The Gate of Angels
Coziness can still seem a virtue in the British novel, and in keeping with the diminished status of the old country most novels written in England today have a modest and miniature air, almost as if they were saying, since we can’t do things big anymore let’s make the small ones as engaging as we can. David Lodge has had a good deal of success but has never been spoiled by it: always a modest writer, he has come to make modesty seem an art in itself. Well aware of all the devices of modern international fiction—switches between third and first person, changes from past to present tense and back, jokes about the making up of fictions—he has even used them modestly, and with a wholly personal lack of pretension.
But his best device, well exemplified in Paradise News, is the least artificial, and most his own. In keeping with the experience of his intellectual and academic generation he made a topic for fictive debate and entertainment out of postwar contrasts between English and American culture. With its goahead opulence, its wine, girls, and jazz, the Californian campus had become by the Sixties the Mecca of the English university Lucky Jim. This Jim was a new man, with all a new man’s naive conviction that the real and sophisticated, the socially opulent life, is waiting somewhere to be seized, and to seduce him. New men are deeply innocent. Lodge’s new man and lucky Jim was called Philip Swallow; and he was contrasted with a shrewd, streetwise, and altogether more grown-up American equivalent, the young professor Morris Zapp. So successful was the partnership and contrast that having made their debut in Lodge’s best novel, Changing Places (1975), the pair reappeared in Small World (1984), a less effective and more conventional campus novel. But where have we come across this artful confrontation of new and old world customs and exemplars before?
In Henry James of course. But now the two worlds really have changed places: and it is American man who is knowledgeable and sophisticated, with the confidence of assured wealth and early experience. His English opposite number is uncertain, anxious, timid, and insecure, and comes from a humble though sheltered background. Henry James might have been mildly surprised that gown had taken over from town as the focus of felt life and the fictional venue, but he would instantly recognize the kind of social truths that only good fiction can formulate and explore.
Our new British innocent abroad is an “honest man” called Bernard Walsh, a priest who has lost his faith and become a mere theologian, teaching at some dim college in the English midlands. In keeping with the development of the genre he is now decidedly middle-aged, but in the artful hands of his experienced creator he has lost none of his essential naiveté. The object again is to contrast this with American experience, but in ways which establish a great, indeed a touching degree of entente cordiale. At once crafty but earnest, transparent but cunning, the tone of the novel is that of a well-written and very up-to-date Catholic or High Anglican sermon. Syntax is often nearly if not quite a take-off of clerical benignity and non-assertive manipulation. Bernard watches windsurfers at Waikiki. “Perhaps because it was a Sunday afternoon, there were scores of them, and they made a thrilling spectacle.” However much a calculated platitude, that “thrilling spectacle” is not in the least ironic but on the contrary strangely soothing. Bernard’s plight as a celibate arouses a widow’s kindness: she gives him some competent and tactful instruction, and again the tone has a kind of gospeling simplicity which elevates it an artful millimeter or so above the banality of a magazine.
Note the time-honored way in which sex and love are kept apart with apparent ingeniousness in this explicit setting.
“How about that? Feel that?”
“Pretty good muscle tone, huh? I read somewhere Hawaiian grandmothers used to teach their granddaughters how to do that. They called it amo amo. It means ‘wink, wink,’ literally. I’m talking my head off like this to stop you coming.”
“I love, I love.”
“Amo is Latin for ‘I love.”’
“Oh, it is? Now I’m just going to move gently up and down a few times, like that, OK? Then I’m going to raise myself off you.”
“No,” said Bernard, holding her down by her hips.
“Then in a few minutes we’ll do it again.”
“No,” said Bernard. “Don’t go away.”
“The idea is that you get a sense of control over your erection.”
“I’ve been controlling my erections for the last three days,” he said. “What I want to do now is lose control.”
