The novel is as English as roast beef or the monarchy, a national institution which in a declining age must be stoutly defended against skeptics and foreigners. By “novel” here I mean the novel of manners, that essentially middle-class form perfected by the great Victorians. The present British prime minister, John Major, has claimed to have read all of Trollope (a prodigious feat, considering that author’s vast output); the claim sounds more like an act of patriotic piety than of literary preference. (One of Mr. Major’s more colorful and certainly wittier predecessors, Harold Macmillan, liked to observe that it was always a pleasure to go to bed with a good Trollope.)
There is also the fear, of course, that the high ground of fiction has been seized by England’s transatlantic cousins. While minor postwar English novelists were fiddling with domestic turmoil in Hampstead or the polite savageries of academe, the Americans were writing of blood and fire and flags, carrying on the moral battle for the conscience of the nation. Then came the Latin Americans, with their birds of paradise and their levitating virgins, followed quickly by the children of the colonies: as Salman Rushdie put it, a case of the Empire striking back.
In the face of all this turmoil and challenge, however, the domestic product has managed to keep its nerve. Alterations have occurred, accommodations have been reached; Julian Barnes has adapted French theory for English tastes, Martin Amis has learned to bellow with the best of the Americans. David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury have taken the campus novel and turned it into a barometer of social change, even magic realism has been absorbed, especially in the work of women writers such as Jeanette Winterson and the late Angela Carter.
Some, however, have resisted progress (or “progress”) simply by ignoring it. With a few minor adjustments, A Landing on the Sun or Daughters of Albion might have been written at any time between the 1890s and now. Frayn and Wilson are the latest in the long and honorable line of English novelists that includes such masters of understatement as Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Henry Green. Their work observes the civilities and indulges in soft laughter; behind the humor and the urbane style, however, lurk pain and the sempiternal sorrows.
Michael Frayn the novelist is something of a late bloomer. He began his writing career as a reporter with the Guardian, that champion of liberal-left causes, and later became an elegant and highly regarded columnist for that paper and then for the Sunday Observer. He has written plays, a book of philosophy, and seven novels, the first of which to receive real critical acclaim was the recent The Trick of It. He is regarded as a comic writer, and while it is certainly true that he can be very funny indeed (Noises Off is a very funny play), his work is as darkly ambiguous as that of Chekhov—whose plays he has translated—and leaves one feeling an equal measure of laughter and sorrow.
A Landing on the Sun has for narrator an almost caricature Englishman. Brian Jessel is a civil servant, a minor functionary in the Cabinet Office, one of those gray man in pinstripes whose hearts seem furled as tightly as their umbrellas.
On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.
The world for him is impossible, a place of chaos and thrashing pain, made manageable only by the willed imposition of order. Even his word-play seems to deny the possibility of joy: “Life, I have come to see, is nothing more nor less than another way of writing file.”
The Subject to be inserted into that fresh Government-issue folder is one of his predecessors in the Cabinet Office, Stephen Summerchild, who fifteen years before the book opens was found dead in mysterious if not exactly suspicious circumstances in a yard in Whitehall, apparently having jumped, or fallen, from one of the windows in the Admiralty Office, a place where he had no business to be. At the time, the affair was quietly disposed of with a quick inquest and a Whitehall-inspired piece in The Times designed to scotch any rumors of dark doings. Now, however, Summerchild has come back to haunt the Service in the form of a television team following up new claims of a connection between his death and unspecified defense matters. “There’s also supposed to be a mysterious disappearing colleague and some kind of Russian connection,” Jessel’s boss tells him. Jessel is directed to investigate the matter and report back.
It happens that Jessel had known Summerchild: had, indeed, lived on the same street and been vaguely in love with Summerchild’s cello-playing daughter when he was seventeen, in the summer of 1974, the year of Summerchild’s death. A bit contrived, this; Frayn is a good literary mechanic, yet here and in other places—especially in the closing chapters—the machinery of the plot does clank somewhat, although the author’s gift for narrative elsewhere carries the reader smoothly over most of the bumps.
