In the third volume of his memoirs, David Garnett recalled the great days and “grand parties” of Bloomsbury: “At one such party, given I think by Clive and Vanessa, I remember seeing Picasso talking to Douglas Fairbanks senior.” Conrad, James, Ford, Wells, Belloc, Shaw, both Lawrences; Rupert, Lytton. Virginia, Clive, Vanessa, Duncan. Maynard—last names and first, this ingratiating son of distinguished literary parents was friend to most and knew them all, and in his recollections contrived to make them all seem as dated and inconsequential as the encounter here recorded. They, or some of them, or at any rate the first names, thought, or said they thought, that “Bunny” Garnett was a genius too (but D.H. Lawrence, taking a cold look, dismissed Lady Into Fox as “pretty piffle—just playboy stuff”). On the only electric page of his memoirs, Garnett printed a Bloomsbury necrology of suicides and other premature disasters. Now, at seventy-two the survivor of that charming bookish clique of pet and Christian names, he has produced his latest clever novel.
Two by Two is a fable of survival. The event is the Flood; the characters are Noah and his family and the animals, plus a pair of twin girls “who were nobody’s business” though we are told that “their mother had been a girl friend of Methuselah’s before her marriage.” Nothing solemn, then, to begin with: the age of faith is dead, this is after all not Paradise Lost (about which a puzzled college student recently asked, “Where did Milton find the story?”), Noah is supposed to have been the first alcoholic, the note of irreverent levity will remind somebody of Voltaire or Lytton Strachey. Not solemn, then, but essentially serious; because in the age of the atom we face the possibility of another large impartial extermination, against which the example of the Flood had better make us sit up and take notice.
Expanding, with whatever aim, mythical narrative into fiction is of course a problem of inventiveness; but it is more specially a problem of tone, consistency and conviction of tone, whether for Milton or C.B. de Mille. The fiction must respond to some vibration of the myth (else why bother?) a pulse out of which flow incidents both supererogatory and deferential to the star-like density of the myth. Garnett’s intention is to respond to the personal and ordinary accent of the Noah-myth, for instance the hint of family vendettas in the strange final episode, in which Ham brings down upon his progeny an everlasting curse because he has seen his father unclothed and overcome with drink. What sort of people, one may ask, were Noah and his family, how did they behave toward one another, suppose there had been stowaways in the Ark, suppose indeed that there was no divine command but only magic and obsession? The tone Garnett wishes to sustain and certify is tartly domestic, a tone that will acknowledge the myth while reducing it to quotidian dimensions. Here is Garnett on the loading of the Ark:
…Shem would call out: “Halt those bears! We have a corner to fill up. Let’s see—it would do fine for the beavers.”
And Noah would pick up his speaking trumpet and bellow:
“Beavers wanted. Beavers forward.”
And here are Noah’s family:
The two boys, Gomer and Mizraim, kept out of the sisters’ way, for they were forbidden to speak to strangers and Ham often struck his son, though Japheth did not actually beat Gomer. Shem was always nagging and scolding. The wives, Mrs. Japheth, Mrs. Shem and Mrs. Ham, were horrid women and always shouted if they saw Fan or Niss.
“Only Mrs. Noah,” concludes the narrator, the building of the Ark unluckily on his mind, “was kind in her wooden way.”
The tone is not domestic, tartly or otherwise; it is merely flat and puerile, it has the tinny clink (or the wooden thunk) of a Disney scenario, a promise of primary colors and the blurred outlines of imperfectly animated figures. Noah himself is no better, only dizzily changeable: a wrathful prophet mouthing the pseudo-Biblical diction of a just God (“‘Ali of you are abhorred of God. Your lives are wicked: your vices are unmentionable”‘); a black face reverend out of Green Pastures—
“Halt!” cried Noah. And then looking up at the sky and cupping his hands to make his words carry, he shouted: “Hold it, Oh Lord. Hold it. We shall need another three or four hours.”
A dour rustic who drops in once, unaccountably, from Hardy country (” ‘Beats me why the old ‘ooman’s that stuck on flaars’ “); a 600-year-old lecher. (“He had combed his long beard and occasionally he licked the red full lips that were almost concealed by it”); ultimately and allegorically, a mad dictator with his finger on the button of doom. For Noah is the deputy of God, and God—so one of the heroines decides—is the archetypal exemplar of Lord Acton’s maxim:
…According to Noah, God drowned the world because mankind had become corrupt. I suspect it is the other way round. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The points that Garnett wishes to make are (1) that Noah is a nasty life-hating old man just like God (if there is a God):
…An obscure drunkard in a hick town in Palestine whom everyone laughed at, has his revenge on his neighbours, and becomes the sole progenitor of the world to be. You can’t beat that.
and (2) that the way to live, if you happen to survive a cataclysm, is to have an athletic good time in the nude:
They found it delightful to be riding bareback and practically naked, for they had to pull up their smocks in order to ride astride. So they gripped the furry flanks with their bare thighs and calves…
To arrive at these not necessarily contestable points, the reader is pushed out on the leaky ark of a silly children’s book, an idle and untidy attempt to spoil a good story. It is not Voltaire; not Lytton Strachey. Nor even pretty piffle, this ghost of Bloomsbury past.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, Keith Waterhouse is one of the tough-minded young novelists of postwar England, chroniclers of the down-at-heels Welfare State, of whom the most widely known are Kingsley Amis, John Braine, and John Wain, and the most talented Alan Sillitoe and Water-house himself. These men were all born during a period the major public events of which were the General Strike and the stock-market crash (the period of Bloomsbury’s ascendancy); they lived through—some of them, barely old enough, took part in—World War II; and afterward they fixed their sardonic attention upon the country which two huge wars in a quarter-century had mortally bled of its capital, its political hegemony, its very identity as an ancient, rooted, fruitful, provincially various culture.
