Each of these three novels is a very—David Storey would say “hugely”—ambitious and assiduous effort to prove something. The contemporary novel seems to have inherited, or at any rate arrogated to itself, the vatic function of such characteristic Romantic effusions as Blake’s or Shelley’s or Wordsworth’s long poems. God the tyrant having been (at least tacitly) deposed, by what principles or impulses ought one to live? Mailer, Styron, Baldwin, Bellow, Updike, Salinger—each is a ferocious didactic partisan of that intersection of prejudgments, impressions, sensations, inferences which makes his heart sink or dance to nobody else’s music. The aim is religious: to convert idiosyncrasy into newly minted doctrine, public gold.
David Storey’s premise is that will-he-or-won’t-he has become the ultimate question as, for Richardson, will-she-or-won’t-she used to be; and his conclusion is that we’d better:
“You’ve got to accept [says the homosexual protagonist] that there is a love that exists between men which is neither obscene nor degrading, but is as powerful and profound, and as fruitful, as that love which bears children. The love that men have for other men, as men, may be beyond some people’s powers of comprehension. But it has a subtlety and a flexibility, a power that creates order. Politics, art, religion: these things are the products of men’s loving. And by that I mean their hatred, their antagonism, their affection, as men, and their curiosity in one another as men. It isn’t that women have been deprived of these things, but simply that they can’t love in this way. They have been given something less abstract, more physical, something more easily understood. Law, art, politics, religion: these are the creation of men as men.”
Radcliffe, the vehicle for these patriarchal lucubrations, is one of the sweatiest and most ludicrously symbolified novels in years. It goes through the motions of social documentation, pretending to something like George Eliot’s minuteness and fidelity of detail (if one may mention a woman who had certain talents for art, politics, religion); but in fact no character or relationship survives the heavings of its tumid prose as, helplessly, the author at any moment labors toward the next of his numerous and quite literal climaxes:
Tolson had now pulled himself onto his chest, his thighs cushioned Leonard’s chin. He leaned hard down on the body beneath him; then, clasping Leonard’s hair in one hand, he took hold of his nose with the other so that Leonard’s mouth slowly opened for breath. Between his lips he pressed the swollen mound of flesh.
If some literary necrophile were to make a concordance of Radcliffe, he would likely discover that the nouns of highest frequency are “erection” (used primarily about tents and buildings) and “thighs” (everybody is always stroking, or rubbing, his thighs more or less innocuously, or cradling a motorcycle “between his thighs,” not to speak of more vigorous measures); and that the preponderant adjective is “huge”: even the steering wheel of an English auto is described as having a “huge circumference,” faces are “huge,” and the hero—asked, after his diet of forbidden fruit, what he wanted out of life—exclaims with heartbreaking accuracy, “I wanted something huge and absolute!” Scatology, of course, plays an important role: the hero is tricked into eating a sandwich filled with the excreta of his workman-lover; a girl illustrates female shamelessness by urinating into a pail in the presence of several men; much is made of the dismantling of a temporary women’s latrine (“God blind these bleeding, dirty, sodding, stinking women!”). People vomit also, especially when perturbed: after unusually rough treatment by his lover, the hero “coughed and vomited a small pool onto the carpet.” There are fashions in this sort of novelistic shorthand. Ten or fifteen years ago novelists’ creatures responded to emotional crises by retching dryly; nowadays they tend to vomit moistly. It must have been something they ate.
Both Lindmann and The Sun’s Attendant are fables of a different sort of extremity, attempts to derive from the German debacle of 1933-45 some serviceable lesson (ash from the ovens, news from nowhere), some beginning of a modus vivendi for post-Auschwitz man. Lindmann takes place in contemporary London, among an odd mingling of refugees and TV idea-men. Its enigmatic focus is the title character, ostensibly a survivor of a Jewish refugee ship sunk during the war by the joint insensibility of Turkish and British bureaucrats. Lindmann appears throughout in a state of shock or suspension. He moves like an exhausted dancer along the sequence of his events: the set of young Jews who meet for bridge and argument at the flat of an on-the-make TV writer, Milstein; an encounter with a streetcorner evangelist. (“You are the dictionary,” says Lindmann, “which leaves out all the words”); dialogues with Lincoln, the American Negro painter, and Isolde, the “good” German; an uncomprehending Jewish “Study Group” before whom he tortuously speculates about the nature of the new Germany; a gathering of wealthy Jews being solicited by a fund-raiser for Israel; an episode with a girl, who “clung to Lindmann because he had no use for her”; ultimately, a disintegration of the self and of its mystery.
Now and then the book shudders with teeth-gritting observations and vignettes. Lindmann recalls, after a visit there, postwar Germany’s “great skill in the removal of waste,” and its “exceptional safety-making arrangements for the crossing of highways so that no one may ever be killed by accident.” The streetcorner preacher stands, zealously enough, for the impotence and irrelevance of modern Christianity. A small-time British TV producer rattles away with cheery obscenity and practical cunning that make the Atlantic seem as narrow as Madison Avenue or Sunset Boulevard. The fund-raiser cajoling the rich Jews is about as creepy an object as can be fairly attributed to any ethnic group, and merits the bizarre vengeance that the author exacts upon him (Lindmann, a penniless curiosity at the party, is roguishly challenged to “show us poor business-men an example,” and produces for inspection his uncircumcised penis).
