Many people, perhaps, will not be happy until their parents are no longer alive, no longer able to do them down or do them harm; and many of those people will perhaps even then not be able to be happy. In the words of a recent poem by Philip Larkin:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
I don’t see what Richard Murphy meant when he said (The New York Review, May 15) that those first two lines “are pawns thrown away to give the reader confidence to go on with the game”; if you must have a chess metaphor, the poem’s pounce had better be “fools mate.” Here are three powerful novels about such havoc. Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel has at its heart an aging couple, in Switzerland just after the war, who pretend to be cousins and can’t marry because the man won’t won’t, because of the malign potency of that most important of previous marriages, the one which had given him birth:
“I wish we could get married here, Robert. I see no sense in our remaining this way. It is absurd a man your age being tied to an old mother and three sisters, maiden ladies in their fifties and sixties. Why, you scarcely knew them. And you don’t like them. I send them Christmas cards; you don’t. And they know all about us but they pretend not to. Your family is full of hypocrisy.”
“I promised my mother not to marry during her lifetime; and I won’t.”
“But, Robert, she is blind, deaf and partly paralysed. She has lost her memory. And you don’t believe in a personal God.”
“Just the same, she does; and I swore on her Bible; and she is still alive.”
And when she is dead, that mother, will she not still be alive, to such intents and purposes?
Reynolds Price’s The Surface of Earth tells of a curse which—as perhaps in a Greek tragedy—falls on and on, upon parents and children, through generation after generation (1903-1905, 1921-1929, 1944), and which eventually may issue faintly—as in one of Shakespeare’s last plays—in “partial amends,” which is the title of the book’s last third. The woman who loves one of the all-but-doomed men writes in a letter to a friend: “That’s what we talked about finally, his life. He thinks it has been poor; it sounds good to me—a father that left them when he was a baby, a mother who watched him as little as possible.” It is either (on one reading, which would be my reading) a lapse into sentimentality, or the opposite (a resistance to the sentimentality of dooming), when Mr. Price finally falls back upon—or rises to—italics to express his sense that we should faintly trust the larger hope:
He saw now how children learn the terrors of the world—by watching their parents, suspecting them of infinite power to turn in an instant into monsters, then confirming that suspicion. And surviving it.
No such italics come to our rescue in the face of the dour question, “Can you name me three children that have brought their parents pleasure?” We are being asked to contemplate the bitter complement to the notorious reflection that “Every old man is a King Lear”; that every daughter has much of Regan and Goneril, and every son much of Edmund. And if the last scion of Mr. Price’s family tree is in some ways in better health, that may be for an unhealthy reason:
He saw for the first time in all his life how, though he’d been started (been aimed) by his parents, he had been steered and saved (so far as he was saved) by the single and barren—Rena, Sylvie, Grainger, Polly, Della, even Kennerly. They passed through his sight now like old Bible figures, tall forms in dark pictures on whom the sky leans—but sufficient to bear it.
You can bear the sky, and help children to bear it, provided you don’t bear the children.
The sentiment is kin to that in Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, when the central character, Mehring, racked and decent in the politics of South Africa and of his family life, thinks about his unracked and decent hippie-type son and the good old friends the son has been staying with:
Emmy and Kurt are good simple people—which means they have been left behind, they don’t change, they are preserved by the desert back there in the past—as good for the boy as they were for himself when he was a boy. Childless women like Emmy are the ones who would have been the best mothers; old chaps like Kurt, who have no son, can do with any boy all those things the father doesn’t have time or the knack for.
It may seem a perversion or a coercion on a reviewer’s part (how a novel-reviewer longs that his gaggle of novels will form a family) to insist that The Conservationist is essentially about the reciprocal ravages of parents and children. For is not the striking thing about Mehring that in all his brooding about himself, about his farm and its servants and workers, his divorced wife, his alienated son, his mistress, he never lets himself or us contemplate his parents and that making and marring of himself which antedates any making or marring which he may now encompass? But then the strikingness is the point. The Conservationist is about such deracination, about the impossibility—at times tragic or pathetic, at times farcical—of preserving any deep and true feelings for your descendants if your ancestors are jettisoned or amputated. When Mehring lets himself somehow soak into “his farm” as if he had more than bought it, the moment is a touching one both in its true wish and in its false wishfulness:
He has been sitting so still he has the fanciful feeling that so long as he does not move the farm is as it is when he’s not there. He’s at one with it as an ancestor at one with his own earth. He is there and not there.