Afterwards they pulled a sheet over themselves and slept, curled up close together like spoons. Yolande woke him by switching on the bedside lamp. It appeared to be dark outside. “My God!” Yolande exclaimed, screwing up her eyes at her watch. “Roxy will be wondering where the hell I am.”
She made a quick phone call to her daughter, sitting naked on the edge of the bed. When Bernard began to stroke her shoulder, she grasped his hand and held it still. She put down the phone and began rapidly to dress.
“Same time tomorrow?” he said.
She gave him a strange, shy smile. “The course is over, Bernard. Congratulations. You graduated.”
“I thought I failed,” he said. “I thought I jumped the gun.”
“You flunked the sex education,” she said, “but you passed in Assertiveness Training.”
“I love you, Yolande.”
“Are you sure you’re not confusing gratitude with love?”
“I’m not sure of anything,” he said. “Except that I want to see you again.”
“OK. Tomorrow afternoon, then.”
Lucky Bernard. The “strange, shy smile” artfully packages the whole, and makes it seem a lot more friendly and humane than the mechanical gaiety of the sex manuals.
But is this merely another comic demonstration of English innocence and American sexual know-how, a new version of Lolita? No, the novel is about caring for others and compassion, subjects highly tricky to handle, and particularly for the conscious and sophisticated novelist, even for Saul Bellow or Anne Tyler, who have dealt with it almost as carefully and artfully as Yolande deals with Bernard in bed. Lodge of course is artful too, but in a manner that does not so obviously conceal art. By allowing simplicity and sentiment to be their forthright selves, his language shows ways in which they need not be avoided or dressed up.
Like a Barbara Pym heroine Bernard longs honestly “to be of some use.” Somehow the novel makes the most up-to-date use possible of its own old-fashionedness: we even have the joke about the Englishman ordering lasagna at a restaurant called “Paradise Pasta,” and finding he must obediently consume a huge salad before he can get it. That of course happens to Bernard in Hawaii, where he has taken his father on a package tour to see a terminally ill relative. Looking right instead of left as he steps off the sidewalk, father is at once mown down by a lady motorist, no other than Yolande, who is amazed and grateful that Bernard—the honest man—does not intend to sue, because it was so obviously not her fault. Although he now has two invalids on his hands, to visit, care about, and learn from, Bernard is more than compensated by the attentions of Yolande, with whom the novel leaves him in an ongoing situation. Father recovers and returns home; cancer-stricken aunt does not.
A review description must sound unfriendly, but really the theme of helping one another is made here into a minor masterpiece, the novel soaring away from the sermon like a butterfly from its chrysalis. Yolande is as convincing a good man. Helping in bed helps the novel entertain no doubt, but it is made to seem a proper part of care and goodness to relatives and strangers, just as Bernard and Yolande, and his father and aunt, are shown forth in their virtues without apparent effort. A cynical reader might note the ingenuity of turning the parable of the Good Samaritan into the consequences of a car accident. He could find more to criticize in the sub-theme of paradis perdu in a tropical resort, with the correct moral and ecological conclusions. These, like the details of Waikiki tourist folk-custom, are the more obvious and less rewarding fruits of the author’s residence in the island. In that sense Paradise News is a true campus novel, born of the thoughtful and civilized impressions of one of the new professoriate on a leisurely academic assignment.
If Lodge set out deliberately to write about the practice of virtue and the good life, he succeeded. And so does Penelope Fitzgerald in The Gate of Angels, although what critics used to call the problem of intentionality does not occur to the reader who is enjoying her tour de force. Where Lodge as theorist uses language with what can seem a deliberate naiveté, she performs like a born writer with her own natural manners. She too is concerned with virtue, but she presents it in a flighty way, in keeping with the imagination of her tale. And it is one of the pleasures of her text, as well as of Lodge’s, that we can see both of them having it both ways: their candid wish to demonstrate and embody what is good is given a certain piquancy by the subterfuges of a highly literary text. Lodge’s account of his sexual samaritan and her methods also happens to be any man’s daydream of the kind of joys such a therapeutic relation might provide. Though in no way two-faced, Lodge’s text is satisfyingly gnostic, so that the apparently simplistic art with which love is conveyed as something separate from but realizable through sex can move a reader’s desire for the good while at the same time stimulating him or her erotically.
