One takes one’s chances with Iris Murdoch. I read her first ten novels as they appeared, but gradually realized that both success and failure with her seemed like accidental results of her need to keep writing, and so missed a few after that. Bruno’s Dream has some good moments, and her next-to-last, The Black Prince, has been praised by people I respect; her latest, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, is a dreadful mess. There are some excellent scenes, but much wasteful floundering, too. As she begins a novel, Murdoch seems to commit herself to a central situation and then to rely on her talent to uncover what exciting scenes lie inherent in that situation. If it works out, fine; if not, start another novel.
Imagine an ordinary love triangle, not as it forms, but as it survives after eight years. Next imagine the husband tells his wife about his mistress, and about the son he has had by her. Then go to work. Fireworks of husband with wife, husband with exposed mistress, then wife with mistress as the latter insists she doesn’t want to be forgiven:
“I want Blaise. I want him to live with me properly in the future. I want the lot. Sorry and all that. This is what this is all about.”
“Of course he must see more of you,” said Harriet quickly. She picked up the sherry and twisted the glass without drinking. “This is part of what I wanted to say. I know he’s been negligent. You may have thought that—when he told me I—well, I don’t know what you thought—“
“I didn’t imagine you’d want a divorce,” said Emily. “No such bloody luck. But that isn’t going to make any difference!”
“After all, we are women—“
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Please listen to me seriously and with forbearance. Of course it’s been a shock and I’m very unhappy—“
“Poor—“ Emily began.
Harriet raised her hand. She had set the glass down again. “Something very perfect, which seemed very perfect, very precious to me, is gone….”
Having arrived at this scene feeling impregnable in her own generosity, Harriet can only discover sententiousness when that generosity isn’t wanted. I know no other writer who would try to get away with a line like “Please listen to me seriously and with forbearance,” and it seems both surprising and just right. Murdoch is good, too, when that sententiousness has to face the fact that the husband is a skunk, that Harriet doesn’t like him—and so makes the typical Murdoch leap to the discovery that what she really wants is to keep the son of the mistress.
So there are three or four scenes of bizarre energy about a third of the way through the novel. But then what? Murdoch didn’t ask, or if she did, she accepted bad answers. The husband isn’t so much awful as dull, and Murdoch brushes him aside. Since that pushes the two women aside too, Murdoch must call on one of her typical collection of ghastly misfits to take over, sexually kinky and emotionally scarred to the last person. The last half of the novel is awful, one big and boring scene after another, each taking the novel further from its ostensible interest. Near the end, the wife is killed off and the husband marries the mistress, and the book barely registers these facts. Murdoch must finish every novel she starts, she accepts strong feelings for interesting feelings, she prefers scenes to people—so both she and her reader have to take their chances. Murdoch’s characters are twenty years older than they were in Under the Net, they are occupationally more settled and have grown children and some occasionally die, but they and their author are essentially the same. Yet she could right now be careening blindly and with joy into a masterpiece.
J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur is as careful as Murdoch’s novel is hasty; it is also, like John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a self-conscious effort to construct a full Victorian scene and tale with a modern idiom and tone, so that a reader is asked to be both inside a good old-fashioned tale and outside it, being ironic, taking its measure. I liked Farrell’s book, as I did Fowles’s, but I found it hard to respect the pleasure I was asked to feel. Farrell has won a big prize in England and has received an excellent press everywhere. But why does this book, and this kind of book, make me nervous? Farrell has done lots of happy reading about the British in India, and he clearly is delighted to tell us, as he tells us his tale of a sepoy mutiny, about guns and architecture and diseases and enthusiasm for machines exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1851. Yet:
The Collector awoke to a pleasant smell of wood-smoke, which for some reason reminded him of Northumberland where he spent his childhood. He had slept in his clothes, of course, and had woken once or twice as people came through his bedroom to attend to the General.
“For some reason”? “Of course”? Such details may seem minor, but they beat a tattoo in every sentence, there to remind us that we are in the hands of a late-twentieth-century novelist. The phrases seem both twitchy and lazy. Twitchy because we could get along easily without such reminders, lazy because they refuse to say why the Collector was reminded of Northumberland, or had “of course” slept in his clothes. Since “Northumberland” could be any county, and “clothes” could be “nightshirt,” style here is as arbitrary as it is knowing.
