I can imagine an instructive and entertaining essay—written by someone combining the attributes of critic, cultural anthropologist, and antiquarian—on the differing appeals of India and Africa to the British literary imagination. Both, of course, have functioned not only as challenges to explore what seems most alien to the Anglo-Saxon temperament but also as mirrors in which the explorers or invaders have been reflected in some very antic postures. If the Sub-continent has inspired what is still the greatest of such works, A Passage to India, the Dark Continent has undoubtedly attracted the greater number of good writers, a list that includes Waugh, Greene, Joyce Cary, and such partially assimilated non-Britons as Conrad, Naipaul, and Paul Theroux. The latest aspirant to this company is a young Englishman, William Boyd, who was born in Ghana and now teaches at Oxford.
Boyd’s first novel, A Good Man in Africa (1982), won three distinguished British literary prizes: the Whitbread, the Somerset Maugham, and the John Llewellyn Rhys awards—a reception that must have seemed dazzling to Boyd and that makes at least one American reader wonder about the state of the competition in England. A Good Man in Africa is cleverly and intricately constructed, its various strands pulled together and knotted with aplomb; it is also sexy, nasty, and intermittently funny. But the book seems to me so heavily imitative, in tone and farcical incident, of the early novels of Kingsley Amis that it might well be called Lucky Jim Goes to Africa or One Fat Englishman in Nkongsamba. Boyd makes his anti-hero, Morgan Leafy, too abjectly contemptible to win even the sneaking sympathy we regularly accord to rogues; one derives little exhilaration from his mischief-making and small satisfaction from his repeated humiliations. The postcolonial British officials and their women are remarkably like the academic types that Amis earlier skewered in both British and American settings, and the rascality of the natives is exactly what we expect.
Stylistically, the novel is heavy-handed, especially in the way in which nearly every recorded moment of Leafy’s baleful consciousness is underlined. He is always laughing “harshly to himself,” remembering “the most achingly embarrassing moments of his life,” thinking “shamefacedly,” and even, in a burst of adverbial excess, reflecting “sour grapily” on his ex-girlfriend’s prominent nose. Did none of the British reviewers or prize givers feel oppressed by this weight of redundancy and cliché?
An Ice-Cream War also comes to us accompanied by transatlantic applause—applause which, though still excessive in my view, seems far more justifiable than that lavished upon A Good Man in Africa. Boyd’s second novel is neither inventive nor profound, but it is a substantial, satisfying work of fiction. Its style is that of a writer confident enough of his effects to refrain from belaboring the obvious. Instead of being directly imitative, An Ice-Cream War is evocative, bringing to mind a generation of writers whose subject matter was the late afternoon of the Edwardian uppermiddle class and its abrupt descent into the most devastating war the Western world has yet experienced. Though perhaps a third of the book takes place in an England made familiar to us by scores of novels, memoirs, plays, and films, Boyd’s chief concern is with the haphazard, often farcical conduct of the war on a remote stage: the East African colonies of Great Britain and Germany.
The novel begins in Dar-es-Salaam in June 1914, and for some time the central character is not an Englishman at all but an enterprising American planter, Walter Smith, who, having originally come to Africa in the employ of Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt, has stayed on, establishing his own domain, Smithville, near the border between the British and German territories. Walter means to get ahead. He is the proud owner of a giant “Decorticator” in which he processes the sisal that he grows on his farm. When war breaks out and Walter and his family have to leave Smithville, it is the fate of this machine at the hands of his erstwhile German neighbors that becomes his ruling preoccupation.
As a contrast to this rather dull and practical, if obsessive, Yankee, Boyd next introduces the reader to two brothers, Gabriel and Felix Cobb, who belong to a moderately rich family living at Stackpole Manor in Kent, and sets their careers in motion. Gabriel at twenty-seven is a handsome, well-built, seemingly confident captain on home leave from a regiment stationed in India; he is about to be married to a young woman named Charis. The much younger Felix, who is nearsighted and somewhat puny, has just finished school and will soon go up to Oxford; he is scornful of his family and prides himself on his radical, bohemian views. The rest of the family consists of well-drawn Edwardian types—both conventional and eccentric—of a sort to be encountered in Howards End, Parade’s End, and in the episodes dealing with the Crich family in Women in Love. The family party and the wedding scene form a set piece that Boyd manages very well, combining the elements that we associate with the literature of the epoch with bits of fresh or unexpected delineation.
