Monday, September 30, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
I am in a real quandary about Lloyd Jones’ latest work. When I reviewed his Mr Pip on its first appearance [NZ Listener 7 October 2006], I was happy to salute it (regardless of what the current film version may be like) as an intelligent and engaging story, which made good use of a shifting narrative perspective and had the best sort of humane values. I was pleased when it later won the fiction section of our national book awards. But when I reviewed his later Hand-Me-Down World [Sunday Star-Times 31 October 2010], I found the narrative trickiness of multiple narrators an alienating effect in all the wrong ways. Reader engagement was sacrificed to literary artifice, and a sound central narrative idea (an African woman’s encounter with Europe) became a pretentious and messy novel.
At his best, Jones’ is a vividly evocative writer; but evocation for its own sake can drown purpose. This may be true of his latest book.
There are special sorts of problems with A History of Silence. As its subtitle warns, it is not a novel, but a memoir. Specifically, it is Jones’ very personal attempt to unwrap the truths about the childhood of both his parents. Mother and father were apparently taciturn people, tight-lipped about their past, emotionally distant and withholding painful memories from their children. Their son intuits that there was something traumatic in the background of each, and (now that both parents are long dead) he sets out to find out what it was in each case.
What he uncovers is certainly an unhappy story. His father Lew and his siblings were apparently abandoned to orphanages by their feckless Welsh father, when their mother had died suddenly of hydatids. The children were fed family legends about their sailor father having “drowned at sea” when in fact he had gone off and set up another family.
More traumatic was his mother Joyce’s childhood. In an age when extra-marital births were regarded as scandalous, Joyce’s unmarried teenage mother Maud became pregnant (with Joyce) to a married man whom she could not marry. Maud pretended to be a respectable widow with child, and in that guise married a respectable man. But when he found out the truth of her position, her husband began to mistreat little Joyce ferociously. This meant the author’s mother grew up in an environment of extreme domestic violence, until she was adopted into the household of another couple – where again she was regularly beaten by an angry and disappointed woman, who wanted her to be a substitute for her own dead biological children. The result was that Lloyd Jones’ mother grew up knowing that she had been cast off by her own mother, who refused to receive or speak to her even in old age.
I distort the memoir in presenting it in these simple terms, although these are the unhappy explanatory tales that Lloyd Jones uncovers.
Apart from filling in gaps in family knowledge, what Jones is doing here is reflecting on the nature of memory itself – the way (in families especially) things are repressed or hidden or turned into legends or preserved only in rumours or broken references that happen to crop up randomly in conversations over the years.
A History of Silence is not written in any sort of flattened, chronological order. In part it follows the path of Lloyd Jones’ research – leading him to Wales and Wellington and Christchurch and a Canterbury farm among other places. It also follows his own thoughts somewhat serendipitously, and this includes long reflections on his Hutt Valley childhood and the first impact his parents had on him. Lloyd Jones was, apparently, the youngest of the family, a full seventeen years younger than his entrepreneur brother Bob Jones, who features in just a few revealing childhood anecdotes. Speaking as a youngest child myself, I readily identify with the author’s memories of feeling somehow left out of what the grown-ups and older siblings were talking about, and of having to work out connections by later research.
Apparently the Jones family lived in somewhat straitened circumstances, economies had to be made and they were borne with a certain stoicism. Yet young Lloyd was grounded in his home, his pet dogs and his street games. He found going on family holidays a bit of a chore. Take this revealing account of childhood holidays, which captures perfectly that childhood sense that nowhere but home is really as it should be:
“From one municipal camp to the next we work our way across the North Island. There is always a ngaio pushing against the sides of the tent and making scary shadows with its branches, and I seem to be forever standing in lines. I long for the moment we will pack up the car and head for home. I miss the street, the backyard, the slap of concrete and the brick side of the house where for hours I am content to throw a tennis ball and catch it within inches of the leaping dog and its snapping jaws. I miss the letterbox and the smell of the clipped hedge. I long for those certainties – even the sky which has its own particularity, shaped by the long gorsy hills that swallow and blow out tremendous gusts of wind. The settled air of elsewhere simply feels wrong, and when the moment comes to pull up pegs I am never so keen to help.” (p.61)
Another aspect of home life was his father’s stoicism, which Lloyd Jones is sometimes tempted to see as a legacy of his Welsh forebears:
“My father’s default expression was one of vacancy. Hot tar could have been poured inside his skull and he would not have complained. His hands were covered with thick skin from handling steel. I saw him pick up gorse in his bare hands. I suppose if you empty yourself out there is nothing left to scald or hurt. I don’t have his forbearance, but I do have the expression that goes with it.” (p.115)
In this congeries, memory, anecdote and research are held together by one major stylistic device, and it is this which puts me in the quandary I mentioned at the top of this notice. Repeatedly, Jones uses the big Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 as a metaphor for memory either repressed or recovered.
