/She cried, ‘was made for love!”’—as he assumes.
The only thing Palais-Royal has in common with Sphinx is that it is set in foreign parts—France and England, roughly between 1828 and 1868—and mixes fictitious characters with real people. Among the distinguished personages, not yet ghosts, who move through the narrative are Liszt, Balzac, George Sand, Sainte-Beuve, Marie d’Agoult (whose pen name was Daniel Stern, and one of whose daughters by Liszt became Cosima Wagner), the actor Frédérick Lemaître, and the liberal Catholic reformer Lamennais; and, in England, John Henry Newman, the actor William Charles Macready, the engineers Brunel and Stephenson, Queen Victoria and her consort, and Dion Boucicault, the Irish dramatist who later settled in New York.
As far as I could tell, Richard Sennett takes no material liberties with the truth. Palais-Royal is historical fiction at its most scrupulous and carefully researched, with the perhaps paradoxical result that—so smoothly are they merged—the invented characters, whose story this nominally is, are as “real” as the historical persons, or the latter are as at home in fiction as the former.
The plot is easy to summarize. Frederick Courtland, twenty-two years of age at the outset and a novice English architect, is engaged to help in the construction of the Galerie d’Orléans, the great glass and iron arcade in the garden of the Palais-Royal, under the (actual) architect, Pierre François Léonard Fontaine. Frederick’s brother Charles, the elder by four years, is a clergyman suffering Victorian doubts; he retreats shamefacedly to Paris, originally on a “sabbatical” from his pastoral duties. Frederick falls in love with an actress at the Comédie-Française, Anne Mercure—a name perhaps taken, by planetary variation, from a famous actress of the time, Mlle. Mars, also an Anne, who appears here in propria persona. Anne Mercure has two daughters by a seemingly unknown father, or fathers, but nonetheless impresses us as, by modern standards, a model of dignified propriety (as does the novel itself). Frederick’s career is continually frustrated, in part because his ideas are in advance of the age. Charles attains a modest fame as a writer and as editor of a review called The Free Thinker, which is less radical than it sounds, and he is caught in a strained, cryptic relationship, a mariage blanc of the intellect, with Adèle, the highly intelligent elder daughter of Anne Mercure.
Nothing very much happens, apart from living, and a considerable amount of artistic, political, social, industrial, and theological history. A novel of this kind needs to be elegantly written while getting its period language unobtrusively convincing. Sennett achieves both requisites quite splendidly. Much of the book consists in letters, passing between France and England, between the characters, and (best of all) between the brothers and their engaging godfather, Severus Rood, a lawyer. Initially at least, the reader will have to call on the patience customarily demanded by epistolary novels by reason of their minutiae and informal allusiveness.
We were ever adept at charades, do you remember? I adored the cunning stages Father used to contrive for us around the table set against curtains in the drawing-room, and even then, I admit, my untamed egoism made itself known; I still recall with pleasure pushing Frederick off the table whenever the occasion arose for making an important speech. So perhaps it is meet that my newest impressions of this city are at once of its theatres, which my brother haunts, and of his prominent place in that other theatre in which Talent declaims to the Future.
Such is the perversity of human nature that Sennett’s urbane and leisurely flow may induce a longing for the chunky, sweating helter-skelter of D.M. Thomas, but only until we have worked ourselves into the book. We are helped toward this by such early exchanges as, “the throbbing of Paris soon restored me. And I do not mean pleasure, although there is here an abundance of that sure, vulgar tonic for the soul” (Frederick to Charles), and, “Sir, what folly is your brother committing? An amour with an actress? You mention it so casually. Frederick is ardent, true, but he is not foolish; moreover he is not common, and entanglement with a French actress is, surely, an obligatory adventure Only for the Most Vulgar” (Severus to Charles). In reply Charles admits that the actress is demure, even somber, in her toilette, and no outstanding beauty, so in this “amorous passage” his brother has at least “succumbed to no ordinary vulgarity.”