The Collector, especially, should not be subjected to such treatment, since he is the only character in whom Farrell takes any real interest. There is a young poetic type, and a muscular Christian minister who goes mad, and a doctor who is a parody of the Royal Society, and an Indian prince with British manners, and lots of women. All are exhibits in a gallery designed to let Farrell measure Victorian attitudes with amusement or contempt. People actually say things like:
Oh Louise, that is why it’s so important that we bring to India a civilization of the heart, and not only to India but to the whole world…rather than this sordid materialism.
Such a sentence in a big Murdoch scene would be part of a drama, both internal and external. In The Siege of Krishnapur it is just there, to be repeated or paraphrased over and over, and a reader can only feel embarrassment gradually dwindle into indifference for the character who speaks the words, eventually for the author who writes them.
The Collector, however, is someone Farrell cares about, and he really carries the whole novel. Besides “of course” sleeping in his clothes and believing grotesquely in progress and imperialism, the Collector takes the threatened mutiny seriously, responds to others with expanded sympathy under the terrible conditions of the siege. He sees his ideas crumble, his plans go wrong, his principles waver in the face of hunger and death, his strength become foolish but all he has. The result is always portraiture, but invested with respect and sadness as well as amusement. Here he is responding to the washing away of earthen ramparts, carefully ordered long before the others saw any need for them, during a monsoon.
Now the Collector’s finger was pointing at other objects, including even those belonging to himself. Statues were pointed at and the shattered grand piano from the drawing-room in the hope that they might help, if only a little, to shore up the weakest banks of soil. For the Collector knew that he had to have the earth as a cushion against the enemy cannons; brickwork or masonry splinters or cracks, wood is useless; only earth is capable of gulping down cannon balls without distress. But still it continued to wash away, around edges of tables, between the legs and fingers of statues.
There is barely a Collector here, but there is human effort, however futile, and the humor of the passage is blended with the sadness that the natural forces at work are greater than any effort. So too, at the end, years after, when the Collector says: “Culture is a sham,” “a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness,” we can register that as perhaps no more true than the opposite statement about culture with which he began, but also as a sign that the Collector has had a terrible ordeal that might indeed cause such an about-face in attitude.
Still, The Siege of Krishnapur is really only escape fiction with a twist. Instead of asking us to imagine ourselves in a different time and place, Farrell’s ironies allow us to learn about people of a century ago without having to take them seriously. We escape, thus, by knowing we know better than they, when in fact all we know is different. In such a position it is too easy to be compassionate to fools and victims, since we can move from compassion to amusement without penalty. So, though it is fun to read, the attitudes this novel asks us to assume are not all that interesting, or trustworthy either.
The Last Days of Louisiana Red is Ishmael Reed’s fourth and best novel, but it should have been much better still. Reed writes good-guy-bad-guy books that tend toward allegory, and here he seems to have precisely the blend of literary wit, double-edged satire, and one-liner situations that he seems to have been looking for up to now. Louisiana Red is not a person, but the current condition:
Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another, carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires flew in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like a Merv Griffin Show set.
In these last days the current manifestation of Louisiana Red is the Moochers, led by one Minnie. The Moochers range from revolutionaries to wealthy poverty workers to right-on ministers to whites mooching in mooching black studies programs. Here is part of a meeting of their board of directors, and I assure you that no surrounding context will keep this from cacophony:
“Street knows the poolrooms, the crap games, the alleys and the bars. He knows the redemptive suffering and oppression. We will offer Street Yellings the position. Is there any dissent?”
“You, Rev. Rookie?”
“WHATEVER YOU SAY IS FINE FOR ME, MAX,” Rev. Rookie said.
“Do I look like a broomhandle to you, you four-eyed goofy mutherfucka,” Rusty says nasty as Max turns red as a beet. Big Sally starts to cackle.
“Please, dear, you’ll upset Mr. Kasavubu”….
