Fiction can do almost everything with its not being fact, except ignore the matter. None of these four books can risk the supreme self-consciousness of claiming not to be self-conscious at all. At one extreme are Peter Taylor’s stories, faithful renderings of small-town infidelities, almost (but only almost) asking to be taken as photographs; and yet the best of the stories, “There,” is also the one which on its first page comes out with its fictional self-consciousness: “Nowadays particularly, there seems something unreal about people you have known on a sea voyage. To me, at least, it is nearly always as though I have met some character out of the past or out of a novel.”
At the other extreme are Robert Coover’s stories, almost (but only almost) asking to be taken as autonomous tours-de-force, tail-eating snakes the only concerns of which are with their own sinuous and insinuating fictitiousness; and yet the best of the stories are those where the surrealism takes its meaning from the unignorable real:
But where is the caretaker’s son? I don’t know. He was here, shrinking into the shadows, when Karen’s sister entered. Yet, though she catalogues the room’s disrepair, there is no mention of the caretaker’s son. This is awkward. Didn’t I invent him myself, along with the girls and the man in the turtleneck shirt? Didn’t I round his back and stunt his legs and cause the hair to hang between his buttocks? I don’t know. The girls, yes, and the tall man in the shirt—to be sure, he’s one of the first of my inventions. But the caretaker’s son? To tell the truth, I sometimes wonder if it was not he who invented me….
Midway between Taylor and Coover are the two novels. Joyce Carol Oates’s them stands nearer to Taylor, in that it reports the world rather than its own fantasies; and yet when one of the characters thinks of her money—“it was as real as a novel by Jane Austen”—we are being urged to self-consciousness; and Miss Oates felt obliged to offer an Author’s Note: “This is a work of history in fictional form…. My initial feeling about her life was ‘This must be fiction, this can’t all be real!’ My more permanent feeling was ‘This is the only kind of fiction that is real.’ ” Finally, there is John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is set in Lyme Regis in 1867, and which tells its story of high passion within the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel and yet with frequent interruptions and adjurations from its twentieth-century creator, who even puts in a couple of spectral—but so bearded as to be incontrovertibly there—appearances to eye the characters. Whether wisely or not, Mr. Fowles is of these writers the most articulate ponderer of fictional self-consciousness.
Peter Taylor offers slices of life. But sliced life often has the vapidity of sliced bread. Nutritious and unsensational. When Mr. Taylor evokes a family quarrel or a tragic loneliness or a dismayed nostalgia, he doesn’t make a meal of it. This is scrupulous of him, but leaves us without a meal. Moreover his allegiances are the kindly liberal ones which sliced bread might epitomize: nothing poisonous or pernicious, much that is handy, decent, prudent, hygienic, fortifying. But this is not the staff of life, or the Eucharistic marvel, or anything which you could positively cast on the waters. Liberal literature—as George Orwell and E. M. Forster and Lionel Trilling have well reminded us—has its proper cautions, and these properly elicit caution in turn. Two cheers comes to seem a decent score.
My uncle said that this town was where General Winfield Scott had made one of his halts on the notorious Trail of Tears, when he was rounding up the Cherokees to move them west, in 1838. The two men spoke of what a cruel thing that had been, but they agreed that one must not judge the persons responsible too harshly, that one must judge them by the light of their times and remember what the early settlers had suffered at the hands of the Indians.
Some authorial coolness is to be admired for its humane conviction that such a way of speaking won’t do, since it reduces moral and political urgencies to the hollow rhythms of table tennis (on the one hand, on the other hand); nevertheless the coolness is also to be admired for its implicit insistence that there are ways of speaking which much more totally won’t do, one of which would be the branding of all such conscientious corrugators as rat-finks. Political morality as table-tennis has its advantages over political morality as gladiator-combats.
As always with liberal literature, the anxieties of the liberal conscience steal the show, and thereby create yet another anxiety: should all this suffering and injustice form part of a show? The best of Mr. Taylor’s stories are those in which his guileless (but skilled) transparency meets people or situations which are opaque, not assimilable, not ones for the decencies. “Two Pilgrims” and “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” explore such meetings, and their success is directly a matter of reminding us, finely to their creator’s mild surprise, that moderation is at best a clearing whereas the world is immoderate. Naturally enough, any overt statements about the unliberalness of the world have the air of being in collusion with a masked optimism, so that when Mr. Taylor has one of his characters think, “Inadvertently, he had penetrated beyond all the good sense and reasonableness that made life seem worthwhile—or even tolerable,” we narrow our eyes. You need to be a great deal more robust than that if you are going to take the bull by the horns. Too often Mr. Taylor pleads.
She felt that she would be willing to say anything at all, no matter how cruel or absurd it was, if it would make them understand that everything that happened in life only demonstrated in some way the lonesomeness that people felt.
