Against the ruins of love and idealism, Alice Thomas Ellis shores up the fragmentary consolations of art. Her books are beautifully fashioned, tailored, cut from superior cloth: you’re aware of the chunks from the fabric of experience that she has rejected, and her characters know just enough of the outside world not to be able to make sense of themselves. The setting (Oxfordshire/Berkshire? – anyway, the Radcliffe is where you rush for a casualty ward) might suggest this is Pym’s No 1 country, but the heroine Claudia is married to a businesslike printer, and Silicon Valley is obviously just down the road. I say ‘heroine’, although with characteristic artifice Ellis has devolved some of the responsibility. Claudia is the focus of the fairly slender narrative, but the centre of awareness lies with her friend Sylvie, calmly disillusioned and cruelly direct (‘I say men and women are incompatible and shouldn’t spend too much time together at all ... Swans and pigeons and things seem to muddle along quite happily, but most mammals don’t’). It isn’t that the author backs Sylvie exactly, simply that she is allowed the eloquence of her convictions.
Eloquence counts for a lot in such a book. Everyone is fiercely literate; the writer’s own gift for the rapid phrase (‘an old man concave with ill health or alcoholism’) is generously extended to her characters. Claudia’s dilemma has to do with acting out her private dreams, not with formulating them: ‘Stirring within her’ she ‘now felt the desire to wear what she had never worn – the strange and garish garment of herself’. Or, musing on her marriage to Charles and the new obsession with her stepson Philip: ‘She wished passionately that she could be the author of her own life, go back fifteen years and cross out Charles. No, not cross him out; she was very fond of Charles; just marry his son instead of him.’ Sylvie has a ‘marvellously simple’ cure for love, which requires only the realisation that ‘you can have anything you desire, providing you don’t desire it too greatly.’ But Claudia, at the sharp end of an affair, knows that in these cases one acts because one has to, not because one chooses: ‘She thought it extraordinary that there was so much sin around when it made the perpetrator feel so ghastly.’
Charles and Philip are touched in more lightly, but they are real enough. Like Jane Austen, Alice Thomas Ellis can describe women’s lives so well because she understands men perfectly. More prominent in the story is Sylvie’s daughter, who is notionally reading Greats but actually trying to win a prize for romantic fiction. Evvie has learnt from her mother where Claudia cannot: Sylvie grows ‘increasingly concerned about her daughter’s similarity to herself. It had taken her years to become as she was, and Evvie was young. Evvie should be different, as she herself had been.’ The slushy novel is based on a local vet fantasised by Evvie into a sterling Scottish hero: in real life he is a sandy-haired and unremarkable person with the accent of a suburban Londoner. A proper vet, in fact. Evvie’s ‘Island Fling’ grows more preposterous as time goes on, and it takes a Hallowe’en party at the vet’s house to get her to unwrite her plot and release her characters: ‘Perhaps they’ve dematerialised,’ she says, ‘now that I’ve stopped writing about them.’ As with much else in this witty and civilised novel, the ending is neat, delicately poised, non-committal. Nobody comes to very much harm, but nobody attains their imaginings. It is a book of flippant wisdom and courageous doubting.
