Readers of the The White Hotel will miss, in D.M. Thomas’s new novel, Ararat, that “oceanic” feeling which made the first book such a memorable experience. On the other hand, they will find all the fun-house devices of that book—echo chambers, shadow boxes, switchbacks, and double exposures. Ararat is a cold, ingenious, and confident novel; it will confirm the author’s reputation as one of the most inventive and resourceful writers of fiction in English today; but perhaps it should be labeled “For Game Players Only.”
Transparency seems to be the preeminent characteristic of Ararat’s characters; each can in fantasy, or through an act of will, become one or several others, so that seeing the pattern of their relations is like playing three-dimensional tick-tack-toe. The greater part of the novel proposes itself as an improvisation by a Russian literary man, Sergei Rozanov, for the amusement of a temporary, blind, and not very successful admirer, Olga, who had sent him her photograph. Unaroused by her charms and bored by her pretentious literary chatter, Rozanov responds to her plea that he improvise a story for her, and accepts as the theme of that story, “improvisations.” Whether he is really improvising or not we cannot positively know. There is a hint at the opening of the novel—seemingly confirmed at the end—that he is “improvising” stories improvised on another earlier occasion when a drunken Russian poet was thrown together, in a hotel near Mount Ararat, with an Armenian storyteller and a visiting American woman writer of Armenian descent. The Russian poet, said to have a “reputation for facility,” insists that they improvise and the theme is selected as Mount Ararat.
Now Rozanov’s story introduces a repellent literary personage Victor Surkov, a poet, novelist, and biographer whom, we may, if we want, take to be the Russian in the hotel. Surkov, however, soon abandons the themes of Mount Ararat and Armenia, telling instead a story about a contemporary of Pushkin’s named Charsky. Charsky’s life in St. Petersburg as a comfortable civil servant with an amateur’s interest in literature is complicated by the arrival of an Italian improvvisatore who devises “spontaneously” a poem about Cleopatra that is really a poem by Pushkin. The poem involves the Italian in a prospective duel, which he obstinately refuses to avoid; but at the last minute he skips town, leaving Charsky, his benefactor and second, to face the challenger. Surkov has brought the story of Charsky to this point when the proposed duel is broken off by the news of Pushkin’s death in an analogous duel. This so distresses Surkov, or perhaps his creator Rozanov, or perhaps Rozanov’s creator D. M. Thomas, that he transfers the entire tale to a period twelve years earlier (from 1837 to 1825), and has it end with the crushing of the Decembrist conspiracy. The optional interchangeable endings of this inner story destroy any pretense to verisimilitude; they also fulfill a theme of some resonance, that degenerate pretenders to selfhood (improvvisatori-plagiarists) shirk ignobly the responsibility undertaken by authentic poets like Pushkin.
Pushkin and (to a lesser extent) Pasternak haunt the shadowy mental subcellars of Rozanov, Surkov, and Charsky; Envy is the title of one of Surkov’s novels, and it’s clearly a theme with which he would be at home. Now and again, he fantasizes that he is married (like Pushkin) to Natalya and jealous of her lover d’Anthès; he also supposes he is Pasternak, and must choose between his wife Zina and his mistress Olga; he identifies with the improvvisatore, reciting, translating, and then completing Pushkin’s poem on Cleopatra. His creation Charsky is equally casual, confessing casually that he has written one of Pushkin’s better-known lyrics, to Anna Petrovna Kern, “I remember the moment of wonder,” and the almost equally well-known letter in which Pushkin bragged brutally of his conquest.
Rozanov, the improvisational ventriloquist whose voice underlies all these overlayered transparencies, is not confronted from the outside or definitely shown to be copying any specific original in his “improvisation”; rather he is undermined from the inside. For he brings Victor Surkov to New York, where in the course of an evening’s entertainment he gets drunk with an Armenian man and an Armenian-American woman. This configuration is not specifically identified with, but may be seen as a disguised form of, the meeting in the hotel near Mount Ararat. It seems probable that what the three participants improvised then was some or all of the narrative that Rozanov has been “improvising” for Olga up to this point—i.e., almost the entire novel so far. Nothing is clear-cut; what at the start of the novel was a remote speculation of the reader’s has been converted at the end into a questionable intimation by the author. Whether or not this fourth layer of duplicity unduly complicates the already complex structure of the book, it serves at least partially to account for a major theme of Ararat, the Armenian experience of the universal modern nightmare, genocide.