Easterhood looked real simple, like a Bunny Berrigan adaptation of a Jelly Roll Morton hit.
The scene is the East Bay: “Berkeley is so rational that even its trashings have structure”; “the last thing Oakland’s weekend casualties say to their wives before they go out of the house with their shotguns is ‘I’ll be right back.’ ” There’s also a Chorus who goes about muttering that things haven’t been the same since Antigone took over Sophocles’ play and left too little for Choruses to do.
There’s plenty of Louisiana Red here and when Reed writes about it his fools and knaves are all rendered with a good light touch. The trouble comes with the good guys, the first of whom to appear is Ed Yellings, father of Street and Minnie the Moocher. Ed, we are told, is in the Business, a Worker, not a Moocher, and his store sign says he makes Gumbo but no one believes that. Ed is killed and a trouble-shooter named LeBas is sent out, presumably by friends of Ed’s in the Business, to investigate. What Reed wants is to say that the best people are hard at work, not mooching; Ed Yellings’s Gumbo works turns out to manufacture a cancer cure and an antidote to heroin. The trouble is that all this is just something LeBas says at the end as he plays Ellery Queen and solves the mystery of Ed’s killing without even needing a clue.
The very lightness of Reed’s touch with the Moochers is of no use when dealing with the Workers, because we need to know what the work is, how it is different from drifting and freeloading, and the only way we can learn that is to see someone do it. But Ed Yellings works behind a front and LeBas just sits around and knows things, so the contrast between them and the others is never felt or made clear. Reed himself is not hard enough at work here, and so he ends up seeming more like a Moocher, someone cashing in fashionable chips, than he should.
The shortcomings of all three of these novels seem to derive from some failure to respect their human and fictional materials, some willingness to settle for a way or attitude that arrests their chances to explore themselves fully. On the back of the jacket of James Welch’s Winter in the Blood is a quotation from Reed that also reveals the fatal temptations of settling into an attitude too quickly or easily:
It is a triumphant reminder that all of the force of the Christian proselytizers’ Long Knives failed to undo an indigenous peoples’ spirit. Our ancient medicine men are still among us; James Welch is one.
Reading that, one can easily want it to be true, but although Welch is an Indian and writes about Indians he is no more a medicine man than he is one of the Long Knives; he and his nameless narrator-hero have come out on the other side of all that:
“Why did he stay away so much?” I said.
“What? Your father?” The question caught her off guard.
“Why would he stay away so much?”
We have heard a great deal about Indians and their relations with their ancestors, and here it looks as though the son must try to break through to some knowledge of his father, as though the mother might open out some vista to the past. But no:
“He didn’t. He was around enough. When he was around he got things accomplished.”
“But you yourself said he was never around.”
“You must have him mixed up with yourself. He always accomplished what he set out to do.”
We were sitting on the edge of the cistern. Teresa was rubbing Mazola oil into the surface of a wooden salad bowl. It had been a gift from the priest in Harlem, but she never used it.
No vista onto the past, no invitation to nostalgia is ever made, though it looks as though it could have been had Welch been a different, an easier, author. Neither mother nor son opens up, and Welch won’t insist, or make Teresa rub the bowl with some special Indian mixture or in some special Indian way. The writing is constantly fending off easy attitudes and conclusions with a flat, brooding precision. The reader keeps wanting to be able to make something of it all, to be clear how these people are Indians, how being an Indian makes a difference. Welch himself is a Montanan, Blackfoot and Gros Ventre, and in Winter in the Blood one may find out what it is like to be an Indian, this Indian, but just what that means is never once offered us for summary or conclusion. It is an unnervingly beautiful book.
The nameless narrator, for instance, is no stylized invisible man, and if there’s a point to his namelessness, it matters little. There may be half a dozen sentences that look a little too touched up—and, sadly, predictably, they are the ones quoted in the reviews I’ve seen thus far—but the others just go about their business, setting us up for the next one that doesn’t come:
The sugar beet factory up by Chinook had died seven years before. Everybody had thought the factory caused the river to be milky but the water never cleared. The white men from the fish department came in their green trucks and stocked the river with pike. They were enthusiastic and dumped thousands of pike of all sizes into the river. But the river ignored the fish and the fish ignored the river; they refused even to die there. They simply vanished. The white men made tests; they stuck electric rods into the water; they scraped muck from the bottom; they even collected bugs from the fields next to the river; they dumped other kinds of fish in the river. Nothing worked. The fish disappeared. Then the men from the fish department disappeared, and the Indians put away their new fishing poles.
