“To understand the story which follows,” says the author’s note to Piers Paul Read’s seventh novel, A Married Man, “the reader should know a little about the English legal profession.” A solicitor prepares a defense brief for the accused. A barrister wigged and gowned pleads this case in court. And a barrister may rise to one of those adornments of his name that the English love, trailing the initials of Queen’s Counsel.
Films have made us familiar with the costumed English trial if not with the intricate customs and laws behind it. Of the class system behind that we are well aware too from novels and films but few Americans can ever hope to get it straight. “In no other country in the world, except perhaps India, is there so much unnecessary and purposeless differentiation as in England”—A Married Man. To us, any “British accent” but the squeakiest cockney is classy while the English of course put a man precisely in his place the moment he opens his mouth. One must grow up knowing it like cricket.
Our own class system is difficult too for foreigners, like the rituals of baseball, and costumes no longer help. The lobby of the Plaza Hotel today looks like the lobby of the Chelsea twenty years ago, swarming with cowboys and motorcycle girls who would have been given the bum’s rush once, now honored guests.
Piers Paul Read charts the levels of his bourgeois milieu very carefully for us, city houses, country houses, cars, clothes, restaurants, tenuous aspirations, immutable privileges. Americans need this, and it all gives to the American reader an extra dimension of pleasure. If we add to this the mystery, to us, of religious manifestation, we have the interest of trying to figure out the rules of the game as it is played.
Still, the people look like us, the language is familiar, marriage is marriage, a lie is a lie, money is money whether pounds or dollars. In A Married Man, a successful barrister, John Strickland, advises a young mechanic charged, probably wrongly, with receiving stolen goods, to plead guilty and receive doubtless a suspended sentence. Strickland does not want to delay his vacation for a trial. The solicitor, intimidated by the barrister’s eminence, goes along with it. “John Strickland made good his escape from the court in time to catch the five o’clock train to Norwich, the young mechanic was dragged down to the cell below.” Strickland is troubled by his miscalculation but more troubled by the squalor around him as he travels. It is a threat to his pin-striped suit and a sign of a nation’s decline, “its people no longer take the trouble to dress themselves decently or keep themselves clean.” No mysteries for Americans or anyone else here. The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, and wretches hang that jurymen may dine. But this young wretch has a mere six months to do, he will not hang. As the reader guesses and Strickland does not, this is to be most terribly unfortunate for the barrister.
And marriage is marriage. How cold and knowing Read is about this. “She was eight years younger than her husband but had borne two children, so though her legs remained long and her stomach slim her breasts were loose, there were bulging blue veins beneath her left knee and a hard mass of bumpy flesh around her thighs. Just now, at the age of thirty-two, her complexion was beginning to lose its sheen, just as John, who looked so handsome and distinguished in court, was balding beneath his wig and had a white, flaccid stomach beneath his gown.” No nonsense here about observers or point of view; the author sees and tells, striking for the second time with guilt and foreboding any reader of a certain age, of whatever land.
The Stricklands are in Norfolk—what does that mean?—on vacation with her parents. The brigadier is retired and cranky. Helen was disappointed when Clare married the man of no particular family, Strickland. She had been Helen Dansie, of one of the oldest Catholic families in England, once one of the richest families too, now minor gentry. She dislikes her son drinking in the local pub but prefers him there rather than in the grand country houses of the smart Protestant familes. This we know about from Evelyn Waugh, as we understand from him how John is puzzled that all this Catholicism did not seem to hamper his mother-in-law’s somewhat cruel treatment of the brigadier, or her convent contemporaries from being the first to deceive their husbands. An ominous note again for readers of Graham Greene: Strickland believes his ethics, “based on decency and common sense, were more robust than Clare’s Catholic morals, which included such dubious notions as sin and redemption.” And his damnation is assured when he tells himself, “This, surely, is what life is for—shouting, laughing friends: a pretty, intelligent wife. Stable children. A house in London. A cottage in the country. What more?”
We are given the anatomy of this, once more with a sharp jab of recognition to the vitals for readers of a certain age, in Strickland’s ledger: two houses, so much for food, so much for pension, so much for a holiday abroad, electricity, telephone, National Insurance, life insurance, school fees for two children, alcohol, restaurants, clothes, Christmas and birthday presents, and tax rates, rates, rates. Those who knew him would not believe that this prominent barrister could not afford a new car.