Jessel dutifully follows the dead man’s tracks through the dusty byways of fifteen-year-old files. He discovers that Summerchild had been assigned to work with a Dr. Serafin, an Oxford philosopher, whom the incoming prime minister, Harold Wilson, had invited to set up a special Strategy Unit to investigate “the quality of life” and formulate proposals on how it might be improved for the population as a whole. (This is not so improbable as it sounds; there was a dotty side to Wilson’s administrations which now, in the Major interregnum, seems wonderfully endearing.) He also locates the sequestered little room under the eaves of the Cabinet Office building where Summerchild and the doctor conducted their investigations, and settles down, with the spirit of the dead man looking over his shoulder, to read the mildewed records of their conversations stored there. Quickly he comes to realize the oddity of the events that took place that long-ago summer.
There have been hints already of uncivil servantlike matters; a former colleague ventures the information that Summerchild seemingly had been working on a project to do with washing machines. And indeed, the transcript of his and Serafin’s first exchanges offers confirmation of a sort:
SERAFIN:…To recapitulate: “the quality of life,” as you understand it, is some property which is in one way or another promoted or enhanced by washing-machines. Now, I take “washing-machines” in this context to be a synecdoche (no doubt humorously ventured) for domestic machinery in general.
SUMMERCHILD: I imagine it is…
These early conversations produce some wonderful comic writing. Serafin seems the typical career philosopher, thick-skinned, self-absorbed, and faintly mad.
SUMMERCHILD: You want what are sometimes called “ordinary people?….” I don’t think that should present any problems. The department has contacts with a number of opinion-sampling and marketing organizations…
SERAFIN: Thank you. But I think for our purposes we might define “an ordinary person” as “anyone who is not a professional philosopher.” A Civil Servant, for example, would be a perfectly ordinary person in this context.
Things change rapidly, however. Summerchild, it turns out, is not the dry stick he seemed, but a creature of suppressed passions, an artist manqué (he plays the violin), a man longing for love. Nor is Serafin an old codger with ash on his sleeve: she is a woman, of Russian background, with two teenage sons and a husband who has ceased to love her. The inevitable happens. The transcripts cease (their secretary requests a transfer), and Jessel moves on to the tapes themselves; one of them opens with a shaky violin solo by Summerchild, which is followed by sounds of Serafin weeping. “Another sigh—I think hers. Then her voice, also small and strange, perhaps fearful: ‘What are we going to do?’ “
Jessel is outraged. That such a harebrained investigation should have been commissioned by the government is bad enough, but now the investigators have fallen in love.
I know the kind of people who talk about happiness. They’re the ones with strained white smiling faces and desperation in their hearts. They’re so happy!—Expect tearful phone calls and suicide attempts. They’ve found the secret of happiness for all!—Stand by for the labour camps and the mass graves.
Yet happiness does keep breaking in. Urged to submit a personal testament to the investigation, Summerchild recalls a moment of domestic bliss with his wife and daughter.
We ate by the light of three candles and our eyes all shone like children’s around the table. Every time one of us leaned forward for the salt the flames wavered and curtsied with ridiculous deference, like three nervous waitresses. And when we laughed at this they started back in absurd confusion. If we’d raised our hand to them, or even spoken sharply, they’d all have had instant heart attacks.
I think this was the day you asked me what the quality of life was. Yes, because suddenly the answer came to me, as I watched the candles. It was lightness. I mean in both senses of the word. It was brightness and it was weightlessness. It shone and danced in the darkness, and without it there would be nothing; but one hand raised against it and it could lightly cease.
And later on in the same submission he describes a moment of Cartesian enlightenment when he is caught in an electricity blackout; he has a vivid sense of his own thereness, yet what comes into his head is not Cogito, ergo sum, but the memory from childhood of a little velvet case in which had lived his mother’s pearl necklace before it was broken and the pearls were scattered and lost:
I used to take it out sometimes, undo the little golden clasp, and run my fingers over the softness of the velvet inside. It seemed to me richer and stranger than the pearls themselves had ever been—and richer and stranger still now that they had gone.
There is not much bliss in Brian Jessel’s life. He spends much of his nights trying to lull his emotionally disturbed son to sleep, and on Saturdays goes to visit his wife in the mental hospital where she is a permanent patient. Real pain flashes out of these passages. On one of his visits he is absent-mindedly carrying the old biscuit tin in which the Strategy Unit’s tapes are stored.
