A Natural Curiosity
What shall we expect of the middle-age of the middlebrow novelist? (By the term middlebrow, one seeks to describe a writer who, while disdaining the shoddy and the ephemeral, has built up a following among intelligent readers whose notions he takes care not to challenge or disturb.) After the first half-dozen books, at a point where a certain weary technical proficiency can be taken for granted, that writer may discover he is estranged from his generation. He no longer knows anyone who isn’t a writer, of some sort. He is set in the practice of his unnatural and solitary vice, and he cannot imagine what ordinary people do for a living.
It will be at this point that, perversely, he may decide to write his state-of-the-nation book. He reads the newspapers to find out what is happening, and anxiously takes the political pulse among his limited acquaintance. Time was when he used to write about real people, but now reality eludes him. His characters’ concerns are filtered through his own—by now rather specialist—perceptions. He tries to mimic real life by the accretion of convincing detail, but only succeeds in losing the rhythm of his prose. His characters remain puppets; and in these two novels, both David Lodge and Margaret Drabble have a heavy hand on the strings.
Margaret Drabble’s early novels were intimate and sprightly chronicles of the small dissatisfactions and small triumphs of young women like herself—pretty, Oxbridge-educated young women, with comfortable middle-class backgrounds, girls with a certain discreet sparkle, the usual problems with men, and emotions that were lively but decently restrained. They were sweetly written books, and assured in tone. But unlike most other writers, Drabble has grown less assured as time passes. This may be less a defect than a reason to admire her; for it indicates a recognition that life and art are not as simple as they once seemed.
In Britain Drabble was quickly pigeon-holed as a “women’s writer,” offering a jollified and mild feminism to receptive readers; even when she began to broaden the range of her work, she was not accorded the critical attention that she has received in the United States. Drabble’s heroines have aged with her, becoming solid and sour, more prone to drink and swear; yet with each successive book their earnest, moral nature blossoms. The Needle’s Eye centers on a wealthy woman who feels guilty about being rich. The Ice Age is a disillusioned, distressed picture of London life in the 1970s. Then came The Middle Ground, which the novelist Margaret Forster—not a critic hostile to Drabble—described as not a novel but a sociological treatise.
Drabble took the point: “My novels are half-way between fiction and sociology,” she has said, and she has wondered aloud if the novel is the right form for what she is trying to do. She repudiates overt political aims, but is less interested in character than in the ideas for which her characters are vehicles; and although her books are packed with incident, she has never been much concerned about plot. A Natural Curiosity and its precursor, The Radiant Way, are panoramic novels which attest to Drabble’s ambition, but they suggest she is more uneasy about fiction as a form. The unease is there on every page: Drabble is no longer a pleasure to read.
The Radiant Way begins at a New Year’s Eve party on the last day of the 1970s. The guests turn up,
dragging along their tired flat feet, their aching heads, their over-fed bellies and complaining livers, their exhausted opinions, their weary small talk, their professional and personal deformities, their doubts and emnities, their blurring vision and thickening ankles, in the hope of a miracle, in the hope of a midnight transformation, in the hope of a new self, a new life, a new, redeemed decade.
The main characters are people who once had an impeccably liberal, perhaps vaguely socialist outlook, but who have grown, to differing degrees, pessimistic and doubtful of the value of their former principles. As they drink, eat, and chatter their way toward 1984, it becomes evident that there will be no transformation. The Welfare State is collapsing, destroyed by its own successes, by expectations it has raised but cannot meet; the striking coal miners embroil themselves in a bitter contest with the government; the AIDS epidemic spreads panic and paranoia. The only flicker of hope is offered by the new center party, the now-ailing SDP. Yet Drabble makes clear that the problems of her “small densely populated, parochial insecure country” are not amenable to political solutions. In the debate over the miners’ strike, one of her characters hears “the righteous voices of unreason.” Here, and in A Natural Curiosity, Drabble is interested in the primitive passions that underlie rational discourse; she sets out to detect the signs of mass psychosis in her depressed and defeated compatriots.
When she came to the end of The Radiant Way Drabble felt, as she tells us in a foreword, that “the earlier novel was in some way unfinished, that it had asked questions it had not answered, and introduced people who had hardly been allowed to speak.” Her three main characters, who have known each other since their Cambridge days, are carried forward into the new book. Liz is a wealthy psychiatrist, now divorced from but still involved with a documentary filmmaker who was once a svelte socialist but is now a cynic and running to fat. Alix, married to a lecturer in English, teaches English herself in a penal establishment for women. Esther, an art historian, has quit her run-down London flat for a more elegant life in Italy, and becomes peripheral to the action of the second novel, though she is still caught up in its themes.
Chief of these themes is murder, of a particularly bloody and bizarre type. In The Radiant Way a creature known to the newspapers as “The Horror of Harrow Road” decapitated several women; the severed head of Jilly Fox, one of Alix’s delinquent pupils, was found in the front seat of Alix’s car. It turned out that the murderer, a quiet and unremarkable young man called P. Whitmore, had been living for many years in the flat above Esther, without his proximity arousing in her so much as a predictive shudder. At the beginning of the new book, Alix is indulging her natural curiosity about this monster, and has taken to visiting him in prison. She begins to explore his background and tries to find some reason for his crimes. In fact, there is no reason. P. Whitmore is mad.