When, in Wellington, he first hears news of the Christchurch disaster, he notes:
“This was a real disaster. Equally, it was plain to see that it had come out of an unacknowledged past. The old maps clearly spelt out the swamp and wetland history of the city’s foundations. But it had been overlooked or perhaps was thought to have been triumphed over by advances in swamp-draining techniques, then covered up with concrete and bitumen.” (p.23)
So, with that “unacknowledged past “ bit, Christchurch is at once comparable with his family’s domestic disaster inasmuch as the past has not been acknowledged in either case.
Later, when Jones observes some reconstruction work going on in Barbadoes Street at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, he notes the way teams are preserving the shattered bits of the building stone by numbered stone for later reconstruction. This he presents as the genesis of his own attempts to reconstruct his family’s story. He writes:
“In its retelling, the basilica would hold true. Presumably in time it would be as good as new, and it would be impossible to know what it had been through. It would give the sunny impression of being outside history”….“I kept thinking about those numbered stones, until some purpose began to take shape. I began to wonder if I might retrace and recover something of my own past, and reassemble it in the manner of the basilica. It was a matter of looking to see if any of the original building blocks remained, and where I might find them.” (pp.33-34)
And so the comparisons between macro- and micro-disasters recur regularly throughout this book. Take this late passage where, having retrieved most of his family’s unspoken past, Jones considers Christchurch’s experience of liquefaction, with the clear implication that it is like his family’s past bubbling up and still having an effect on the living:
“Yet, if we care to find out, liquefaction has its own story to tell, not so much myth but a creation story nonetheless. Upheaval, displacement, the formation of the plains and swamps and peatlands, the retreat of the sea several millennia ago, the arrival of the podocarp forest and its steady erasure by pastoralists, and then a new weave in the landscape starting with the introduction of farming, followed by the all-conquering cockspur grass and grazing beats – well, the latter were more cosmetic and scenic, unlike the brew of ancient times, of basalt and shells, and various crustaceans, and peat and swamp turning into coal, and water locked in place by impermeable layers of peat beneath a rock pan, and a network of waterways, some slow, some meandering, others as still as ponds reflecting nothing but the subterranean dark. The liquefaction that sent putrid matter bursting up across the streets of Christchurch was a postcard from these hidden zones.
Nothing had been lost, just hidden.” (pp.159-160)
And this is my problem with A History of Silence.
Granted that the circumstances of Jones’ parents were extremely unhappy – even traumatic - ones, are they really comparable with a large-scale public disaster like the Christchurch earthquake, with its large loss of life? I am not belittling the emotional pain of Lew and Joyce Jones, but I do wonder if their son isn’t inflating the importance of their condition by extending his metaphor as he does. As a poetic image, it might have worked well a few times. Overused as it is, it leaves us feeling battered by its insistence.
This isn’t the only technique of allusion Lloyd Jones uses. There is much literary allusion. His grandmother Maud’s status as an unwed mother, and the public shame it invited, is compared a number of times with the situation of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hipper references, with regard to the erasure of both memory and false memory, are the ones made to Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. But at least one literary reference (first made on p.83) makes me wonder about the reliability of the narrator. Jones tells us that while sorting through a post-earthquake rubbish pile, he happened to find a copy of Pliny’s letters, which just fell open at the page where Pliny describes the death of his uncle during the eruption of Vesuvius. The intimate family detail and the public disaster are wed in the Roman author just as they are in the modern memoirist. I guess it’s possible that Jones turned up this volume as described, but it does sound rather neat for his literary purpose.