Perhaps the way Strickland gets his own shock of recognition is the only really unsatisfactory device in the book. A man in a story ought not to get his revelation from another story. It reminds us that this too is a book, especially should the other book be by Tolstoy. Still, idly Strickland puts down Thunderball, his choice, and picks up something else. The pleasures connected with his work were the pleasures of ambition; his social pleasures were those of vanity; but Ivan Ilych’s greatest pleasure was playing bridge. And Ivan Ilych sits dying. There is no explanation. Agony, death,…what for? That night John Strickland cannot sleep. He is afraid. He has not lived as he ought to have done. In his youth he had been an idealist, a socialist. It was all his wife’s fault, with her decayed upper-class notions. And she lay beside him smelling like an old woman.
So at forty this successful and harassed barrister simultaneously embarks on politics and sex. He renews an old friendship with a man on The New Statesman and the friend says he can try for a Labour working-class district selection to stand for Parliament. After a brief, humiliating infatuation with the seventeen-year-old daughter of friends—oh what a knell of truth is there, ye of a certain age—he meets a young lady who in charity work has come across and has befriended, yes, that same young mechanic. No, Strickland, no! But he does. She is the daughter of Sir Christopher Gerrard, one of the richest men in England. Quickly for her he is not merely “a good-looking but otherwise ordinary lawyer,” or a vain egoist as he is for his wife; as a socialist he is a traitor to his class and she adores traitors. “Life is savage,” she says. He becomes her lover and an MP.
The wheels turn like those of a thriller—it might have been a thriller, but for the people, the real real people, the talk, so familiar, so real. Will socialism make England a museum like Venice, “Were the swank, the snobbery, the drawling accents, the public schools, the country houses, shooting parties and fox hunting—everything he hated about the English upper classes—the true taste of England?” “Would socialism, in its pursuit of justice and equality, destroy what was unique in a living culture just as Ataturk, in the name of progress, had obliged the Turks to wear Western jackets and trousers instead of flowing robes and the fez—thereby changing a majestic nation, once the terror of the civilized world, into a nondescript mass of swarthy tramps?”
It is hard to tell for an American, but I assume that these conversations, inner and outer, are not meant to make this a novel of ideas, but rather, like the politics and the sex, to show how in thought as in act middle-class secular life seems to be determined in every detail as if following the results and averages of some Gallup poll. Just so, Strickland’s sister and her husband “exemplify” a new bourgeoisie which has expropriated and exploited the welfare state. They are among the new state-employed élite, no tax worries, no school bills for them; they manipulate their children into some chosen comprehensive school while the children of the working class are relegated as before to the second-class schools. We have this sort too, everyone has them.
Steadily the progress of the adulterer is exemplified, charted by the author, tracked in the old well-paved road past signs and junctions from Lower Qualm to Dread-near-Panic, but all new to Strickland. Seeing his heiress after a longing absence, “He glanced at her face and then went on into the kitchen while his mind worked fast to match her real face to the idealized image he had formed in his memory.” The clandestine schedules are exhausting, the secret dinners exorbitant. Soon enough his mistress’s very body, “disproportionately small bosom and disproportionately large mass of pubic hair,” makes him long for the comfortable old upholstery of his wife. And one night he suddenly realizes the girl actually assumes he will divorce his wife and marry her. It is as if he had glimpsed a poisonous spider on the ceiling above the bed.
Strickland is trapped by the gears and they grind him in, in the plot of this novel, like the gears of any thriller, to cruel shock and double and then triple shock, and he goes where so many might have gone but for the grace of—of luck, for God’s mysterious gift is not granted for this sort of thing. Strickland’s wife may have grace at the very last. There is a packet, a scapular, of letters from the old Jesuit who married them. “Even God cannot compel us to love Him because love is by its nature a voluntary emotion.” In secular terms Strickland has wrecked everything but there are still the mysterious ways.
“Perhaps marriages are made in Heaven after all,” says the half-dotty brigadier. “We can’t expect to understand it all. We have to take what we can get and make the most of it.” “And hope,” said John, “that He whose understanding matters will understand.”
Given the shocks and surprises of the plot, the reviewer ought to leave the ending of the story thus cryptic and unexplained, as we leave to the reader the ending of a thriller. Perhaps it will remain inexplicable for some of us with our ethics based on decency and common sense, but among other things familiar or strange, you may almost recognize antique notions of sin and redemption if you look into this cold and glassy story which is both a mirror for us and a window to a foreign land.