Unluckily, the principal agents of the plot are most of the time either unrealized or motiveless—Lindmann himself, for one—or second-hand, particularly the fabricated hip-talking Negro and What-Makes-Sammy-Run Milstein, who is on the lookout for gimmicks to trigger a modish new TV series, and who can master women sexually because he despises them. Mr. Raphael has a fine ear for varieties of speech (an exception is the pointless baroque he invents for a totally unrealized character named Gladstone), and a fine awareness of bleak absurdities. He has, besides, a big statement to make about the responsibility of all of us, about our need to acknowledge the dread memories if we are to be capable of transcending them, of living at all beyond their unexpended force. But the big statement—never, in any case, very germane to the action—dwindles into a thin diffusion of mood. Lindmann is a long novel, scarcely articulated between its infrequent intensities except by Lindmann’s general and unexamined alienation: Mr. Raphael confuses vagueness and detective-story conundrums with amplitude. His worst mistake is to devote seventy pages to a script, supposed to have been written by Milstein, about the refugee ship. No doubt it is intended to read as offensively as the scenario of Exodus, and it does; but it takes all those pages of the reader’s reluctant attention, and nothing in the rest of the novel suggests that the author can offer a more satisfactory explanation, or intuition, or exorcism, of the dread memories than Preminger in wide-screen koshercolor with Moby Dick and a cast of thousands.
Much the most complicated and most ambitious of these three novels is The Sun’s Attendant. It ranges over two continents and scores of cultural milieus (including Auschwitz and the Gypsy community), through the past three decades of European and American history. Technically, it makes elaborate bows in the direction of Joyce, Gide, Proust, indeed of the whole novelistic avant-garde of the Twenties. It is an enormous collage of fragments: isolated jokes, apothegms, parables, riddles, letters, notebook entries, newspaper articles, fairytales; a journal introduction, written in a clever pastiche of the high-collar rhetoric by which French intellectuals (even Camus) find it too easy to convince themselves of their sincerity (“My only hope is that in laying these strange pages in the hands of others, I shall perhaps…have begun to reopen some long-closed windows in myself”); lengthy passages of interior monoloque; passages of stage-dialogue: each of the fragments headed by a title barely indicative, helpfully informative, or cryptically sardonic; abrupt dislocations from one character or milieu to another.
Stefan Brückmann, half-German and half-Gypsy, manages after a Gypsy childhood to survive his Nazi relatives, the death-camp, and a pathetic GI benefactor who brings him to America for a brief and harrowing time. He returns to Europe and the new Germany, where he encounters the ghost of his alter ego, a young German poet dead by suicide. The poet’s widow serves as a kind of medium, and takes Stefan for a lover chiefly because he is a good listener to her obsessive recollections of the dead poet. The novel ends, after a parting, when both of them are revealed in the act of choosing life over death, and so choosing each other. Stefan is able to make hardened little Gypsy girl respond to an affectionate gesture:—“he wants to cry out, he snatches his coat and runs blindly from the place, dizzy, quaking with the knowledge of impending life.” Barbara accepts at last, without guilt, the poet’s death and the only survival of his love, their son: “The bare padding feet of a child: Max! She crouches in anticipation. Paul is dead. Leb’wohl, Barbara!” So that the reader will be sure to get it, Mr. Haldeman heads this fragment, with unusual insistence, “The Poet Incubus is Shed.”
This is the sort of calculated bid for broad, simple, open feelings to which the author seems obliged to resort whenever he wants to make the effort of understanding his own intricate puzzles. The American episode—which takes place in the South—is, for another instance, equally banal and disingenuous. It presents a sheet of cartoons, from the hateful Southern grande dame to the good-hearted, dim-witted Southern nature-boy, burdened by the memory of a lynching he took part in many years before, who, dying after a sensational accident, comes to “understand” things:
…as he lay dying (one whole week), with lidless eyes and unable to speak (or beyond speech), I think perhaps he understood (don’t ask me how!)…
The Sun’s Attendant exposes the gulf between Mr. Haldeman’s capacity for lively, intelligent, complex observations on the one hand, and on the other his incapacity for informing himself about what he is observing, his incapacity for adumbrating any large relation or enlightenment into which his observations eventually merge. Even in the Southern episode, he is capable of a shrewd comment on the meaning of the American “love of Nature”:
All his life he struggled to work himself through the fine mesh of public and social ties that lies over the essential formlessness of American life. Even his love for “Nature,” for wild things and wild places, was the inverse side of his distrust of their independence, their separateness. In ordering, in taming them, he was playing an elaborate, ambivalent game of fatality, deliberately provoking otherwise inert forces (or at least basically amenable ones) to resist him and be put down. City and forest, sophistication and crudity were stamped heads and tails on him; the alloy of his character lay in between, hardened in an auto-erotic dream of immolation.
Yet the character whom this comment sums up has already dissolved in the platitudes of his dramatized incarnation. The energy of the novel dissipates itself in local effects—comments, technical surprises, aphorisms, short-lived intellectual fireworks of impressive diversity and inventiveness—and nothing is left for the long run. The message, against the inexplicable waste of death, is love, love, love; give, give, give. But neither the little Gypsy girl nor the hero’s beloved comes to love and give by any new and plausible road that the novel makes for her; their decisions are, strictly speaking, miracles—that is, events outside an intelligible order, which happen only in religion or in bad novels.
The religious, missionary impulse—compulsion, really—rides and drives these novelists because, like many of their contemporaries, they despair of otherwise measuring the alterations and catastrophes of the age. How do we measure Auschwitz or the varieties of love? Doctrine—the habit of the mind, the comfort of idiosyncrasy or orthodoxy—is one way: it is grand and certain; whatever it touches, it assimilates to its capacious expectations. Novels, however, have to be more modest; have to resign themselves to the possibility of unanticipated disclosures.
July 9, 1964