Lodge’s art, which like George Eliot’s is inseparable from his moral purpose, remains uncompromised by this duality, or so I would maintain. What is separable is the incidental and rather laborious comedy of his story, involving the Waikiki tourist industry and the reactions of homely Britishers to its routinely exotic marvels. Penelope Fitzgerald’s brief tale is a much more seamless construction, her marvels being part of her matter-of-factness, and her striking gift for recreating a time and a place. In her last novel but one, The Beginning of Spring, she invented an English family living in Moscow in 1912. Here she presents, and with the same mesmeric insouciance, the English university and market town of Cambridge at the same date. A young bachelor don, Fred Fairly, lives in St. Angelicus College, a small enclosed world embodying all the picturesque eccentricities which we like to think characteristic of academia. But this is far from being a campus novel, nor does it contain even a whiff of that whimsicality which E.M. Forster (himself an alumnus of King’s) indulged in stories like “The Celestial Omnibus.” In the vivid and sensible narration of The Gate of Angels there is no whimsy at all, and this is not the least of its miraculous features.
Its flightiness is of a more down-to-earth literary species, and thus paradoxically more consonant with angels. Fred, who has lost his faith, is the son of an Anglican vicar. He is also a hopeful and perhaps brilliant young scientist who wants to work in Rutherford’s laboratory and study the research of Niels Bohr. But what matters to the novel is that a farm cart knocks him down as he is riding his bicycle past the flat fields outside Cambridge, and that he wakes up in bed beside an angel. The angel, as it happens, is Daisy Saunders, a young woman from the poorest quarter of south London, an orphan with a gift for nursing, who has been dismissed from her humble post in the London hospital she loves for trying to help a patient with suicidal tendencies. She has spent her last penny on a ticket to Cambridge because a hospital doctor of her acquaintance has a lunatic asylum nearby, and she hopes to get work there.
Why does Fred wake up beside her in, bed? Because she too has been knocked unconscious off her bicycle by the same horse and cart. The Cambridge lady who picked them up and carried them into her house supposed they were man and wife, because it was common for the girls of south London to wear a large brass wedding ring in order to try to avoid the shameless attentions of young men on trams. Daisy has not however avoided more purposeful pursuit by a seedy newspaperman who has followed her to Cambridge and persuaded to join him later at a louche hotel. And so the plot thickens, until it soars eventually through an ancient door in the wall of St. Angelicus College, which has only twice been found open in the last seven hundred years.
A bald account of such goings-on cannot avoid the appearance of whimsicality, and yet the novel amazingly avoids it. Penelope Fitzgerald is not only an artist of a high order but one of immense originality, wholly her own woman. She composes with an innocent certainty which avoids any suggestion that she might have a feminist moral in mind, or a dig against science, or a Christian apologetic. The translucent little tale keeps quite clear of such matters, and yet it is certainly about goodness, and no less successful at giving us the experience and conviction of it than is Lodge’s novel. Both writers, whose previous work has received great acclaim in the reviews, are potential prizewinners in Great Britain. But the achievement in both strikes me as being rather more than that of just another good novel. In different ways their unassuming authority, their acceptance of a modest smallness of scope, shows that the novel can still return without self-consciousness to its days of innocence, when it wished to show us what virtue was about, and even to indicate ways in which a reader might seek improvement in himself. In such a novel he might encounter imaginative nourishment, to intrigue him and to enlighten him about the ways in which such an improvement could be come by. The Victorians who read so many novels were great self-improvers, and they expected fiction to give them a hand. Can it be that the novel may soon be offering therapy again, and not just sex therapy?