“It’s coffins here. It’s class in England,” says a man in John McGahern’s fourth novel, The Pornographer. “It’s something stupid or fucking other everywhere.” Ireland, the holy land of Ireland, cabbage stumps, whitethorn hedges, pubs, eighteenth-century houses: the living march here in one big funeral procession. That same man, the gingery publisher Maloney who pays the nameless hero to write pornography, wants to have a pram made in the form of a coffin to take to Paris and wheel in the Luxembourg Gardens. Coffins are everywhere, in jokes, in images, in reality. Author and narrator are obsessed with the conjunction of birth and death. Strange Emerald Isle! I doubt that even the transplanted Micks among us will recognize themselves in these tortured celibates. “We think of Americans here as much married,” says a man in one of McGahern’s short stories. The average income, I have read, is less than that of Spain or Italy. But McGahern’s people, only once removed from the sod, are not poor. With the English of Piers Paul Read they share a taste for prawns in avocado pears and wines of the better chateaus of Bordeaux, but “your Irishman is still an emerging form of life”—emerging from the Middle Ages, from the bogland, from the dread of women, from the lust that is always sin, from death where the corpse is still laid out by the family at home, and from the side of the fresh-dug grave—although the grave is not shoveled in now before the mourner’s eyes but quickly masked over with a mat of “butcher’s grass.” A letter from London tells how in emerged England the coffin moves on “a silent gliss,” to dreadful organ music, a farce under a flap to the ovens.
This tale is told by the nameless Irishman of thirty, a failed poet, a morose self-pitying chap who has lost his one love and now mocks and inspires his sexual compulsions in porno stories. Some of them, of the semi-soft variety and very funny, are included. Few of the people have names; there is a dying aunt, a husband, a bachelor uncle, that raffish publisher, the thirty-eight-year-old “girl,” only half-poked once before in all her life, and the odd engaging people they meet. There are no politics, there is no Belfast.
As his aunt lies in the terminal cancer ward, dosing herself with the brandy he faithfully fetches, the pornographer impregnates the girl. There are long discussions of marriage, abortion, adoption. All he wants is out. She keeps saying, “O boy, I picked a winner.” He will not marry her but almost to the day of delivery he goes to bed with her.
The womb and the grave…. The christening party becomes the funeral, the shudder that makes us flesh becomes the shudder that makes us meat. They say it is the religious instinct that makes us seek the relationships and laws in things. And in between there is time and work, as passing time, and killing time, and lessening time that’d lessen anyhow….
So going to see the girl is not much different from going to see the aunt in the hospital, only he brings instead of the brandy bottle his male body. If she says “O boy” once more he fears he will lose control of himself. The pornographer unlike Strickland has no illusions. He knows he hates her. The aunt he sees into her grave, his son he will not once look at.
Bachelors, old maids, couples who have married only in middle age: when a man steps out with a girl, his drinking pals say, the leg irons will soon be on. As in his stories,* loss is the theme and the method is poetic. Images and themes are juxtaposed, with the modern poet’s sharp ear for speech and sharp eye for oddities of character and scene. The ear and eye of the stories record the cruel accidents of a Scandinavian lady in Spain, of a teacher, a ditch digger, an old widower, an old priest, a policeman. Some event in the story—a stoat killing a rabbit, a sentence remembered about Chekhov’s corpse transported in the ice of an oyster wagon—becomes symbolic to us or to the people in the story and glumly, laconically, gives us, gives some of the people, an epiphany.
The youngish pornographer of the novel, though, inspires the author’s sympathy, asks for our own, and is permitted to carry on at length in his ruminations. The religious instinct has made him seek the relationships and laws in things—in things like coffins and prams—and has given him his gloomy eloquence; sometimes, even, the failed poet breaks into rhymed prose about womb and tomb.
On his last page as on Strickland’s last page, religion is more than an instinct. “I had a fierce need to pray, for myself, Maloney, my uncle, the girl, the whole shoot. The prayers could not be answered, but prayers that cannot be answered need to be the more completely said, being their own beginnings as well as end.” Some people have emigrated from all that, from class and from coffins and from prayer. These two books show that those who stayed home at least know very well where they are.
May 1, 1980