And if we ask why that moment can be immediately so utterly blasted by the memory of his mistress’s jeering sally at where his money comes from—“What’s the final and ultimate price of pig-iron?”—one answer is that the word “ancestor” can put up no resistance to such jeers because it too is desperately “fanciful.” Mehring doesn’t just not have farm-ancestors, he doesn’t recognize that he has ancestors at all.
It is important not to reduce The Conservationist to being about even this great subject—Nadine Gordimer is writing at the heights and at the penetrating depths of her powers, and so her novel isn’t to be nailed down; and yet it is important, too, to see how much of it depends upon such intimations. A hitch-hiking girl and her garrulous grandfather, with his words at once truth and cant: “It’s the parents I blame”; Mehring’s sandaled son, being gloweringly thought at by his father, “sitting there with your body in its penitent’s rags for all the sins of the fathers”; the guinea-fowl eggs with which the book opens and draws to a close, eggs cherished but thwarted by the native children, “eggs that will never hatch”; the last of the epigraphs from the native folk tale, with its alien family tree that within the native world at least does not yet seem to have become our poisonous upas tree:
“Uthlanga begat Unsondo: Unsondo begat the ancestors; the ancestors begat the great grandfathers; the great grandfathers begat the grandfathers; and the grandfathers begat our fathers; and our fathers begat us.”
—all these are family matters, and so is the final paragraph of the book, which tells how the natives bury the body of an unknown murdered man found on Mehring’s farm, who had been skimpily buried by the indifferent police and who had now been gruesomely resurrected by a flood:
The one whom the farm received had no name. He had no family but their women wept a little for him. There was no child of his present but their children were there to live after him. They had put him away to rest, at last; he had come back. He took possession of this earth, theirs; one of them.
How can a man be a conservationist if ancestry and parenthood have become little else than the sins of the fathers and of the mothers and of the children? How can Mehring expect to touch his son if he is obdurately and blindly out of touch with even the memory of his parents? So for Mehring, touch and intimacy have become displaced, or at least now rest where he cannot in the end be happy for them to rest. First, in a disjunct sexuality. “Oh for God’s sake. Leave me alone. Touch me.” Second, in the farm. “How surprisingly much he knows of husbandry”: the root pun on husbandry is the book’s tactful crux, and when Mehring’s mistress mocks him:
—Now that you’ve bought that place, I can just see you in a few years time, falling into its bosom….
—Mother it and husband it and lover it—
we are made aware of how disconcertingly “its bosom” doesn’t go with “mother it,” and how disconcertingly absent is the phrase “father it.” If the book’s overt pun is husbandry, its covert one is paternalism. It sneers at, or with, neither. “The farm—who else is a farm for, but a son—doesn’t interest him,” that uninterestable son.
Nadine Gordimer has, among her many delicate strengths, three that here prove especially apt: her sense of the language of others and of other languages; her sense of her own creative language; and her sense of her own and of others’ sexuality. For the first, I’d cite the subtle and various comprehensions which she has of the relationships between English, Afrikaans, and the native languages of the Africans and the Indians—relationships that are sometimes political, sometimes merely politic, and sometimes constitute the irremovable relationships, family ones: “He and the people there greeted each other with ‘brother,’ ‘sister,’ ‘mother,’ ‘uncle,’ a grammar of intimacy that went with their language.” The book is never unaware that it is written in one, only one, of the tongues which belong to its various people; yet it is never disablingly self-conscious about this, or afraid of paternalism or maternalism, since in mothering (and husbanding and lovering) its mother tongue it conveys a warm respect for the other mother tongues.
For the second strength, her sense of her own style, I’d cite intimations of sound and sense in what looks like an ordinary bit of narrative prose: “Over the hard ground his thick rubber soles scuff worn scrubbing-brushes of closely-grazed dead grass”—where the striding and the resistance to it come alive in the passing from “rubber” and “scuff” to those real but metaphorical “scrubbing-brushes.” To illustrate the third, her sense of sexuality, there is the bizarre but utterly convincing episode on an airplane when Mehring’s hand is sexually intimate with, while his self is altogether distant from, the young woman, a stranger, next to whom he finds himself sitting. One would have to quote the whole passage, because its tension, like sexual tension, is at once cumulative and dispersed.