‘I always think of London as being rather pure,’ Sylvie says at one point. ‘Much funnier things go on in the country.’ On the evidence of London Tales, one might be inclined to agree. The blurb of this collection begins: ‘London, monster city, the great wen, “the smoke”, exerts an abiding fascination on both its inhabitants and those who love – or hate – it from a distance.’ Pooh to that: most of us regard the place from a distance with a feeling of ill-concealed moral superiority, but otherwise an abiding indifference. As for the historical and literary mythology called up by the blurb, there is nothing of that in the volume. No Dickensian loucheness, none of Cobbett’s outrage, no poetry of the streets, no city under stress or at war. Instead, decently told but unambitious tales (the right word), concerning people who visit Bloomsbury publishers, or go to a Classic cinema, or patronise the London Library, or join therapy groups. The characters live in Barnes or Chelsea, Maida Vale or (daringly) Hendon. In ‘Ripe’, by Alannah Hopkins, the central figure remarks: ‘I could go for weeks on end without ever being more than half a mile away from Piccadilly Circus. It got to the point where a taxi ride to somewhere like Notting Hill became an occasion to savour.’ She wants to buy a map for a literary pilgrimage to Sussex, and walks ‘up’ to Foyle’s to buy it. The preposition speaks volumes. One realises that Piccadilly Circus and Foyle’s, which non-Londoners imagine to be cardboard inventions for the tourist trade, are local for some inhabitants. The girl ultimately flees to an undifferentiated and undescribed Brecon. For a place not to be central London is enough, and in itself remarkable.
As for the great wen, there is nothing with stronger criminal intent than the genteel purloining of a typescript, except in Desmond Hogan’s ‘Elysium’, where the heroine shacks up with an Irish terrorist. Hogan inclines towards a rather woozy poetry, but at least he reaches beyond the domestic mode omnipresent in the other stories:
An outrage was done in this house once. A young woman separated from a young man. The female part of the person separated from the male. The childhood part of the person separated from the adult. The creative from the social. One part of a country was amputated from another.
Otherwise there is little in the way of technical adventure. Emma Tennant’s story isn’t as coy as its title, ‘The Frog Prints’, might suggest, but its blend of surface social realism and fairy-tale comes out a little too pat in the end. G. Cabrera Infante has a good deal of fun with the Phantom of the Opera, with film-buff jokes strewn thickly and some do-da typographical tricks. Other items are routinely confessional, and seem to take the putative splendeurs et misères of metropolitan life with more reverence than they deserve. The three best stories are relatively conventional in form, but they also intimate that there is more to things than getting it together (or not) in the capital. Carlo Gebler’s ‘W9’ centres on a middle-aged Polish couple whose son has recently committed suicide. Jane Gardam and Francis King are chilling and precise enough in observation to carry off banal-looking themes; Gardam’s tale of imminent Oxbridge entrance and the comparison of A-level grades in leafy Wimbledon has a startling sub-text of myth and cosmic force: ‘Marjorie, contented, thought, “This is my landscape,” and uncharacteristically took Jack’s hand, as the sun went down suddenly behind Queensmere in a scar of white light.’
Maureen Duffy in her novel is much better than most of the contributors to London Tales at evoking the sheer phenomenology (as I imagine it) of city living, with all the paraphernalia of entry-phones, the mail downstairs, the tiny flats: ‘She lives in a cupboard. Jemal and I sit on the bed and our knees are half a foot from the wall. There is a narrow table with an electric ring and grill, end on to a small washbasin.’ In the hall are time-switches and then a steel-backed door to guard against the burglars’ ‘clean sweep of the beloved stereo and radio Lares and Penates’. As in London Tales, hardly anyone watches television, there is no real day of the week, the vast presence of sport in most people’s lives is just not there. The narrator probes the meaning of ‘Kafkaesque’ and decides: ‘Perhaps all cities at all times have been, are surreal.’ That seems to be because the inhabitants have fetishised private life, and made exotic what is normal to everyone else. When Jake, the writer-hero, briefly leaves London in search of an author-in-residence job, the specificity suddenly crumbles into ‘Loamshire’, a gesture of incomprehension towards all other rhythms of life.