Indirection does more, as when it is left to us to make what should be made of something literal like this: “In fact, one of her most exasperating pronouncements was, ‘You are exactly right.’ ” Or of something literal like this: “Sparks could have smoldered in that roof of rotten shingles for a long time before bursting into flame.” But sometimes Mr. Taylor’s patient anxiety gives way and he becomes, as a liberal writer often does, a schoolmasterly scold. “Cookie” ends:
He hesitated a moment; he could still hear their voices indistinctly—their senseless voices. He began walking with light sure steps over the grass—their ugly, old voices. In the driveway, his car, bright and new and luxurious, was waiting for him.
Waiting, too, for Mr. Taylor. The bright car is too serviceable an indictment, especially from a writer whose strongest indictment is reserved for brisk indicters. The same goes for “The Elect,” which falls into a professional slickness indistinguishable from that of the successful politician whom the story deplores. “Who betrayed whom, who let whom down”: Mr. Taylor’s best stories are a training in vigilance, and the vigilance then damages the less than best.
“Once upon a time there was a beautiful young Princess in tight gold pants, so very tight in fact that no one could remove them from her.” As with the title, Pricksongs & Descants, the right response would seem to be a counter-tenor tee-hee. And then what? As the aloof little blurb has it, “It bears on one edge an indecipherable legend, a single cleft rune, not unlike the maiden’s own vanished birthmark, and I am inclined to believe that portentous inscrutability may in fact be the point of it all.” Who now could venture to suggest that portentous inscrutability may be the pointlessness of it all?
Like all violently coercive writers, Robert Coover thinks it prudent to disarm us. “Alexandrian impudence,” shrills a character, while the author lowers his eyes. “Applause and cheers greet his eloquence, accepting which he preens and smiles.” How self-important irony has been getting lately. But Pricksongs & Descants shows how much less good can come of some influences than of others. Either influences or the zeitgeist. John Barth looms behind the crude fatuities and linguistic boisterousness of Mr. Coover’s “Morris in Chains,” and Donald Barthelme is likely to be at once brightly attentive and slightly bored in the face of the whimsical-sinister tales which adapt Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. The Biblical billetdoux seem to me in glumly bad taste (Noah in “The Brother,” Joseph and Mary in “J’s Marriage”), though one is aware that bad taste is what such stories are supposed to be triumphantly scaling.
Fortunately there is the benign influence of Beckett. Pricksongs & Descants has affinities with More Pricks than Kicks. Sometimes the debt is a bad one, creating nothing but the pastiche of a tone of voice: “And yet, it is only the desolation of artifact, is it not,” where the precarious gentility of Beckett’s “is it not,” has degenerated into prissiness. Likewise with the grotesque walking in “The Leper’s Helix”; Beckett has done that once and for all. But Mr. Coover—who is manifestly very clever indeed, and very sensitive despite his decision that it is de rigueur to alternate between glowering and twinkling—has caught much more than mannerism from Beckett or from the zeitgeist. The ticking of the bomb is all but inaudible. “‘You asked for a doctor,’ said an old but gentle voice.” Or there is the perturbed scrutiny of an idiom (“It is one thing to…”), as when the self-conscious narrator of “The Magic Poker” broods over his brood:
It is one thing to discover the shag of hair between my buttocks, quite another to find myself tugging the tight gold pants off Karen’s sister. Or perhaps it is the same thing, yet troubling in either case.
“The Wayfarer,” “The Marker,” “The Babysitter,” “The Hat Act”: these are not vacant surrealisms, and even those who feel that the sick joke has been an unconscionable time dying may yet like Mr. Coover’s bedside manner. The glacial hauteur is designed to ward off any possibility of finding out whether or not the words are heartfelt, but there can be no doubt as to their being headfelt.
Heart is Miss Oates’s part. Though she speaks of irony, she is skeptical of it. Fortunately there is in them itself no counterpart to the uneasy self-depreciation which warps her Author’s Note, with its concluding curtsey about “the rather disdainful and timorous title them.” Disdainful and timorous Miss Oates is not, and knows she is not. She has a proper dislike of self-depreciation, and pities those who have been unnerved out of confidence. One of her earlier stories, “Arch-ways,”* speaks bitterly of how the young are “educated now into knowing their unworth”; this story has clear affinities with the end of them, and a sense of “unworth” is Miss Oates’s true and desolating concern. She would not adopt the old pompous ways of speaking of self-respect (“oft times nothing profits more / Than self esteem, grounded on just and right“), but she has a staunchly old-fashioned, and salutary, sense of the relations between self-respect and respectability. The degradations of city life are so intense, and so intensely created by her, that respectability can be seen as vital to self-preservation; one remembers Steven Marcus’s fine account in The Other Victorians of respectability and urban brutality, and of the amount that respectability made possible that was not just worthwhile but a matter of life and death.
them tells of Loretta Wendall, and her two children, Maureen and Jules. Maureen (whose real-life self was apparently the novel’s datum) passes through family deprivation and depravity into catastrophe and a catatonic state—her stepfather knocks her about, and all but kills her after suspecting, rightly, that she was prostituting herself. Her prostitution has a frigid innocence, though its imperturbability cannot hide its self-inflicted psychic wounds. But she surfaces, albeit at great cost to herself and to others; she decides to take away another woman’s husband, and this she does placidly but inexorably.