Everything there seems to cry out for satire, for making the white men fools for not knowing the ways of rivers. They certainly don’t know the ways of this one, but the Indian doesn’t either, and the Indians who wait around until the whites leave can’t use their poles unless the whites find the fish. There is humor here, but no snicker, no way to be complacent or bitter.
As one might imagine, there are fine conversations in bars, and they have just the right quality of aimlessness and direction, of life being lived and not lived. It gets to be nerve-wracking fun to try to figure out with every sentence what direction you think the conversation will take, then to see it take some other:
“I rode the Empire Builder to Minneapolis once—looking for work.” She ran her finger around the rim of the glass.
“It doesn’t stop here.”
The conversation to be about life in towns too small for the Burlington Northern.
“Is that what you are—a secretary?”
“Not anymore, buster. That was a long time ago, believe me.”
“Ah, well, that’s how it is.”
“You want to know something else?” She suddenly looked directly into my face. “Okay, if you must know, I never worked day one as a secretary. Trained for two years at Haskell, learning how to squiggle when some big-nuts shot his mouth off, and never even worked the first day!” There were tears in her eyes. She was drunker than I thought. “It’s a lousy world can do that to a girl!”
“It’s not great.” I was getting depressed myself.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs runs the school of Haskell, so it is a target. But it seems history is to blame too, and life, and just as one seeks to settle into “That’s how it is,” one gets depressed instead, and not knowing what to say about whites, history, and life becomes also a matter of not knowing what to say to a girl who is drunk and sitting next to you in a bar.
Writing as flat and quiet as this, in a novel that is mostly dialogue, tempts one to think of Hemingway, to praise its tact and understatement. But Winter in the Blood has no such Hemingway sense of style or life; it states everything fully, seeks no sense that these people are responding “gracefully under pressure,” because there is no pressure. But that does not lead Welch either to absurdist acceptance or to despair, but to a careful page-by-page measurement of the precise value of however little there is to these lives. Of course in a book like this there is bound to be a problem with plot, because one is inevitably attitudinizing if one uses a plot to give the lives shape or if one refuses to use plot to refuse to give them shape. Here too Welch’s instinct seems to me just right. Beyond the first excitement of finding a book so carefully done, one can begin to get twitchy and ask where it is all going, restless with the possibility that Welch will try to get away with saying it is going nowhere.
But no. Near the end the hero comes home to discover his grandmother has died, and he stumbles upon a secret about her. Years before, when the Indians were still fighting, the Blackfeet were enduring a fearful winter in the mountains, far from home. The chief died, and the others began to believe that his widowed bride was bad luck, and they shunned her. The bride was his grandmother, and he is told this by a man who was young then, who befriended the woman, and had a child by her. So the hero discovers his own grandfather, who had spent fifty years living not three miles away. The hero has to press to get this story, seems excited as he does, but since it is not really told as a tale, he can feel only a hint of wonder and no nostalgia. Again, no vista onto the past, because whatever the story may satisfy it leads the hero only to the sense that his own life hasn’t been good since his father and brother died. Truth enough, change however little it will.
Iris Murdoch, J. G. Farrell, and Ishmael Reed are all novelists, engaged in careers, free, apparently, to imagine the stories of the lives of other people. The flaws and failures in their novels are faults a novelist can learn from and move on; Murdoch has recovered from worse books, and Farrell and Reed are both young and getting better. By comparison, James Welch in this first novel is only a truth-teller, and Winter in the Blood may be the only one he can write because writers this sternly devoted to telling the truth often don’t have many more than one or two tales to tell. We must hope not. Winter in the Blood is short, done almost before one feels well begun with it, but I felt very much in its presence long after I had finished.
December 12, 1974