As in all Jones’ work, this one has powerful passages, keen evocation and a humane undercurrent (Jones is careful to acknowledge the people who showed kindness and consideration to his parents in their childhood). But the extended earthquake metaphor is quite a hurdle.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“MR. NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS” by Christopher Isherwood (first published in Britain in 1935; published in America as The Last of Mr Norris)
When it comes to what journalists write about culture, I don’t take offence too easily as I realize most of them are out of their depth in such waters. But I do remember a phrase a journo slipped into an article some years back that got my goat. He was attempting to write about life in Berlin in the last days of the Weimar Republic, just before Hitler came to power; and he insisted on using the phrase “Isherwood’s Berlin”. This really annoyed me. If you wanted to attach some literary figure to pre-Hitler Berlin, then it would be more appropriate to refer to Hans Fallada’s Berlin [look up my review of Little Man, What Now? on the index at right] or perhaps Alfred Doblin’s Berlin, given that Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is by common consent regarded as the greatest German novel of that era.
But “Isherwood’s Berlin”? Come, come! The Englishman Christopher Isherwood (1904-86) was at best a brief sojourner in Berlin, drawn there in the early 1930s mainly by the promise of open homosexual activity and gay bars at a time when they didn’t exist elsewhere.
Isherwood parlayed his brief Berlin experience into two slim volumes, which were later published together as The Berlin Stories. The first – and I believe the more interesting – was the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains in 1935. It was published in America as The Last of Mr Norris, which caused great confusion as some purchasers thought the edition with the latter title was a sequel to the edition with the former title. The second, and slighter, of Isherwood’s productions was Goodbye to Berlin in 1939, being a collection of short stories one of which, “Sally Bowles”, was the genesis first for the play (and film) I Am A Camera, and later and more famously for the musical (and film) Cabaret. Both play and musical gamely pretended that the main male character, based on the exclusively homosexual Isherwood, was heterosexual, although the film version of Cabaret at least made him bisexual.
This, I guess, would be why the journo had referred to “Isherwood’s Berlin”: because he had seen Cabaret and had no further cultural referents for Berlin in the early 1930s.
I’ve had Mr Norris Changes Trains sitting on my shelf for years, in a very old and battered Penguin edition, the original white-and-orange cover having long since lost its lustre.
Let’s consider it on its own merits.
The novel is set in Berlin and specifically takes place between 1931 and early 1933. It is narrated by young William Bradshaw, a language teacher, who in the opening pages meets Arthur Norris on a train crossing from the Netherlands into Germany. Norris is in his early 50s. He is fat, pudgy and unhealthy and he wears a wig. He is a con-man and pornographer whose tastes run to flagellation. And he is also some sort of police spy.
The novel follows Norris’s unedifying career in late Weimar Berlin as observed by Bradshaw.
At one point Norris joins the Communist Party and gives a speech on the oppression of the workers. One of Norris’s associates is a Baron Kuno who is very obviously homosexual and makes plays for the narrator. The plot’s unravelling has Norris persuading Bradshaw to entice the Baron to holiday with him in Switzerland, so that a foreign agent can pump Kuno for information. It turns out that Norris is being paid by the French secret service to spy on both the German Communists and German government officials (such as Kuno). Norris, whose duplicities have become known to all, flees Germany just as the Nazis are coming to power. The last the narrator hears of him, he is being pursued around South America by the sinister figure of Schmidt, a servant who involved him in blackmail.
The comic method of the novel is to present us with a character who has no redeeming features at all, and yet whose very effrontery and threadbare excuses for himself make him funny. Occasionally (but far too occasionally, I have to say) this is counterpointed by the realism of the background with some vivid journalistic vignettes of street brawls between Nazis and Communists and Berlin descending into political chaos.
Yet throughout this novel, there is a certain awkwardness. In order to be close enough to Norris to observe him, the narrator has to be some sort of friend or associate of Norris. But the novel itself cannot convince us why an apparently intelligent and observant chap like Bradshaw would be taken in by, or play along with, the likes of Norris. As in Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country [look up my comments on it via the index at right] there is the sense that we are not being told something essential about the narrator, who appears to have no life independent of his relationship with Norris.
Thus far, I have commented on the novel itself and “the words on the page”. My verdict on it would be that it is an amusing and slight historical artefact.
Now I have to skip the rails and talk about something extraneous to the novel itself and its impact. In other words, I have to talk about its background.
The most obvious point is that, like the stories of Goodbye to Berlin, the novel is lightly-dusted autobiography. Christopher Isherwood (full name = Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood) is William Bradshaw. The thing that isn’t mentioned is Bradshaw/Isherwood’s homosexuality, which is what would probably have brought him into Norris’s orbit in the first place and kept him there, observing. For a mainstream novel of its time, Mr Norris Changes Trains is quite frank about sexual matters (not that there are any sex scenes, of course). But by avoiding this essential aspect of Isherwood’s own person, the narrator of the novel becomes opaque and quite incredible.