Drabble also explores the “North-South Divide.” The North-South divide is a journalists’ formulation which has become so solid a part of the political vocabulary that one might be forgiven for supposing it to be a physical obstacle, like the Berlin Wall; one pictures it as a deep trench fifty miles north of London, filled with barbed wire and pit-bull terriers. Several of Drabble’s characters have northern origins: Liz’s sister Shirley has never left the North, and in the course of the book Alix and her husband return to his home town. When Drabble writes about London, she writes of precise locations, but when she writes about the North she becomes studiedly vague, as if she were delving into the dangerous terrain of the subconscious mind. The fictitious town of “Northam” is a hazy construct; her provincials are both more innocent and more unpredictable than her metropolitan characters.
A Natural Curiosity makes no pretense to stand up as a novel independent of its precursor. Drabble solves the problems of sequel-writing by ignoring them, and merely takes up where she left off, in the manner of someone who has been called to the telephone for a moment and who then smoothly rejoins a conversation. And such conversations! After worrying away at their personal problems, Liz and Alix
move on to grander themes: prison visiting, insanity, Foucault, Lacan, the oddity of French intellectuals, the grandeur of Freud, the audacity of Bernard Shaw, the death penalty and social attitudes towards.
Their clothes, their food, the mundane details of their lives are cataloged minutely, in an attempt to embody these ciphers, give them flesh; but one can only see them as voracious, insatiable, constantly chattering mouths.
When the characters are not holding forth, it is the author who has got her hand on the reader’s arm, gabbling on with a manic persistence and a doomsday glint in her eye:
Who would have predicted, back in the 1970s, the tide of Islamic fundamentalism that has swept the land masses of the East, that threatens even the secular monolith of the Soviet Union?
Plenty of people, the reader mutters, but takes the question to be rhetorical. Not at all. In the next breath Drabble is ready to tell us who claims to have predicted it, and what she, Drabble, thinks of their claims. Every few pages the action grinds to a halt, a lecture is read, and then we are ready to go again. Since the novel’s beginning is so tentative and formless, its narrative line so meandering, one wonders whether there is any logical reason for it to end. How, the reader worries, will the author know when to stop? “If all the world were paper, and all the seas were ink….”
Nowadays Drabble takes a scattergun approach to writing, spraying each hapless noun with adjectives. In the very first sentence of A Natural Curiosity, “A low pale lemon grey sun hung over the winter moor.” She writes as if she were afraid to close off the possibilities of each sentence, as if reluctant to tyrannize the reader with an arrogant assertion that one word is better than the next. If she peppers us with enough words, she will surely strike home. But often she seems helpless in the face of her own text.
She shows a related unwillingness to take control of her story. The author’s voice intrudes at irregular intervals to remind us that the characters are unreal, her own whimsical creations, and that the events are violently arbitrary; and to suggest, at one point, that the reader might do a better job of apportioning fates than the author can. The intrusive narrator may dictate, may even speculate, but should not ramble; Drabble wanders muttering through her own narrative like a bag lady. And when she breaks off to tell us that she has lost track of the age of one of her characters, and to ask the reader if Liz’s sister is forty-eight or forty-nine or possibly fifty, one sees that Drabble’s modesty has become an irritating affectation. It seems not clever or diffident, but lazy, and mildly contemptuous of the reader; and contempt is not at all what Drabble means to convey.
The novel has its mild, small successes. One can see how in the course of the two books Drabble imposes a subtle justice on her characters, and one admires her organizational skills. Certain episodes work; when Alix confronts the murderer’s almost equally murderous mother, the prose becomes taut and quite concentrated. Elsewhere in the book, Drabble has not cared to exert such control. The nature and scale of the risks she takes with narratives enforce on the reader, in the end, a grudging respect; but it is a respect based more on her reputation than on any skills she displays here. Margaret Drabble will go on asking questions about the world, but it seems beyond her scope as a novelist to suggest the answers.
In Drabble’s book, Alix’s husband gives a series of talks on the Victorian novel; in David Lodge’s Nice Work, Robyn Penrose is an expert on that group of Victorian novels which Raymond Williams called “industrial novels.” A temporary lecturer at the University of Rummidge, Robyn lives in a part of England through which Queen Victoria would travel with the curtains drawn in the windows of her train.
Lodge describes the Rummidge landscape with more thoroughness than imagination:
houses and factories, warehouses and sheds, railway lines and canals, piles of scrap metal and heaps of damaged cars, container ports and lorry parks, cooling towers and gasometers.
Like Drabble, Lodge opts for figurative locations. The Black Country—whose former concentration of heavy industry produced its characteristic atmospheric murk—becomes the “Dark Country.” Birmingham, at whose university Lodge taught from 1960 to 1987, becomes “Rummidge,” the location for two previous novels, Changing Places and Small World.