As the readers of The White Hotel won’t have to be reminded, Thomas feels cruelty to be deeply bound with sex, if not love, and for him private hysterias and fantasies meld ultimately into the great sadistic, orgiastic deliriums of our history. For the modern narrators of Ararat, the 1915 genocide and subsequent diaspora of the Armenian people always lie just beneath the surface of consciousness. When two Armenian characters try to make love, they can do so successfully only by pretending that he is a Turkish rapist. Historical fears, hatreds, and frustrations lie very close to the instinctual root that most of the “spontaneous” improvisers of this unspontaneous collection of evasions and disguisings are feverishly intent on avoiding. Even as he improvises a story to his mistress during the early morning hours in a hotel room in Gorky where both are completely unknown, Rozanov has to remain aware of the possibility that the room may be bugged.
Apart from the general unease and suspicion that hang over the apparatus of improvising a spontaneous story, Thomas makes use of a curiously detached, almost spectral figure to represent the ghastly political weather of our times. This is an elderly compulsive reciter named Finn who haunts Surkov during an ocean voyage with tales of all the bestial mass murders in which he has taken part, beginning with the slaughter of the Armenians in 1915 and continuing on through Babi Yar. Finn, on his way to deliver a speech at the UN, is not exactly proud of these activities, or in the least ashamed of them; like the ancient mariner, he recites his tale to whoever will listen, but in a curiously flat, stastical way. His moral sense seems as if cauterized, leaving him with a monstrously prim sense of the proprieties.
In a moment of idle conversation with Surkov, he deprecates the use of vulgar words in writing. “I suppose I’m very old-fashioned,” he says, “but I’ve never seen the need for bad language. Surely it isn’t what we expect from literature? Sholokhov doesn’t require such words in Quiet Flows the Don. Or for that matter, Hitler in Mein Kampf.” There’s scarcely any escaping the bitter irony of those words—in themselves, and from such a mouth. Yet it’s hardly enough to make a statement relevant to the rest of the novel, and Finn, the bloody-handed linguistic purist, isn’t allowed enough space, or enough contact with other characters, to amplify his impact on them.
As for Ararat itself, it seems to occupy two positions in the novel to which it gives its name. As the mountain on which the ark subsided, it suggests at least the possibility of a refuge for the few survivors of a terrible deluge; it is also the sacred mountain of a lost homeland, toward which even long-dispersed and much-diluted Armenians can feel an instinctive attraction. Though never known and never to be attained, it is intuitively recognized.
So far as he can be spoken of as a person (and in fact he melts like a blurred photographic negative into his “creator” Rozanov), the extremely disagreeable Victor Surkov occupies a central position in the novel and is at the heart of much of its coldness. Surkov is a house liberal of the Soviet regime, promiscuous and greedy as an alley cat, evasive intellectually and fraudulent artistically, fearful and cringing toward the regime, a fungoid parasite. (There has been gossip that he is based on Yevtushenko.) The full depth of his shallowness emerges in a New York news conference relatively late in the book. (“These so-called dissidents are not always so innocent…. Like, you have extremists here who wave banners and fight the cops, merely because they’ve got problems!”) Yet if we suppose he is the narrative mirror of Rozanov, he suggests a measure of self-knowledge and self-loathing that’s very nearly ultimate. And about people who know so much and care so little, it’s dangerously easy for the reader to start asking himself the fatal question, So what?
This I think was a question that never arose in The White Hotel; that novel was animated by the sense of a living, fragile being who had to be sought behind the veils of monstrous fantasy and demonically clever lies, but who was ultimately able to come forth and stand clear, if only momentarily. The triumph was not only moving in itself; it made the novel’s denouement particularly stunning. Ararat, with proportionately more narrative machinery, generates less spiritual tension; the characters are more like stencils and the language is less explosive in its inventiveness.
The game novel in general, as it pits author directly against reader, tends to squeeze fictional “reality” paper-thin. One can say that this implies simply a recognition of a universal reality; authors always manipulate readers, and are more or less frank about it. The reader who “loses himself” in a “believable” fiction is playing a game too, just playing it in a less aware way. Yet he plays for a symbolic reward, one condition of which is to ignore the author’s manipulations.