Her ultimate respectability is hard and hard-won, but who has the right to ask anything else of her? Her brother Jules is slick but doesn’t like himself for it. Miss Oates doesn’t know what to make of him; in fact he gets under her skin in a way that could have precipitated the richest creation in the book, but which never quite does because Miss Oates is less than her usual unblinking self when it comes to Jules’s fantasies, of money, love, or life-style. She intermittently lets him have them as fact (a mysterious manic benefactor called Bernard, and his rippling vestal niece Nadine, an erotic figment if I ever saw one), because she can’t bear to see him go without.
Of course she then is obliged to snatch the fantasies (Bernard is handily murdered, and Nadine eventually turns out to be so eaten up with self-disgust as to shoot Jules in desperate lovingness). But the de-fantasizing comes too late, and the withdrawal symptoms seem not to be the characters’ but the author’s.
them has genuine power and pathos, but it often manifests a talent exasperatingly misguided about itself. For instance, the revolutionary talk and the Detroit riots in which we last see anything much of Jules are clearly to Miss Oates of apocalyptic importance. Yet the political argy-bargy fatally manages to be at once as boringly solipsistic as if it were real and yet wanly unconvincing:
“We’ve got to talk! Organize! Time is running out for the city, and if we don’t take control other people will. The Afros are splintering off—they won’t communicate except for their president, who’s a very intelligent young man but emotional, and the rest of them are emotional also—we’ve got to get things settled, organized, assigned…”
Again Miss Oates’s talent doesn’t seem to me to be, as she supposes, pre-eminent for rendering the quick of individual character. What she is good at is, on the contrary, a generalizing or common psychology, the observation which is poignantly shrewd about how people behave, and not a vivid evocation of a particular person behaving. “Any wife to any husband.” So Carol’s morbid mother doesn’t live, but the observation to which she gives rise does: “No surprise so sickening it can’t be mastered with a lopsided grin.” Similarly, the adultery of Jim Randolph with Maureen (her ruthless triumph) is superbly convincing in so far as it is psychologically generalizable, endemic in the situation itself:
She did not turn to him. He came to her in silence, he put his arms around her and clutched at her. So now what is going to happen? he thought. He was terribly afraid. But he could not stop, and the girl did not stop him, and his fear did no good, the high ringing beat of her heart did no good, warning him off, drawing him to her.
But this authenticity is imperiled rather than assisted by being tricked out with an earlier internal monologue intended to establish the belated Jim Randolph as a living individual. Or there is a sentence like “When their father came home there was not always trouble”: so bleak an aphorism is more truly specific than are the specificities which Miss Oates accumulates by quick-witted duty rather than seizes by intuition. Her acumen continually jostles against her dutiful brightness;
“But what are you going to do?” She stared at him. For the first time she wondered if he was serious.
“I don’t know yet.”
The cheekbones of his pale, lean face looked particularly sharp; it was as if the bones of his face were thinking for him.
“You’re going to get in some trouble,” Loretta said. She spoke in the fatal, final, partly satisfied singsong her mother and other women in the family had used, as if they’d already come to the end of all the worst possibilities and were waiting there for the men to catch up.
The flight about the bones of his face is self-congratulatory, and a wanton bid for individuality (authorial and characterly); whereas the singsong isn’t Loretta’s private property and is all the more piercing for that.
But such carping is permissible only because Miss Oates is already known to matter. She can write with great dignity about how slight the chances are of dignity. Casual violence and squalor cut off so much, and urban death has little time for tragic catharsis. I was reminded of Geoffrey Hill’s superb ending to his recent sequence “Funeral Music”:
If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us—or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end “I have not finished.”
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a mid-Victorian novel written a century late. John Fowles is happy to see life through the spectacles of books; the Victorian novel focuses it all, and corrects his hindsight. An educated governess, Sarah Woodruff, betrayed by an ephemeral French lieutenant, attracts at first the keen interest and subsequently the torrid passion of Charles Smithson, who has pledged himself (with unadmitted uneasiness) to marry rich shallow Ernestina Freeman. Betrayal hangs acridly over it all—but who exactly is betraying whom remains tantalizing. The plot has at once the ingenuity and the plausibility of the best Victorian fiction, and the combination of the Victorian novelistic conventions with the hard-earned knowledge of what those conventions fended off, and what glittered through their interstices, is taunting and incisive.