He takes an epigraph from Disraeli’s Sybil: the “two nations” of which Disraeli speaks are the rich and the poor, but in Lodge’s book they are technology and the arts, jostling in mutual incomprehension for resources and respect. The book is set in 1986, “Industry Year,” and Robyn the semiotic materialist is chosen to leave her elitist nest for one day a week to become a “shadow” to a counterpart in industry. Robyn is a feminist—for Lodge, this means that she is argumentative and does not wear a bra—and although she is an expert on the industrial novel she knows nothing of industry in the real world. Her opposite number, Vic Wilcox, has already been introduced to us; we expect the worst.
Vic, a mechanical engineer, lives in a neo-Georgian house with four lavatories; he has some unappetizing children and a bloated wife called Marjorie. The filthy and clamorous metal-bashing factory where he is now a manager employs only a quarter of the men it employed in its postwar heyday; throughout Britain the manufacturing industry is in decline. Vic is a vulgar man who lacks imagination. He is a repository of ridiculous prejudices at which Lodge invites us to laugh, as elsewhere he invites us to laugh at Robyn’s pretensions, at her equally naive world view. The result is not nearly as funny as it might be, for Lodge is too ready to despise his characters, setting them up and knocking them down, often in the space of a sentence.
When Vic is told he is to be followed around by someone from the University, he expects some vague, unworldly academic, but he does not at once realize that Robyn is female. Lodge gets several resolutely jocular pages out of this misunderstanding, and even out of the apprehension of a misunderstanding. His other less-than-hilarious device is to send his characters to the lavatory a lot. Robyn goes to the lavatory; Vic goes too many times to count; on page fifty-four, the dean of the Arts faculty goes too. It is as if the reader should exclaim “By golly, Lodge is a Professor, yet he’s not afraid to talk about water-closets!” Another target for his wit is poor Marjorie, Vic’s wife, who is on Valium and is reading a book called Enjoy Your Menopause; the wit that need be exercised here is something less than mordant. Lodge writes, in these plodding early pages, like a man who once heard a joke told, and has been trying, painstakingly, ever since to tell one himself.
Vic and Robyn meet; they spar verbally; on page seventy-eight Vic goes to the lavatory. Lodge manipulates them with awesome competence, even though he strains our credulity when he sends Robyn on her first factory tour. “What exactly is a foundry?” she asks, then moans about “the noise. The dirt. The mindless repetitive work…” as if she were some preindustrial creature recently delivered by time machine. So far Vic, with his crude practical sense, has been allowed to win all the arguments, though Robyn is presented more sympathetically. Yet the issues are not as simple as they at first seem. When Robyn insists that a certain decision at the factory is “not a management matter, it’s a moral issue,” Vic reacts with angry incomprehension, and we feel the narrowness of his moral universe; when later Robyn insists that there’s no such thing as love, but “only language and biology,” we feel the narrowness of hers.
Nice Work is a pleasant book to read because it asks nothing of the reader. Lodge’s observations are dated and therefore unchallenging. When Vic arrives at his factory, the secretaries “smile and simper, patting their hair and smoothing their skirts” like stereotype brainless minions from the 1950s. Similarly, his images of bra-less feminists pander to the reader who has settled his world view in the 1960s and does not want it altered. His style leaves nothing unsaid, nothing for us to find between the lines. First he shows us:
“Morning, Shirley. Make us a cup of coffee, will you?”
Then he tells us:
Vic’s working day is lubricated by endless cups of instant coffee.
This spoon feeding, and the limited and self-conscious terms of the social debate, seem at first likely to wreck the novel. Then something wonderful happens. Halfway in the book, Lodge’s caricatures flower out into characters. No matter that Robyn feels that she is “getting dragged into a classic realist text, full of causality and morality”; the reader begins to care about their fate, in a nicely old-fashioned way. Neatly and at an easy pace, Lodge shows us how these representatives of two cultures pick up each other’s vocabulary and day-to-day concerns. Robyn finds that thanks to her new-found knowledge she can compete in argument with her brother, who is a bond dealer. Vic decides to read the Brontës, just to see what all the fuss is about. On the question of the girlie calendars in the factory, Vic’s old puritanism and Robyn’s new puritanism concur. And at a stage when Vic still detests Robyn, he begins to have sexual fantasies about her, and these empower him to make love to his anaphrodisiac wife.
It is predictable that Vic and Robyn will fall in love, but the unpredictability of the last part of the book is well judged. In the end, some compromises have been made, reconciliation has proved possible, and Great Britain Incorporated somehow staggers on, lurching toward the millennium. Neither of these novels succeeds in offering a convincing portrait of “the condition of England,” for Drabble is too narrowly intellectual and Lodge too willfully schematic. But all the characters would agree with Drabble’s Alix:
England’s not a bad country. It’s just a mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped-out post-imperial post-industrial slag-heap covered in polystyrene hamburger cartons. It’s not a bad country at all. I love it.