“I knew,” the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon says, “that since 1933 the rich could only be happy alone together.” Muriel Spark, in The Takeover, suggests that since 1973, with the oil crisis and the onset of the new Dark Ages, the rich have lost even that insulated happiness. Sponged on, held up, ripped off, blackmailed, kidnapped, they have become an endangered species, their paintings, antiques, cash, and multiple international holdings mere invitations to swindle and looting; all their assets transfigured into liabilities. There has been “a change in the meaning of property and money,” we are told:
a complete mutation of our means of nourishment had already come into being where the concept of money and property were concerned, a complete mutation not merely to be defined as a collapse of the capitalist system, or a global recession, but such a sea-change in the nature of reality as could not have been envisaged by Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud.
It’s hard to know what to make of this rather excited passage. It is not ironic, and here and elsewhere in the book Spark seems simply to confuse money with wealth, as if money didn’t count except in large accumulations. What’s more, the elegant and very funny plot of The Takeover tells another story entirely, since it shows Maggie, a rich and glamorous American woman, responding to economic danger by dressing like a gypsy, flirting with assassination, and successfully kidnapping the man who has made off with her fortune.
Hubert, an old friend whom she has been trying to evict from a house of hers throughout the book, but who has resisted stoutly, and has confected meanwhile a nice little nest egg for himself by selling off Maggie’s priceless paintings and valuable furniture, asks her if she can trust her kidnapped man not to report her once she lets him go. “Well, naturally, he couldn’t indict me,” Maggie says. “He’s too indictable himself. There are times when one can trust a crook.” “There’s something in that,” Hubert replies, and the novel ends with Hubert and Maggie reconciled. She knows he’s sold her stuff but she doesn’t care. The clear implication is that the rich and the crooked are birds of a feather, that the rich make the best survivors because they make the best crooks, and that the more seachanges in the nature of reality there are, the more it’s the same thing. The rich have the sufferings, to paraphrase Auden; to which they are fairly accustomed.
Spark enjoys the thought of charming larceny, and no writer of fiction, I suspect, can feel truly ill-disposed toward confidence men. What seems to happen in the passage I quoted above is that Spark’s ironic sympathy for both victims and crooks (and especially for victims who become crooks) turns into a rather prim horror of promiscuous thieving and a too eagerly articulated notion that recently the world really has changed past all recognition. So she sounds, briefly, like the reactionaries in her own novel, who keep saying that things will never be the same again, and that “something is finished for always.” She quickly picks herself up, though, and on the very next page remarks that if one of her characters had been able to envisage the reality to come, she “would have considered it, wrongly, to be a life not worth living.”
Wrongly is marvelous, it is the voice of the writer’s sanity refusing to be left out of whatever world there is. It is striking that the only other sloppy passage in this brisk and brilliant book concerns “eternal life,” which remains, Spark says, “past all accounting.” Accounting too ambitiously (“a complete mutation”), or accounting not at all (“the whole of eternal life carried on regardless”), Spark momentarily loses her subject, which as the title of her novel suggests is neither money nor the pulsations of everlasting nature but greed and panic and the competition for limited space and a finite number of goodies.
Whether the people in this book are rich or crooked or what Spark calls, in a graceful glance at another Seventies phenomenon, “avid for immaterialism,” they are reacting to the idea of wealth, and this note is sounded throughout the novel. “Marriage,” Hubert says, “does seem to be a luxury set apart for the rich.” How does an Italian know when he’s in love? “The traffic in the city improves and the cost of living seems to be very low.” Another Italian is inflamed with desire at the mere sight of gold coins in a rich girl’s hands, rolls her into the grass without delay, and “would have raped her had she not quite yielded after the first gasp.”
The point is less the omnipresence of thoughts of lucre than the quirky, obsessive behavior the unrestrained economic motive can induce: perfect material for a comic writer with a moralist’s eye. Thus Hubert, pocketing a check intended for the care of a drug addict and dumping the said addict on a street in Rome, and Maggie, sending a group of Hubert’s ex-secretaries to attempt his assassination, do not become villains, because the whole book is too lightly done for that. But they do suggest rather sinister possibilities in people who have expensive tastes when it comes to survival.