Not that everything to do with Mr. Fowles’s historicizing is equally felicitous. He adopts something of the vocabulary of the Victorian novel—excellent in so far as this means deploying the dignified formality and tautness of utterance, but lamentable in so far as it means the mimicking of clichés. Vacant phrasing sinks under heavy irony: dressed in the height of fashion, the first fine throes, hours of excruciating boredom, mortally offended, oblivious to its charm, stiff upper lip, and so on. Again, Mr. Fowles sometimes converts his determination not to let us forget the twentieth-century auspices of his nineteenth-century tale into an impertinent (in the strongest sense) donnishness; footnotes and interchapters, academic yet rough and ready, offer a far cruder stereotype of “the Victorian” (and of the “other” ones, of course) than the novel proper permits. So the explicit appearances put in by the Victorian “terror of sexuality” and by lesbianism and by the 1867 Reform Bill and by Darwin’s “psychosomatic illness” (notorious, but also—though Mr. Fowles doesn’t say so—notoriously unproven) have the air of charades, entertaining but less than profound.
“Language is like shot silk, so much depends on the angle at which it is held” (Fowles). “Poetry is like shot silk with many glancing colours” (Tennyson). A coincidence, perhaps. But Tennyson furnishes most of the novel’s epigraphs; eleven chapters have epigraphs from Maud, which is “the one book which Charles carried constantly with him.” One of Mr. Fowles’s deftest insights, both historically and fictionally, lies in at once adopting and adapting Maud. The heroine of Maud has both the social and the monetary advantage over the doomed hero, and she is in danger of being sold to the highest bidder. A passage which Tennyson did not eventually incorporate cries bitterly against this marriage-hindering Mammon:
Lying a splendid whoredom to full fed heirs at the Ball,
“Buy me, O buy me and have me, for I am here to be sold.”
This nexus is one of those which is unraveled in The French Lieutenant’s Woman—unraveled but also complicated, since Mr. Fowles seizes on the fact that once Charles Smithson ceases to be the heir to a baronetcy (his uncle unexpectedly marries), the gentlemanly balance of power—the Freeman money (but from trade), against his social tone (but with no answering substance)—collapses. Charles cannot escape “the feeling that he was now the bought husband,” sure to succumb after a few years to the sensible but distasteful invitation to enter the family firm. Was now….: but not yet, and this too plays a part in deflecting Charles from ever becoming Ernestina’s husband.
The best things in the book stem from Charles’s obsession (a mounting one) with Sarah. It is here that the plotting, in both senses, is masterly, at once surprising and apt. But the end is something less or more than teasing, it is a tease. One hundred and forty pages before the end (the thick remainder of the book is unignorable), Charles apparently hastens back to Ernestina after all: “And so ends the story. What happened to Sarah, I do not know—whatever it was, she never troubled Charles again in person, however long she may have lingered in his memory…” This, we realize, cannot be the case, since the remaining pages aren’t blank and are unlikely to be utterly irrelevant. Sure enough, “the last few pages you have read are not what happened, but what he spent the hours between London and Exeter imagining might happen.” In fact (or rather in fiction) Charles goes to bed with Sarah, jilts Ernestina, and then loses Sarah who vanishes into London’s hordes. And then?
At which point Mr. Fowles plays coy, tells us that it is not for him to choose between Charles’s gaining Sarah and his losing her, and makes out that “the only way I can take no part in the fight is to show two versions of it.” Very interesting they both are; they both let Charles see Sarah again, the first with a happy outcome, the second (their bearded creator having been shown putting his watch back a quarter of an hour) ending in lonely isolation.
What we are given is an adaptation of the famous Great Expectations crux, in the original ending of which Pip gained finally no more than a glimpse of the lost Estella, and in the revised (Bulwer-begotten) ending of which he gained Estella herself. Mr. Fowles gives us both. Such is his right, but it will not do—except in the service of a further unmentioned irony—to make out that this manifests an Olympian neutrality, “taking no part.” Once the novelist says “I’m in no position to insist that such-and-such happened,” he is in no position to insist that either such-and-such or such-and-such happened. For there would not be, in life, two possibilities, but virtually an infinity of them. To reduce this infinity to two alternatives is no less manipulatory or coercive—though because of its quasi-abnegation it is far more congenial to modern taste—than was the Victorian novelist’s reduction of this infinity to one eventuality. But then perhaps such is enigmatic Mr. Fowles’s point. After all, he is not credulous about modern taste.
February 12, 1970