The novel works on the level of tube-journeys, pub-crawls, dreadful occasions at the Arts Council and local radio stations (there is also, pointlessly anonymous, the London Library again). But Maureen Duffy wants to sing a song of greater significance, and she has Jake working on a script about Villon. The translations are not bad, but the poet himself is sentimentalised out of recognition; and he’s there as a totem of self-pity, addressed as a fellow-sufferer in the galleys of Grub Street:
How to survive; that’s all we want to know. But you didn’t, did you? We don’t use exile as a punishment in Mother England now, not physical exile anyway, presumably because there is nowhere to go on our right little, tight little island, no unhandy Siberia for poets to be sent like your exile from Paris. Once there was a teaching training college in Porthcawl for writers to obscure out their lives in, being big fish in a little pond ... Now this brave new world of holy austerity has driven us back on the city where we’re overcrowded scribbling, scribbling rodents trying to gnaw ourselves a piece in the big cheese squeaking and pulling tails for a few reviews, or a chance to read for a publisher.
There are just too many infelicities here – the clichés like ‘brave new world’, the would-be evocative coinage like ‘obscure-out’, the awkward ‘unhandy’. It goes with a lack of interest in the texture of Villon’s language, as opposed to his poetic fate. And likewise, with the irritating bent or misapplied quotations – ‘I want to shout: “The expense of spirit is a waste of shame” ’ – which are somehow more literary than straight allusions.
In a previous novel, Capital (1975), Maureen Duffy invented a complex myth of origins for London, from Romano-British times onwards, with a lot of parody of historical sources. This time she sticks to contemporary events, apart from the Villon thread. There are drug-addicts, violent affrays, constant threats of violence. Duffy wants us to find the ambience at once acutely alive and commonplace. The abnormal is tamed by familiarity. She writes of a transsexual in a bar: ‘She held her short glass delicately, woman to the manner made, who might own a dress shop in Stockport without looking out of place.’ As with the college in Porthcawl, there is an unconvincing and patronising blur about this: one would rather have the actual woman from Stockport, whose story might be interestingly different. Hard as she struggles with it, Maureen Duffy seems to be stuck in too narrow a patch of experience. Her characters lurch into one another with awful inevitability, like clubland heroes for ever clogging up the steps of the Athenaeum. And (a general point) there is a sameness about London plots which has to do with the urban imagination as much as with sociology. ‘I rise and bath and eat breakfast,’ says Jake, ‘like any pillar of Watford society with a commuter train to catch, an office to go to, a second life to pursue.’ But who will tell us about the first?
Anne Leaton’s amusing and undemanding novel Good Friends, Just is not set in Lesbos, just: fifty kilometres away in Izmir. A symbolic location, perhaps, because it isn’t quite a lesbian novel, rather a comedy of tangled relationships which include the homosexual. The book describes the misadventures of Maddy and Georgiana on a week’s holiday from Istanbul: neither takes much interest in the historic vestiges of Smyrna, in the way an Olivia Manning character would have done in this situation, but instead each devotes herself to indulgence and capering around. There are hints at times of a world like that of The sun also rises, when you wake up not surprised to be still half-drunk and spend the rest of the day in visceral penance. ‘I am going to be sick in a new way,’ claims Maddy near the end, as though she hasn’t been through all the varieties before this. Maddy is the voice of warm cynicism, quipping away at the indecisive Georgiana: ‘I’m sick of all you weeping women. Isn’t there a joyful ruthless dry-eyed woman anywhere in creation?’ Not at any rate in this creation: one of the Turkish girlfriends is pregnant, the other is deracinated and vague. Told by one of them that her affair with Georgiana is making her unhappy, Maddy replies simply, ‘Yes ... but it doesn’t seem a very important consideration.’ It is a world of drawn shutters at noon, half-open eyelids, handbags spilt on the bedside table. ‘The world is full of people pretending to have good sense and making a decent show of it,’ remarks Maddy. Anne Leaton’s sharp little story blossoms after a wobbly start: the women look set to survive, and the novelist is complicit in their uncertain relish of a flight into the bright November air, as the book ends. None of the Turks has been able to understand Maddy’s bitter humour, least of all the pompous Europeanised would-be lovers, Hasan Bey and Haluk Bey, a pair of Tweedledum/dee seducers with the scantiest emotional range. The heart of the novel may be pretty soft, but in other parts it is alive and comically kicking.