As all the reference books now tell you, Arthur Norris was also based on a real person. This was one Gerald Hamilton. In real life, Isherwood regarded Hamilton as a crook because Isherwood paid Hamilton 1,000 pounds to get Mexican naturalization papers for Isherwood’s German boyfriend, whom he hoped to get smoothly out of the country as the political situation worsened. Instead, Hamilton pocketed the money and took off. None of this specific transaction appears in the novel.
Years later, Isherwood’s anger at Hamilton had cooled. In the mid-1950s Hamilton wrote a memoir Mr Norris and I for which Isherwood wrote the preface. Isherwood virtually apologized for the novel, saying that it was frivolous and superficial and a young man’s silly evasion of the real horrors that Berliners were suffering at the time when the novel is set. Fair enough and, I think, a sincere expression of authorial regret. In fact I think it showed considerable courage on Isherwood’s part to dismiss his own novel when it still was earning him good royalties.
I enjoyed reading Mr Norris Changes Trains but - regardless of how much it was neutered by Isherwood’s self-censorship – it holds not a candle to Little Man, What Now? or other German works as a guide to what Berlin was like in those years.
“Pfui!”, I say
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
Forgive me but, for the second week in a row, I must begin in autobiographical and anecdotal mode.
Recently my eldest daughter and her husband invited me to a fund-raising quiz evening, being held by their local primary school. They thought (probably wrongly) that I might be good at general knowledge and arcane historical and literary stuff. But then they heard that the quiz was going to be based on music. Okay. I would at least be able to answer for their team some of the questions on opera and orchestral music and jazz and even some of the older specimens of pop and rock.
The evening was being billed as “The Ultimate Music Quiz”.
But what did this “Ultimate Music Quiz” turn out to consist of?
It consisted of a chap who fancied himself as a DJ playing brief clips of pop and rock drawn exclusively from the last twenty years, and basically recognizable only to people who have recently left teenager-hood. So bang went my hopes of showing my brilliance by identifying the key in which the Rhenish Symphony was written, saying who played the vibraphone in the Benny Goodman Quartet or naming the librettist for The Daughter of the Regiment. To make matters worse, teams didn’t have to guess what the music was, but simply voted by electronic doo-dah whether it was A or B or C or D as suggested by the wannabe DJ.
As a quiz, it reminded me of a dumbed-down multi-choice exam, as opposed to a real exam.
Needless to say, I found it a long evening. So did my daughter and son-in-law, who were somewhat apologetic about roping me in. The only time I contributed anything of value to the team was when I was able to give (from a multi-choice selection) the correct date of the first publication of The Great Gatsby – a question presumably asked only because there has recently been a terrible film adaptation thereof, possibly as bad as the one made in the 1970s, but appealing more overtly to those who have only recently left teenager-hood.
Rumour says that the team which won the evening’s “quiz” had at their table an Auckland publication’s pop music “critic”. I can’t get grumpy about this winning strategy, however. I am not an habitual attender of quiz-nights, but about fifteen years ago, when I was still a regular film reviewer, I do remember being invited by some colleagues to join their table at a Trivial Pursuit night when they had been forewarned that there was going to be a special round on movies. On the team’s behalf, I answered all the cinematic questions correctly, we won the night by a whisker and each member of the team went home having won $30 and a bottle of wine. A good evening’s haul.
So I’m not complaining.
But as I went home after the “Ultimate Music Quiz” I was filled with dark and terrible thoughts. “What a horrible waste of intellectual energy,” I thought, “memorising the names of garbage like the pop music of the last twenty years. Who cares what the name was of the group which recorded one piece of mediocre rubbish indistinguishable from another piece of mediocre rubbish?” People who bothered themselves about such things were obviously much inferior to me on the cultural scale. I thought in the same terms of tales I’d heard of fanatical sports fans, memorising and quizzing each other on the winning scores of Ranfurly Shield challenges, or the winners and losers and dates of the Paris Open.
So, grumpily, I went to bed, convinced of the degeneracy of the fund-raising quiz night I had just attended.
But when I woke the following morning an obvious thought occurred to me, which had been blotted out by my dyspepsia the previous night.
After all, it takes no more wit, insight or intellectual energy to memorise the names of Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry, Booker Prize winners, characters in the novels of Balzac or Proust, rationalist or empirical philosophers, or creators of great works of art than it does to memorise the winners and losers of tennis matches, the songs that were on the Top 40 ten years ago, the exact date of the death of Amy Winehouse or what Lady Gaga’s latest million-seller was. Memorising names, dates and facts is a fairly mechanical process. The people who could key into the pop and rock music of the last twenty years were no stupider than me. They just had different interests.