He also handles the troubled honeymoon of Gabriel and Charis in Trouville with psychological shrewdness and a wealth of period detail in which I could detect not the slightest anachronism or falsity of tone—though he makes full use of the sexually explicit language available to English novelists since the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Boyd is both sympathetic and ironic in his portrayal of Gabriel, who epitomizes the chivalrous, public-school type of male virgin, a fine figure of a military man who would rather confront a howling mob of Pathans than join his wife in their hotel bedroom. The honeymoon is interrupted by the guns of August, which hurtle all the major characters off course. Gabriel rejoins his regiment and is sent to Africa, leaving Felix to console Charis in a cottage on the Stackpole Manor estate. The African campaign now becomes the novel’s center of interest, involving as it does the ludicrously miscalculated British landing on the German East African coast, the nearly mortal wounding of Gabriel and his capture by the Germans, and the remorseful Felix’s quest to find and rescue his brother.
Elaborate in its construction, An Ice-Cream War is straightforward and graphic in its narration. The scenes and characters shift with admirable dispatch, aided by dates and locations given in capital letters. Here are the openings of two successive chapters:
29 MARCH 1915
THE CAFÉ ROYAL—LONDON
The Domino Room at the Café Royal was full to capacity. All the seats around the marble-topped tables were occupied. The babble of conversation was deafening. The rich gilt and plaster mouldings of the ceilings and pillars were almost invisible through swirling clouds of cigarette smoke…. A warm fug of beer, cheap perfume, wet overcoats and cigar smoke enfolded the excited patrons.
Felix leant back and puffed on his cigarette….
17 JUNE 1915
NANDA—GERMAN EAST AFRICA
“Thank you,” the Englishman said, as Liesl von Bishop handed him his crutches. He smiled at her. He had a broad face. Square, as if his jaw muscles were overdeveloped.
“Danke schön,” he repeated.
“Excellent, Mr. Cobb,” cried Dr. Deppe. “An accent of firstclass quality!”
Liesl suppressed the usual stab of irritation. Deppe was so smug about his English. Who did he think he was? She was married to someone who was half-English, after all….
Liesl watched the English officer totter to his feet. His arms and shoulders began to shake with the effort of keeping himself upright. Liesl and Deppe ran to his side and eased him back onto the bed again….
I sometimes had the feeling that I was watching the master of ceremonies in a fast-moving review as he calls the various performers to the footlights to do their turns. A large supporting cast includes fire-breathing English officers, foppish asses, missionaries, assorted Germans, and native troops who routinely defile any occupied building with their excrement. The episodes in which they participate range widely in their emotional impact—some are funny, some touching to the point of pain, some so gruesome that one can barely stomach them. All display the narrator’s firm hand and a style that is not distinctive but eminently workable and lively. War, the book seems to say, is as foolish and confusing as it is hellish, and the English are not very good at waging it.
Boyd’s panoramic approach involves certain shortcuts in characterization that preclude any real subtlety or inwardness. Whatever is ultimately mysterious or unpredictable in the human personality is largely missing—and yet we hardly notice its absence, so effective are the strong, quick outlines he provides. An Ice-Cream War is essentially an extroverted book, a saga of British imperialism in its next-to-last phase.
Only the afterimages of imperialism remain in Paul Theroux’s fictional world. Ubiquitous and protean, he has wandered over much of the former empire, locating some of his most engaging work in places as far-flung as Uganda and Singapore. Often he has been imitative of his predecessors—deliberately so. In the collection of stories called The Consul’s File (1977), for instance, he almost ostentatiously welcomes the acerbic ghost of Somerset Maugham as the narrator tells of the strange goings-on in the Malaysian out-post of Ayer Hitam. Wanderer though he is, Theroux periodically returns in his fiction to the former hub of empire, the creaky old megalopolis of London, which, if not his home, has been his principal domicile for a number of years. I can think of no other recent book that has caught the look of the peeling, terraced streets and the whine of slovenly London speech so memorably as Theroux’s underrated novel of cockney terrorism, The Family Arsenal.