Among the highlights is an account of the July Revolution of 1830, an event romantic in both its politics and its artistic participants, and the consequent replacement of Charles X by Louis Philippe. Charles reports on the first performance of Hugo’s embattled Hernani, a few months earlier, launched by “the poet Gautier, premier among the young scriveners of this town,” dressed in pale green trousers and a black jacket with velvet facings:
Believe little of what you may read or hear in London of the Hernani and its reception. Scandal there was, but also poetry and truth. I have never been so stirred, nay transported by anything like it. The reports spread here by those who have only a love of intrigue dwell on the character of M. Hugo’s partisans. It is said his claque consisted of drunken ragamuffins, who desecrated the theatre; the scum entered the theatre, it is said, several hours before the curtain’s rising, dressed in extravagant and provoking rags, passing the time in the corridors drinking, chewing garlic which they then spat upon the floors, and relieving themselves against the fine silk-clad walls and upon the plinths of the statues which decorate the reception rooms. All lies.
In this affair he perceives “the flowing life of the untamed.” “We who are shackled by the niceties of modern civilisation, we would better look upon ourselves as degraded!” Strong words to come from the normally timorous and priggish Charles, but the sentiment chimes with his growing antipathy toward narrow-minded forms of Christianity and, in particular, the arrogance displayed by the Vatican.
Another memorable feature is the outbreak of cholera in 1832, when victims of “the plague” are temporarily housed in the Galerie d’Orléans. Frederick had taken Adèle out for an eleventh birthday treat when the first signs appeared; on their return home,
servants rushed to us, stripping off our clothes with their hands in heavily camphored gloves; we passed stark naked into an ante-chamber thick with more camphor fumes from flaming vessels and, after choking on the fumes for what seemed ages, were led out into the hall, given robes and conducted to the salon. Anne flung her arms around Adèle, and then turned upon me in a rage.
Later, in England, while Anne is to play Rosalind in Birmingham (the amateurish English can’t understand how she can play a girl), Frederick is brought in by Brunel to work on the projected Great Exhibition Hall in Hyde Park, but then the prize commission goes (as in fact it did) to Joseph Paxton. After a brilliant depiction, in Anne’s diary, of Macready’s farewell performance in the role of Macbeth, a new interpretation with a tinge of Hamlet in it, we pass to the inauguration of Paxton’s Crystal Palace, as it was now dubbed, in the presence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, in May 1851. The ceremony concludes with the singing, as requested by the sovereign, of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus; and the only unanticipated incident occurs when a Chinese mandarin, wearing blue and vermilion robes, prostrates himself before the queen and kisses the ground at her feet. (It is discovered later that the supposed foreign dignitary, though truly Chinese, was a lowly but inquisitive sailor.) But—sic transit gloria, including the glories of architecture—the Crystal palace will be transported to the suburbs a few years afterward. And in 1936 it will be destroyed by fire.
Charles’s religious agonizings are authentic enough but also, as such conditions often are to the outsider, more than a little wearisome. Stiff, withdrawn, cursed with a too tender yet selective conscience, he comes most alive in his fitful dealings with Adèle. She has always been lively; at the time her mother was hoping to marry her off in London, she told her sister, “To have a future, we must be very careful about the past,” and she writes to Charles regarding “Aunt Marie” (“Daniel Stern”) and that lady’s romantic and semiautobiographical novel, Nélida, a silly book, but sillier to men than to women: “We in France are less alarmed than you English by the wicked stories you call ‘French novels’; if only you would finish these tales you would see that after the woman shouts to the world the truth she then, as it were, returns to her sewing.” We would like to have heard more from and of Adèle.
The final section of Palais-Royal is an undated memoir, or summing-up, written by Charles, unsuitable for publication, he says, because “I have told too much and too little.” It seems that, as if in unexpected accord with Thomas’s Shimon Barash, Sennett does not wish his novel to read too much like fiction. Cause and effect are not to be neatly ordered or imposed; loose ends are to be left, as in life itself; and summings-up can only be provisional and incomplete, however unsatisfactory that is in art. There is nothing gimmicky about this. The book’s distinction stems from its probity, the grace of its prose, and its moral delicacy. It is an instance of Sennett’s fine tact that just as you ask yourself, not for the first time but this time in exasperation, why it was that Frederick never married Anne, Charles asks his brother the same question. “It is remarkable we did not marry,” Frederick replies; and, “It is remarkable we have trusted one another so long.” He gives some minor, insufficient reasons. Then he says: “You treated us as a datum, my dear brother, whereas in fact we were conducting lives.” Where some matters are concerned, and certainly some lives, no simple and clear answers are to be found, short of misrepresentation. And thus, though himself a novelist, Sennett puts novelists in their place. Often they tell too much, and in so doing, tell too little.