I stand up and say I’ll send her mother and Timmy in for a bit. Her eyes follow the tin as it moves tantalizingly away towards the door, with all the sweetness of the world still shut away inside it. “What?” I say, smiling disingenuously, “This? This is just an old tin. Just work.” She turns her face away and looks at the wall. We have achieved some communication after all. I have held the sweetness of the world in front of her, then taken it away again, and she has understood.
Meanwhile, as the tapes attest, the lovers of fifteen years ago, like children playing house, are turning the little room in Whitehall into a home away from home, with pictures on the wall, and geraniums on the windowsill, and even an airbed for them to lie on. It cannot last, of course, and in a heart-breakingly funny scene Summerchild’s boss comes to the room to find out what is going on, and discovers Summerchild in the midst of cooking lunch while Serafin sunbathes on the roof. The Unit is wound up, and the lock to the room is changed. Summerchild, who was a climber in his youth, gets in by way of the roof, but cannot find his way down again. The end is inevitable, as it always is. It is left to Jessel to pronounce on the Unit’s findings:
What they have shown, if it needed showing, is that happiness is like economics or heat in seawater. You can make the laws of economics work for short periods of time in small models cut off from the rest of the world, just as you can have a hot bath in the sunwarmed pools of seawater left behind on the beach. But as soon as the neat economic model is reconnected with the unstructured chaos of human affairs, as soon as the tide returns, all gratifying predictivity breaks down, the hot bath disappears at once into the huge reserves of cold in the ocean deeps. Micro-happiness, yes; macro-happiness, I think not.
Yet in their moment, however brief, the lovers arrived at a different definition. On one of the tapes Summerchild says:
“I should say that happiness is being where one is and not wanting to be anywhere else.”
“Yes,” says Serafin. “I believe it is. Thank you.”
As this affecting and mournfully funny book ends, Jessel has, tentatively, without great expectation yet not without hope, renewed contact with Summerchild’s still unmarried daughter, to make with her, no doubt, his own attempted landing on the sun.
At the age of forty-two, A.N. Wilson has behind him a body of work which most of his contemporaries would not be capable of amassing in two or three lifetimes. He has been a lecturer at Oxford, and from 1976 to 1981 was literary editor of the Spectator magazine. He has written a dozen novels, and biographies of Walter Scott, Milton, Belloc, C.S. Lewis, and Tolstoy, the last a critical triumph. And, as Nabokov’s Van Veen would say, much, much more.
Daughters of Albion is the latest installment in the fictional memoirs of Julian Ramsay, of which there have been two previous volumes, Incline Our Hearts and the inelegantly titled A Bottle in the Smoke. This is a “state of England” work, stretching from the Second World War to the present day. (Not the least remarkable thing about the first two books is that they were set, with great confidence and persuasiveness, in periods which Wilson, who was born in 1950, either did not experience, or could not possibly remember.) It is a roman fleuve in the style of Anthony Powell’s “Music of Time” sequence, though jollier, I think, than Powell’s cool anecdotage, and certainly funnier. Wilson writes in that tone of peculiarly English insouciance—relaxed, slightly cruel, incredulous of the world’s folly—which seems a mask for utter despair. Evelyn Waugh was the master of this style, and though Wilson is less cool than Waugh he does not have that writer’s profound artistry.