The London Embassy is the direct (but less than worthy) successor of The Consul’s File. The narrator of the new collection is none other than the former consul of Ayer Hitam, who now finds himself posted as a political officer (FSO-4) in the American embassy on Grosvenor Square. A bachelor of forty, he likes women but has never really been in love; though often lonely, he values his independence, works hard, observes carefully, and remains an interested but detached connoisseur of his colleagues and clients and of the odd natives of this most private and secretive of great cities. A number of the eighteen pieces are loosely connected by overlapping characters as well as by the narrator. At the end we learn (for the first time) the narrator’s name and the resolution of his bachelor condition; meanwhile, we have accompanied him on his rounds of Chelsea, Mayfair, and Battersea and made expeditions to such outlying districts as Mortlake and Putney. “London is not a city,” says the narrator. “It is more like a country, and living in it is like living in Holland or Belgium. Its completeness makes it deceptive—there are sidewalks from one frontier to the other—and its hugeness makes it possible for everyone to invent his own city.”
Most of the pieces—I am reluctant to call them stories—are based on brief encounters or fragile anecdotes that lead to nothing so definite as a plotted action. In “An English Unofficial Rose,”our narrator finds a desirable apartment through the aid of a desirable young woman, the Honorable Sophie Graveney, whom he met at an embassy reception. Sophie leads the narrator on, arousing amorous fantasies in him, only to let him down hard at the end by demanding her 2 percent commission for finding the flat. He protests and she—this beautifully dressed woman—turns abusive.
…She swore at me. Until that moment I had marveled at how different her English was from mine. And then, with a few blunt swears, she lost her nationality and became any loud, crude, bad-tempered bitch spitting thorns at me.
It turns out (final insult!) that Sophie has been living with an Iranian all along. In “Children,” the narrator spends the day with the embassy’s cultural affairs officer, Vic Scaduto, and overhears the ferociously snobbish conversation between Scaduto’s children and their upper-class British school chums. In “Sex and Its Substitutes,” he has a rather low-keyed affair with a secretive colleague, Margaret Duboys, and discovers that she organizes not only her life but even her professional behavior around her obsessive love of cats.
Occasionally real people—either thinly disguised or in their own persons—make an appearance. The American poet Walter Van Bellamy in “The Exile” is based in such explicit detail upon Robert Lowell (“And were you still an exile if you occasionally flew home first class in a jumbo jet to attend a New York party? I did not think so. Some years he taught at Harvard. He had money.”) that an account of his mad demeanor in a London sanitarium reads like an extract from the more graphic pages of Ian Hamilton’s recent biography. In “The Winfield Wallpaper,” the prime minister herself discusses interest rates and unemployment with the distracted narrator at a dinner party at the American ambassador’s residence. But while the description of her (“Her eyes were heavy-lidded, and there was a sacklike heaviness in her, a willfulness and impatience that gave her an aura of strength”) has a crypto-journalistic interest, it adds nothing in the way of fictional muscle to the rather slack and sentimental narrative in which it has been perhaps too blatantly inserted.
Theroux never “writes badly.” His manner is invariably fluent and graceful, his instinct for the telling detail sure, his powers of mimicry (of both British and American speech) impressive. But in The London Embassy his gifts are largely wasted, for the collection, though pleasant enough to read, is essentially fluff. As if he had guessed as much himself, Theroux is sometimes careless about small matters of fact (i.e., “Dissenters” and “recusants” are not, historically speaking, interchangeable terms) and slipshod in some of his statements. To say that Catholics in England “are like Jews in the United States, and they are seen in the same way, as outsiders and potential conspirators” is to obscure the issue—in both countries—from almost every angle.
More seriously, he fails to convince me that he knows the inside workings of a great embassy with anything approaching accuracy. Would a foreign service officer of the narrator’s rank really have to concern himself with the ashes of a cremated American tourist? Would an insecure numbskull of no academic or artistic distinction really be the cultural affairs officer at the American embassy in a major capital? Possibly—but if so, Theroux has not taken the pains to establish his narrator’s credibility.
None of this would matter very much if the pieces had greater fictional power, if they elicited the reader’s response from deeper levels of the imagination. I finished The London Embassy wishing that the narrator had never left his post in Malaysia, where at least his stories had, in addition to their exotic coloration, a certain shapeliness and a Maughamesque capacity for real surprise.
June 2, 1983