Those three strengths, though they take different forms, are Miss Stead’s too. Her small hotel in Switzerland holds, embraces, madmen and predators, snobs and sentimentalists. Her laconic brittle style, with transitions that look blind in their curtness but nevertheless allow us to glimpse some haunting insights, finds its dramatic correlative in the narrative voice of the woman who runs the limping hotel. “My English is not very good,” the woman may say, but such words take their place within the way in which Miss Stead’s English is very good. Switzerland itself seems to have no native language. “You see, she speaks French very fast to me and as I am from German Switzerland originally, my French is bad.” And, here too, intimacy has to do with tongues and their flattery:
After we had a quiet beer I told Mrs. Trollope about my troubles with Roger. There is a married woman after him, my best friend Julie, the one who keeps calling me German because I like beer. She makes him smoke and drink too much; and she leaves me alone with her husband while she goes off with Roger. She is French and she flatters Roger that he is truly French.
Even English finds its imperial confidence shaken, finds itself sapped by having to be not only a mother tongue for those who are away from their motherland, but also the desperate Esperanto of these motley aliens. It is a tragicomic shabby-genteel world, in which the upper lip is stiff and the lower one is trembling, and Miss Stead has a great gift for sensing the words that escape from just such a divided mouth.
Lilia cried: “Oh, what is the use of money when it is no use? Our money is shut up and we are in jail because we must stay with it. Here I am living abroad. You want me to bring out all my money; I will have none there. I won’t be able to go and see my girls for Christmas unless they take me in. And I’m a rich woman.”
The accents are no longer those of “the out-of-date English milords,” but of English refugees from Attlee’s England who are “beginning to worry about dying among foreigners.” Their children are foreign to them, but then so are their parents. The desiccation of such a life, its fear of sexuality, its embittered clutch upon its ancestors and its descendants—all this makes The Little Hotel at once painfully impressive and yet painedly narrow, like a wince. The allied ironies which coursed through what is still Miss Stead’s best book were more ample, for The Man Who Loved Children was open to larger failures of imagination in its terrifying family than those which fret and lacerate the denizens of the little hotel.
Reynolds Price’s imagination is large, and so are his sympathies and powers. And on the face of it The Surface of Earth is anything but superficial. It is determined to plumb the servitudes and grandeurs of family life and of generational dependencies—but then “determined” is perhaps the trouble, is perhaps the reason why, although I was moved by and respected it, I somehow don’t see myself reading it again. For it is overwritten, not just locally (Mr. Price’s style can ripen with fatal fluency, and then the rot sets in), but also in the insistence of its scheme, the relish that taints the enterprise because when the mills of God grind slowly it is all grist to the novelist’s mill.
From the first words on, and at a good many crucial moments, the death of a mother in childbirth is urgently central; yet this urgency (unlike the free urgency of innumerable moments and anecdotes when Mr. Price is free of the doom which is being visited upon his characters) has something factitious, voulu. So I couldn’t help being reminded of what William Empson wrote, forty years ago, about another excellently intentioned American writer who became a touch religious, and a touch too preoccupiedly convenienced, when there was death in childbirth:
Mr. Robinson Jeffers, like Mr. Galsworthy, often seems to write from his conscience rather than his sensibility. He chooses painful subjects, one may suspect, less because he feels strongly about them than because he feels it shameful not to feel strongly about them; because one cannot be comfortable and unimaginative, with the world as it is. You may honour this feeling very much and yet say it does not produce good writing; it gives an air of poking at the reader, or trying to catch him on the raw, and it tends to falsify a dramatic issue. At the crisis of the “Loving Shepherdess” the hero nearly remembers that her life could be saved by a Caesarean operation; he can’t quite think of it, and the word Caesar, thus suggested, becomes a vision of human and then heavenly glory, which is described very finely and apparently justifies his failure to help her. For a moment this may seem the soul of tragedy, but next moment it seems cock-eyed. He had remembered enough to tell her to go to a clinic, anyway; I speak under correction about visions, but I don’t believe he would have had a vision just then if he had not been a shamefully self-centered person.
June 26, 1975