The Takeover is set in Nemi, in Italy, the home of the golden bough and the sacred grove of Diana, where, as Sir James Frazer had it, priest-kings used to succeed to office by slaying their predecessors: a very old and violent form of takeover which makes the modern version, a simple squabble for an economic edge, seem almost benign. And in this setting we see Hubert hanging on to Maggie’s house; Michael and Mary, Maggie’s very rich son and daughter-in-law, keeping up appearances while they flop into their separate infidelities; Lauro, Hubert’s ex-secretary and now Maggie’s servant, sleeping with almost everyone and making his fortune; Hubert, who claims direct descent from the goddess Diana and the Emperor Caligula (conjoined one night on a barge on the Lake of Nemi), setting up a flashy, fashionable cult of his ancestress; Maggie making her fiscal comeback.
Meanwhile, at other locations, Maggie’s jewels are stolen, her husband’s house is stripped, and the world totters into the new age. At Ischia, Maggie hires five phony intruders to keep the real intruders off her beach, and thinks that perhaps they are making a noise “beyond the call of realism.” The book is full of fine lines (“Eras pass, thought Hubert. They pass every day”), and well-paced scenes. It seems knowing—everyone who might be making out with anyone else always is—but it is not cynical. It is as if Spark were saying, Look, you can think of these possibilities and permutations as fast as I can, so let’s not worry about them, and above all, let’s not make a fuss about avoiding the obvious. When Lauro is discovered to have (or have had) among his sexual clients not only Hubert and Maggie and Mary and a maid and his intended wife, but also Maggie’s husband, we get the pleasure of one of those quietly told jokes where timing is always more important than surprise.
The best and final refutation of Spark’s notion about the sea-change in the nature of reality is the security of her own vision. She sees, she implies, just what there is to see and that is pretty much what she is used to seeing. “In fact,” she says frequently, “in reality”; and then gives us the literal dope on whatever is at issue. Twice she sets up a comic double take which requires her to nod at us with extravagant omniscience. A painting of Maggie’s is on sale in Switzerland (Hubert having hung an expert fake in Maggie’s house), and Maggie looks at a couple of visitors and screams, “Art-thieves!” Now as it happens (and as Spark has already told us), these two men are art thieves, come to case the joint, but they haven’t taken Maggie’s painting. A little earlier, when her jewelry is stolen, Maggie points an accusing finger at a recently arrived house guest. The guest, one Coco de Renault, innocent in this case, is very understanding, and says, “You can’t trust anybody.” Spark then comments, “And there was in fact this much in what he said, that he himself, within the year, was to trick Maggie into handing over to him the bulk of her fortune….”
The possibility of being substantially right in this way while being specifically wrong entails a stable world and a steady viewer; stabler and steadier, indeed, than either Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud would have cared to imagine them. Jean Rhys is many miles from such confidence, and her subdued, hesitating heroines live under something like the reverse of Spark’s rule. They and their tormentors can be specifically, superficially right a lot of the time, and still get the whole of the substance wrong; and Rhys herself is anxious not to claim too much for her own broken and threatened perceptions.
There is a charming moment in The Takeover where an aged retainer wishes to convey to his master his suspicions of a pair of visitors (the art thieves I’ve just mentioned). He says, “somewhat wildly,” that one of them spilled ragoût on his trousers. His master knows that this can’t be conclusive evidence of criminal tendencies, but, “stifling all reasonable thought,” believes the old man, who has “only offered an outward symbol for an inward insight.” It is the insight that is to be trusted.
One couldn’t wish for a better definition of what is lacking in the universe of Jean Rhys’s fiction. Her people have insights, but they have no means of sharing them. They can’t find the right expression, and there is no one who will trust a word or a gesture in spite of its poverty. On the contrary, all communication is constantly entangled in a mass of misinterpretation. Mr. Rochester, migrating from Jane Eyre into Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, suddenly is “certain that everything I had imagined to be truth was false,” and the novel, which recounts his marriage to the woman who was later, in Jane Eyre, to be locked away in an attic at Thorn-field Hall, echoes with dark epigrams on the same theme: “lies are never forgotten”; “it is always too late for truth.”