There’s another side to this too. Eons ago, there used to be (and for aught I know may still be) a conservative American publication called Films in Review, which gave embarrassingly silly reviews of films but which contained excellent retrospective articles on directors, actors and so forth, complete with filmographies and dates. One of its early features was a column called (I think) “Coffee, Brandy and Cigars”, being quizzes on who directed or starred in or scripted what classic films and when. The very title suggested that this sort of quizzing was really the idle chatter of people with spare time to burn and long evenings to fill.
In my life, I have known at least some people who think that the recall of such things is real cultural capital. They can say what novel was adapted by which director into which classic film and what actress was called in at the last moment to star when what other actress was unavailable. Having a strong and retentive memory is a good thing, and certainly helpful if you are going to synthesize your memory knowledge into a logical argument or thesis of some sort.
I resist people who foolishly object to academic examinations because they are mere “memory work”. A well-stocked memory is essential to any academic learning. But the memory of discrete data alone is only the first step in real reasoning or thought.
So, says my mature judgement, a factual quiz on ephemeral pop music is no more nor less intelligent a pastime that a factual quiz on Booker Prize winners. But it probably does say something about the cultural company you keep.
Monday, September 23, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
I’m always wary about narrative techniques that are described as “postmodern”.
Take the technique of having an author-narrator who butts into a novel and comments upon it, drawing the reader’s attention to the novel’s style and technique and artifice. This is supposed to be very postmodern and a sign of the “new novel” which deconstructs itself before our very eyes, puts a meta-narrative in control of a narrative, and so forth.
But I keep asking myself – is this carry-on all that new? Isn’t it really a reversion to the way novels were routinely written in the nineteenth century and earlier, with all their authorial comment and direct address to the reader? The postmodern novelist who deconstructs his/her narrative for our conscious inspection is only a whisker removed from Thackeray with his “Dear Reader” asides, or Charlotte Bronte having Jane Eyre say “Reader, I married him!” or the likes of Henry Fielding and George Eliot dropping long, self-contained essays and general observations on life into their tales. Readers then were frequently reminded that an author was in charge of whatever story they were reading, and that the story itself was an artificial construct – and that is all that the “new novel” tells us too.
Postmodern? Nah! It’s just a revival of the old.
Forgive this little rant, but it was brought on by reading Carl Nixon’s brisk and generally entertaining tale The Virgin and the Whale.
Nixon begins by telling us that the central idea of the story is true and was told to him by an elderly correspondent. This may or may not be the case; but is certainly similar to those ancient novels purporting to be true stories which have only been “edited” by the author.
Nixon then frequently makes his own first person asides. When, for example, he is explaining at the beginning of Chapter 17 how a very unlikely event has completely deprived one of his main characters of his memory, he writes:
“At this point the story will be frustrating certain readers.
‘Impossible!’ or ‘Isn’t this supposed to be based on a true story?’
Perhaps you have already drawn back the book, set to lob it towards the far wall. No doubt there are other far more credible narratives stacked upon your bedside table. Or perhaps you prefer your books to be more explicitly incredible – strange planets, or goblins and dragons…Perhaps some earnest book reviewer is scribbling in the margin of his or her uncorrected proof copy ‘Too much suspension of disbelief required.’ ” (pp.92-93)
And so on.
Sometimes his intrusions and direct addresses are playful, teasing us with the way the same story could have been written in more cliché terms. Consider this passage in Chapter 32, where characters are entering a psychiatric hospital:
“Even though the institution has been renamed the much more felicitous Sunnyside, it still manages to loom over the three figures walking towards the entrance. The large wooden door is flanked by two lanterns, recently electrified. It may give a very slight creak as it swings open. Perhaps it does close rather heavily. But to say that the sound echoes down the corridor like hollow laughter, well, that is a bridge too far. Such descriptions belong to a model of mental institution that by 1919 was already antiquated.” (p.154)
Much later – and without my providing any “spoilers” - he suggests a “false” ending to the novel before giving us the “real” ending.
Just as “postmodern” as the authorial intrusions, however, is the whole conceit of this story. In short chapters, written mainly in the present tense, it is a story that is consciously and overtly about the telling of stories.