Waterhouse’s first novel, Billy Liar, is a harrowing and very funny funeral ode on the English provinces. Everything has turned to stone: behind everybody’s rubber mask of a jolly-old-England face, provincial-dialect face, telly-comedian face, gay-blade face, coy-maiden face, sexy-waitress face, angry-dad face, weary-forgiving-ma face, surly-old-Gran face, rests the insensate petrifaction of cliché: the skull of dead glories. Billy wanders like the last Earthman among these touchy humanoids and the slagheaps of their homes, shops, squares, milkbars, dance-halls, cinemas. He lies as easily as he breathes, to exhaust the vital energy that makes him a pariah among them, to conjure up jokes out of nightmares, to hear the echo of his solitary voice, to propitiate these monsters of his beleaguered imagination. The book’s only mistake—a big one—is the abruptly upbeat ending, wherein the author, as well as Billy, seems to lose his nerve.
Jubb, on the other hand, is all nerve. Waterhouse’s second novel takes the cadaver of English propriety for a ride, this time to the end of the road. Imagine John Bullock (né Bull), thirty-six years old, husband, resident of Chapel Langtry (“about thirty miles out of London. Originally a market town, pop. approx. 9,000. They’ve taken it over as a new town now, under the New Towns Act 1946—all these people from the East End, light industry, new shopping areas and everything”), rent-collector for a real estate firm, subscriber to the Follow-Your-Thoughts movement, member of the local Good Neighbours Club, leads the club’s Youth Section, writes civic-spirited letters to the editor, saves old boys’ papers; thinks about things. Waterhouse calls him C.L. Jubb: really respectable too, dedicated to the community and all that, only he has additional interests. He is something of a pyromaniac, especially when life is too baffling to endure; a bit of an exhibitionist; a veteran voyeur on long nocturnal walks and in London subways (“I sit there sometimes from Ruislip to Cockfosters and back again. I ogle them, that’s the word, ogle them across the carriage, keeping my eye steadfastly upon their knees. Be bold. If they get up and move to another seat or tug their skirts down or get out of the carriage altogether, that is good enough for me. Leave them alone, you don’t want any trouble. But I tell you this, I have known women adjust their skirts so that I could see more of those knees of theirs”); has an aversion to bathing since his wife left him—
I arrive home with my feet wringing with sweat from treading the streets, darting from one lighted window to another like a black moth. I am filthy. My lips are caked with white sludge as though a snail has crawled across my mouth, my nostrils are caked with dirt, my eyes are clogged with filth…my body is pocked with blackheads, the dirt seeps in on me between my toes and dandruft flecks the spiky knots of hair…
writes an occasional obscene letter to one or another of his “ladies,” say a woman he has seen in a bookshop and followed; makes an occasional anonymous phone call: reads the ads for prostitutes, male and female, straight and kinky, in the windows of Soho tobacconist’s shops and phones (but only phones) to inquire; drops in on nudist movies—
I may say at once that anyone expecting an immediate orgy of unclothed bosoms, buttocks and thighs skilfully draped with table napkins would have been quickly disillusioned. Naked As We Were Born was a properly-made film with bona fide actors and a well-constructed story line: these films are not thrown together.
“There must be nymphomaniacs in the world,” he muses; and having heard a “West Indian, lady” on his rent-collecting route so identified, Jubb heroically pulls himself together for his single aggression against the hopeless odds:
I put out my hand and touched her neck. I felt her stiffening her whole frame—so rigidly and with so much effort that her whole body trembled. And she sat there stiffly trembling, her eyes tightly closed, her lips moving feverishly, her hands gripping the sides of her chair until the veins throbbed, while I brushed my fingers along the rivulets of sweat which had gathered in the great hollow of her neck. I was sweating too; I trembled too. My mouth was parched and my heart was thumping wildly against my rib-cage. I skidded my fingers down inside her dress over the mountainous damp flesh. I touched some hard, embossed material that covered her bosom and then I withdrew my hand. That was all. I had finished. Nymphomaniacs I have met.
Jubb’s humiliations have the quality of sacrifice, he climbs the hill daily and suffers with the passive dignity of prophets and martyrs:
“Then I shall wish you a civil good day,” I said.
“It’s more than I wish you.”
So no luck there.
The dignity—a kind of bleak jauntiness—remains; no-nonsense vice-squad detectives can’t crack it, outraged women can’t, even a roomful of savage sniggering boys quite out of hand (“Time to read the Riot Act,” thinks Jubb the leader) can’t destroy it entirely as they revile him, knock him down, beat and kick him, undress him (and so, incredulously, uncover his secret filth), and bathe him with their saliva.
Heaven, for this English bourgeois Christ, is the memory of a girl who once wanted him to make love to her (but he couldn’t); now he looks for her and eventually learns that she is dead. Alternatively, heaven is a visit to Hamburg—“the Gutter of Europe,” as the English Sunday Press puts it: “Oh, I shall get there, never worry.” Jubb has his Pilate-like doubts in the garden:
You see, there is no such thing as truth. I mean for those of us who are not the lions. We must depend on what is given to us: scraps of paper leaflets, pamphlets, circulars, scratchy reels of film, street-corner speeches, headlines, quips in joke books, gossip paragraphs, television serials, old comics, gift coupons, advertisements, free offers.
He knows that he is not one of the “lions,” the “young bucks as brown as pebbles,” the men as natural and unconscious as animals, as unencumbered by guilt and the millennial débris of a dead culture. But then, they don’t have visions of heaven; or so accurate a chart of hell.
This second time round, Waterhouse has written a not so funny funeral ode on the English middle class; a true allegory, not tosh about a lot of rain and stowaways; a Passion according to the daily papers, our newest testament.
March 19, 1964