In a slightly earlier story, “Let Them Call It Jazz,” a West Indian woman in London drinks and dances in the street and is thoroughly misunderstood, and her song, picked up in Holloway prison and treasured as a consoling personal possession, is borrowed and jazzed up and finally sold. In Sleep It Off, Lady, a new book of stories, a girl tells a tale about a fictitious West Indian shooting trip—on the real shooting parties of her childhood she had hidden in the bushes while her brothers had gone on ahead with their guns—and makes a technical mistake. “Do you mean to say that your brothers shot sitting birds?” her English (male) companion asks, horrified. How can she begin to explain what has happened, now that the distance between the true and the false parts of her tale has come to yawn so alarmingly?
There are no links in Rhys’s fiction between a person’s experience and the meaning that experience is likely to have for others. It’s not that no two people see the world in the same way, although that is also true in her novels. It is (a narrower, more intense question) that no one else can see me the way I see myself. “The real secret,” a girl thinks in another earlier story, might be “to be exactly like everybody else,” for then the self as a separate, suffering entity would disappear. This is not a consummation to be wished, but it would bring a form of peace, and between this undesired peace and their chronic, beleaguered self-consciousness Jean Rhys’s heroines live out their painful lives—most memorably in what are no doubt her three best works, Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight, and Wide Sargasso Sea. In the other novels (Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie) and volumes of stories (The Left Bank, Tigers Are Better Looking), these heroines are sometimes defined only by their fragility, and become something less than human, trapped birds beating against their cages, while the writer pleads too openly for our pity.
For her new book, Rhys has had the very good idea of putting sixteen stories together in such a way that their places and people correspond to the chronological order of her own life, with its childhood in the West Indies and its early adult Bohemian days in Europe; with its loves, illnesses, aging, and approaching death (Jean Rhys is eighty-two). The result is neither a novel nor an autobiography—the characters change from story to story and none of them seems a simple self-portrait—but it is a record of a maturing, darkening mind, and the observant intelligence of Rhys’s best fiction, the necessary counterpart to the unremitting vulnerability of her heroines, is well in evidence. A volcano erupts on Martinique, wiping out a town and 40,000 people, and this is Rhys’s characteristic description of one reaction to the event:
As soon as ships were sailing again between Dominica and Martinique my father went to see the desolation that was left. He brought back a pair of candlesticks, tall heavy brass candlesticks which must have been in a church. The heat had twisted them into an extraordinary shape. He hung them on the wall of the dining-room and I stared at them all through meals, trying to make sense of the shape.
In the course of the book, the same or a similar girl, living in the West Indies, learns of the violent death of a man she likes; is fondled and subtly soiled by a military old man (“He watched the sun going down without expression, then remarked that it was quite true that the only way to get rid of a temptation was to yield to it”). A little later she is installed in a boarding school in Cambridge, in England, and decides to go on the stage. She is a girl about town in Paris in the Twenties; a nervous, irritated young woman during the Second World War; an older woman in a hospital after a heart attack. Older still, she receives a visit from a past admirer, and then is found dead in the yard of her cottage, having been presumed drunk by her neighbors. Hence the title of the title story: “Sleep it off, lady,” a ghastly, plump girl of twelve sneers at the conscious but helpless woman, soon to become a corpse sprawled in the same position. At last she is a ghost, learning of her material death when she realizes that the living, in her own revisited West Indies, no longer see her at all.
The book dips every now and again into Rhys’s particular form of sentimentality, a too simple view of lonely sensibility adrift in a heartless world (“Outside in the hostile street we got into the hateful bus”) and a sense of life as just too predictably elusive (“was it perhaps only yesterday and everything that had happened since a strange dream?”). But mainly it holds up an urgent, quiet challenge to what Rhys in another book calls “life as it is.” If we—men, culture, convention, respectability—have wasted, ruined, or ignored the real-life sisters of the women who appear in these pages, the loss is ours and a grievous one. To say nothing (because one can’t say enough) of the loss to the women themselves.
Jean Rhys’s women go under because they are imprisoned in their isolation and no one has the generosity to visit them there. Stephanie, the heroine of Francine du Plessix Gray’s impressive first novel, Lovers and Tyrants, treasures her isolation, makes a success of it, a liberation; remains spiritually intact throughout a smothered childhood in France, exile in America, school in New York, a lover in Paris, a marriage in Massachusetts, two “beloved children,” a visit to an ancestral château swarming with French family, seemingly countless sexual affairs, a hysterectomy, and a trip to the Grand Canyon, an emblem, she writes, of the “awesome and contradictory void…at the very heart of the American experience.”