Daughters of Albion opens in the early 1960s in the midst of the Profumo scandal, which “became a signal for a general whoopee which would engulf England for at least a decade” (another similarity between Wilson and Anthony Powell is the awfulness of their prose styles, though this volume is not as slapdash as its predecessors). The narrator, Julian Ramsay, is the orphaned son of middle-class parents and a nephew of Uncle Roy (a splendid comic creation), rector of Timplingham, whose lifelong and unremitting obsession is the Lampitts, a family of slightly dingy minor aristocrats somewhat on the lines of the Mitfords or the Wedgwoods. Julian, radio actor and failed writer, is emotionally adrift (“I felt myself beginning to be doomed to be a spectator rather than a participant in life”) after the failure of his marriage, which was rapidly disintegrating at the end of A Bottle in the Smoke; a Philip Larkinesque melancholy pervades the book (“To be conscious is to be sad, and anything else seems like an illusion”), and although the Swinging Sixties are well under way, Julian detects everywhere the decline of a culture:
Kentish Town deepened into brick-blackened Camden. On my left was the tube station, infested, as always, with human wreckage, blue-nosed contemplatives clutching ragged blankets to their shoulders and wodges of newspaper to their knees; shiny-faced inebriates, eyes swollen and cut, murmuring snatches of old songs; a woman who might once have been a flower-seller, a black straw hat rammed jauntily over scrubs of unwashed hair, sprawled in a pool of unidentifiable liquid, her neck and shoulders pressed against a newspaper-placard reading CLOSING PRICES.
Enter Rice Robey, a civil servant of a very different order from Michael Frayn’s desperate gray men: Robey, autodidact and visionary, is a kind of English guru, a druidic figure at once impressive and ridiculous, who in his younger days produced a series of fantastical novels under the suggestive pen name “Albion Pugh.” Early on, one of Julian’s friends sounds a significant note:
“Very much like Blake, Pugh,” said Darnley. “Same weird thing of having a vision of England. Similar, too, in the way the sublime stuff goes hand in hand with absolute balls.”
Wilson uses Pugh/Robey as an example of a certain vision of Englishness, at once mundane and transcendent, against which to measure the decline which was setting in even as the country rejected Macmillan’s discredited conservatism and brought in Harold Wilson’s Labour government with its talk of the “white heat” of change and recovery. Blake’s “Jerusalem,” that quintessentially English anthem, echoes throughout the book, and is sung in the closing pages as the bulldozers move in to flatten a Stone Age site which Rice Robey has tried in vain to preserve. An unfinished sentence (“it is a pity to see…”) spoken by his cousin Felicity leads Julian into one of his sad musings:
Pity to see that people age, but they do not grow up? Or that England ages, and is being, has been, destroyed? Pity to see the world, turning on its sad old axis, learning no lessons, solving no problems, and increasing, with each of its revolutions, the sum of human misery?
I should not give the impression that Daughters of Albion is all melancholy and fond regrets; the elegiac tone is lightened everywhere by the rich and subtle comedy of Wilson’s characterization. Readers of the earlier volumes will be happy to meet again such favorites as Uncle Roy (a bore to rival Joseph Finsbury in Stevenson’s The Wrong Box), the cockneyfied Lord Vernon (“Ernie”) Lampitt and his cynical and hypochondriacal brother Sargent, and the caddish literary man-about-town (and, as this volume suggests, possible murderer) Raphael Hunter. Rice Robey is a splendid addition to this gallery of grotesques, with his shiny suit and lank hair and hypnotically flat voice; the “Daughters of Albion” of the title are the many women who fall for his—to Julian very dubious—charm:
One of Rice Robey’s emotional talents was in the ability to make his devotees compete with one another. They all wanted to show that they knew him better than the others—hence, presumably, their willingness to believe the worst about the Great Attachment, the woman with whom he shared his domestic life and who, presumably, in fact knew him best.
Though the portrait of Robey is a caricature, it is a subtle one, and allows A.N. Wilson to explore more deeply than in previous volumes of the series the themes of time and loss and national decay. He quotes from one of Albion Pugh’s novels one of the central assertions of his own book: “Each of us comes to fullness of life only when we have learnt how to mythologise it” and goes on.
Then I read in a book that “religion is what we do with our madness,” and I began to understand. The activities of the uncontrolled and unexplored self create religious belief, and it is in this unexplored area that we are most vulnerable. We protect the cloud-capp’d towers and gorgeous palaces of that insubstantial pageant more fervently than we would protect the quantum theory or Newton’s Law of Thermodynamics because that is where we have learnt to come to terms with life’s pain and muddle, if we have come to terms, which perhaps we never shall and perhaps we should not hope to do.
It is this Blakean concern with risky and, among fiction writers, unfashionable matters, such as religion, that gives depth to this splendidly entertaining and peculiarly moving comedy.
May 14, 1992