In 1919, shortly after the end of the Great War, the nurse Elizabeth Whitman has returned to “Mansfield’ (i.e. Christchurch) with her young son Jack. Jack’s father, Elizabeth’s husband, is missing, presumed dead, in the war; but Elizabeth can’t bring herself to tell Jack this terrible fact, and the little boy lives with the hope that his father will some day return. Elizabeth entertains the boy with an ongoing bedtime story about an adventurous balloonist and his encounters with a civilized tiger. That is one story within the story – a story of hope and unlikely survival.
Elizabeth takes on the commission of looking after and nursing Paul Blackwell, a wealthy man in a toney part of “Mansfield”. Blackwell, returned from the war, has completely lost his memory after an unusual head wound sustained in the trenches (perhaps his name – Blackwell – suggests the black hole left where his memory should be). Blackwell’s snobbish and somewhat patronising wife hopes that Elizabeth will be able to restore her husband’s memory, but there is not the least real hope of this. Paul Blackwell has no memory of being Paul Blackwell and answers only to the name of Lucky. His very first recollection is of the moment in the trenches when he was found, hanging between life and death, by a stretcher party. In effect, that was the moment when he began to be the man he is now.
Unlike Blackwell’s wife, Elizabeth realizes the truth of Lucky’s situation. In telling him stories of herself, she begins to heal him and rebuild him as a person, different from the one that used to inhabit his body. These are the other stories within the story – in this case, stories as therapeutic means of rebuilding a personality.
The Virgin and the Whale is subtitled “A Love Story”, so from the title page (and from Carl Nixon’s prologue), you will probably have guessed where this story is going without any prompting from me.
Allow me first to say a few negative things. I think the novel’s title is an unnecessary tease. The Moon Virgin and the helpful Whale appear very late in the novel, in the fantastical story that Elizabeth tells her young son. True, the skeleton of another whale is mentioned early in the novel; but the novel’s title still seems a mildly sensationalist way of grabbing the reader’s attention. There’s also a vague hint of Random Harvest in any story about amnesia – once one of the most popular themes in romantic bestsellers – and the premise of nurse and helpless-but-forceful male can’t help carrying overtones of Rebecca, Jane Eyre etc. In saying this, Cynical Old Me is simply saying that, whether it is based on a true story or not, The Virgin and the Whale has elements of the romantic novelette.
But Carl Nixon’s merits as a writer outweigh these defects. For one thing, he writes a beautiful, clean prose. Take, for example, this early passage, where he gives a clear impression of the process of ageing by describing what happens to the skeleton of a whale that was once the pride of “Mansfield” (i.e. Canterbury) Museum:
“Here at the start of our story, in 1919, the time since the end of the Great War can still be counted in months. While the citizens of Mansfield looked away across the oceans to husbands and fiancés, sons and brothers fighting in Europe, rain has blown in under the roof of the corrugated shelter. The crowds had long ago dispersed. The once crisp white bones are faded to grey. The metal rods have rusted, leaving stains the colour of strong tea around the edges of the drilled holes. The damage is most obvious in the multiple joints of the hands. Lichen has found a home along the southernmost jaw (20 feet 8 inches).” (p.17)
Nixon also conjures up this past age concisely, in telling details, which suggest discreetly class differences and tensions rather than mere quaintness. Elizabeth Whitman’s impressions of the Blackwell mansion and its servants contrast, without unduly lengthy descriptions, with the cramped quarters of her parents’ home. Nixon also takes some care in emphasising the physical damage to men who have returned from the war, as seen in the wards where Elizabeth works before she takes up her commission with Lucky. These men hurt physically, but are as afraid of being looked down upon and pitied:
“The truth is that the men in Ward Six have come to despise Kind. Every day, they look with far-seeing eyes from the mountaintop of their situation over the kingdom of Kind. They see how it borders on the desert land of Condescension. They understand that Kind has as its capital city the crumbled ruins called Pity.” (p.34)
This may be a trifle forced, but it does remind me of Siegfried Sassoon’s “Does it matter - losing your legs? / For people will always be kind” etc. so its grandiloquence is probably true to the novel’s period setting.
Time for a verdict, after these disjointed remarks. I think The Virgin and the Whale is a good, enjoyable middlebrow read on familiar themes. It has the advantage of a clear prose, which makes it a brisk reading experience. The author’s intrusions into the narrative are urbane and amusing and don’t hold things up unduly. But as for being postmodern – poppycock. It’s a good yarn with authorial comments.