There are in fact two ways of enjoying any illusion. Game or involvement, I’m not sure there’s any categorically “better” way to read fiction, only that we now have, more openly than before, two ways; and that if Mr. Thomas’s early novel leaned a little toward the way of Dostoevsky, or D.H. Lawrence, his later one seems more in the vein of Nabokov. In fact, one could say that, notwithstanding all their differences, Ararat is to The White Hotel as Pale Fire was to Lolita.
A second novel by a writer who’s just had a popular success inevitably gets judged by comparison with its predecessor, and that can be unfair. I doubt D.M. Thomas is going to be a formula novelist, doing the same thing sometimes better, sometimes worse; he is a high-wire man, not a bricklayer. His gift is for abruptly inflating a fantasy, vaulting across an analogy. He avoids padding with the skill of a man who knows what it is. Different as they are, the two recent novels (for there is a first one I have not yet seen) share the virtues of being lean, active, and intelligent. Another appropriate adjective for this novelist would be “hard.” Thomas is not in the least a placatory or ingratiating writer. Very likely, he will not have another success to equal his first; the uneasy balance he has so far maintained between visceral and cerebral fiction is likely to be difficult to maintain. But if he looks like a major talent, I don’t think it’s just because recent British novels have been on the meager side. His fiction could be something very big, and authentically so.
Perhaps the heavy weight of tradition it must carry does something to impel the contemporary novel in English toward high-tension performance; like high-tech society itself, it is sometimes busy to the point of blurred invisibility. Older traditions of storytelling are not for that reason better, just different; but the difference can create shock waves. Aharon Appelfeld’s Tzili takes on a technical problem familiar to realists of as much as a century ago, including Maupassant, George Moore, and Arnold Bennett. The problem is to present a major social event by way of a very limited, in fact a dull, reflector. The difficulty is simply not to interfere—not to explain, not visibly to arrange, not to underline or remotely to imply extraneous judgment—while at the same time avoiding the merely dreary. For all Mr. Appelfeld’s exquisite self-effacement, a game is going on around his brief and cogent novel; it is the completion by the reader in his own mind of the huge and grisly pattern within which a single life must take its place. What we build that pattern from is very largely what the character does not see and the author does not say.
Tzili Kraus is a Jewish girl living in a Russian village and barely in her teens when the war breaks out. To the anger and frustration of her family, she has been a backward student in school; she is the youngest of the family; she is a girl; they leave her behind and run away. After waiting a while for their return, she too drifts off. Only half-aware of what she is running from, and having no notion that there is anything to run to, she wanders out into the woods. Nature is harsh, people even more so. Peasants with whom she tries to take refuge beat and abuse her, men try to rape her, women try to sell her, everyone’s hand is against her. By a lucky accident, she learns that it is good to describe herself as “a daughter of Maria,” a prostitute famous throughout the district.
Tzili is cold, hungry, ragged, diseaseridden; but by an instinct she never articulates, she stays away from towns, and by a good fortune of which she is never conscious, she encounters no soldiers and no authorities. Deep in the woods, she does meet an older fellow Jew named Mark; he has escaped from a camp, leaving his family behind him. With Mark, Tzili survives a grim winter, living in a kind of burrow hut, and bartering with the peasants of the neighborhood scraps of clothing for scraps of food. In the spring, she is pregnant. Mark goes off to trade for food, but never comes back. Tzili wanders away, joins a band of directionless refugees. Her child is born dead. Without knowing exactly where she is going, or why, she finds herself on a boat for Palestine.
It is a narrative of the utmost simplicity, told with a complete absence of self-consciousness on the narrator’s part. Tzili hardly seems to recognize how miserable she is—not altogether because she is stupid, but because she has never known any time when she was not abused, reviled, battered. Nothing good can conceivably happen to her, and indeed nothing good does. She has been given the very simplest rudiments of religious training, but does not think of herself as Jewish, is not generally recognized as Jewish, embodies no allegorical principle. Her story is told in short declarative sentences. It seems utterly empty. Yet the things not said, the anguish not voiced, make it strangely full. And though it certainly cannot be described as agreeable reading, Tzili by no means leaves its reader feeling crushed. Its steadiness of vision and quiet acceptance of life reduced to an absolute minimum give it, in the end, a sense of buoyancy the more moving for being apparently effortless.
June 16, 1983