The void, perhaps, is rather Stephanie’s own. “That’s what I like most about love,” she thinks, “the unclouding of the mirror of self, very narcissistic but what can you do, it’s true….” Gray’s apparent subject is named in her title, and spelled out clearly in the book:
every woman’s life is a series of exorcisms from the spells of different oppressors; nurses, lovers, husbands, gurus, parents, children, myths of the good life, the most tyrannical despots can be the ones who love us the most.
Once out of girlhood, Stephanie takes shelter in domesticity until she can risk finding her freedom as a writer—as the writer, presumably, of the memoir now called Lovers and Tyrants. Yet Stephanie’s real story, the ground of her view of what “every woman’s life” is, lies in her learning (and perhaps forgetting again) that love means nothing to her if it’s not a mirror, and her most enduring dream seems to be the “undemanding” love she twice recalls receiving from her great-grandmother. Like most skilled narcissists, she is good at throwing blame on the people around her, but almost equally good at blaming herself; anything to stay in the center of the stage. She is decent, and energetic, and quite capable of understanding the otherness of others, but finally she wants more than anything else to get back to the mirror—all other forms of relation with the world being construed as, ultimately, a duty or a waste of time: oppression or self-oppression.
I’m not sure whether Francine Gray is the ruler of this material or merely its spokeswoman: something of both, perhaps. Lovers and Tyrants is an absorbing and intelligent book, if a little too icy to be really likable. There are wonderfully observed details, beginning with the novel’s opening lines (“My childhood lies behind me, muted, opaque and drab, the color of gruel and of woolen gaiters…”) and continuing into this sharp notation of a French aunt’s questioning of her American niece:
“What do you think of the Pope? I hear from Aunt Charlotte that you receive dissident priests for tea, it has become much the fashion here too, deplorably. Have you reread Sainte-Beuve lately? Don’t you agree with him that the progress of civilization is accompanied by a terrible degeneration of morals in mankind? Is your husband Catholic? Oh, he is Jewish. Ah, well, the Pope has forgiven them….”
On the other hand, there is a good deal of overworked but under-scrutinized prose (“the muddy ground lies like mangled flesh under the dirty bandage of the melting snow”; “His swift hazel eyes glimmer like sentinels in his sparse, chiseled face”), a lot of simple banality (“After all, is truth a drug? Is truth a remedy? Does it exist? Who’s right? Who’s wrong?” “How little people understand of each other. Or of love, which after all…”), and a glut of weary old similes borrowed from the animal kingdom: rodents and mastiffs pop up more than once to signify unpleasantness, and when Stephanie wishes to characterize her friend Claire she describes “her topaz eyes smouldering with rage like those of a caged lioness.” Earlier Claire is said to have stroked Stephanie’s hair “like a mother panther grooming her young,” and to have remarked to Stephanie, “You look like a swan, you have the heart of a lion.”
Well, it is a first novel, and these are small complaints. But Gray’s (or Stephanie’s) lapses, in their quantity and their insistence, do point to the book’s most serious weakness. “It begins with a closed, autobiographical world,” Gray told an interviewer, “expanding into fantasy.” Most of the bad writing occurs, not when Gray substitutes fiction for fact—I have no means of knowing when she’s doing that—but when Stephanie substitutes fanciful interpretation of her life for the record of what she saw and felt. She tells herself:
Make an effort to remember the kingdom of your history. And if you can’t recall it, invent it.
This is good advice if invention means tricking your memory into action; bad advice if it merely means daydreaming. And it is this advice which seems to have produced the rodents and the mastiffs, Stephanie’s several rebirths into another life (“Resurrection,” she says cheerfully. “That’s where it’s at”), and the truly lamentable last section of the book, where Stephanie tours America, Humbert-and-Lolita-like (the comparison is hers), with Elijah, an aging, gay youngster who wants to have a go at heterosexuality. Elijah is Stephanie’s twin, her regained childhood, her own son as he might have been (but fortunately isn’t), herself as the son her father wanted her to be, the last of Stephanie’s tyrants and lovers, and perhaps the Angel of Death himself. Or rather he would be these things if he were anything at all other than a set of words flung on to a page, a sign that this hitherto solid and patient novel has expanded too far into fantasy, and has lost even the truth of seriously entertained wishes.
November 11, 1976