An inexpert but frequently impressive first novel, Soor Hearts is set in Shetland in the early years of this century. Magnus Doull, having sailed before the mast for ten years, returns to the fishing village from which he had fled under suspicion of having murdered Thomas Pole. Nearly everyone believes him guilty, since the two young men had been seen to quarrel. Both had been drinking heavily for a fortnight, and when Pole was found ‘with his head crushed under a fearful blow’ Doull took fright and bolted from the island. Whether or not it was he who killed Pole, he can’t remember. For a time he is allowed to settle down in the family croft with his widowed mother, Meenie Doull. Meenie has the ‘sight’, reinforced by a pack of Tarot cards given her by a gipsy. She spends much time in probings of the future. She reveals to her son that a girl called Nina, who had borne him a still-born child after his flight, is now the village harlot, and that Isabella Agnes, Pole’s widow, nurses a thirst for vengeance. He seeks a reunion with Nina, but she declines it and leaves the island. He attends a church service, and is fulminated against by the minister from his pulpit. Magnus makes a spirited reply: ‘You call this da House o’ da Lord. Pah! It is da House o’ Oppression. A tool of da ruling classes to keep da poor fae rebelling ... ’ This outburst is injudicious. The villagers are affronted. Further incensed by the law’s delays, they seize Magnus and lock him up in a shed. Isabella, who knows that witches and persons possessed should be burned, not hanged, sets fire to it. Meenie hastens to the rescue and is drowned on the way. Everybody believes that Magnus is dead, but in fact he escapes through the roof of the burning building, and departs for New Zealand.
In a prefatory note Robert Alan Jamieson calls his book ‘a yarn’, and if the yarn doesn’t read too convincingly it is perhaps because he is chiefly interested in other things: the face of external nature in Shetland, and the quality of life – narrow, enduring, heroic – exhibited by ‘men and women squeezing out a basic existence from tired soil and cruel sea’. Here Mr Jamieson writes sensitively and well, with a sharp precision of imagery that gives promise of more considerable achievement as his art matures.
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil also has arson in it. Ruth, who is six foot two inches tall and very plain, is displeased with her husband, Bobbo, because he has taken to going to bed with Mary, who is small and pretty and a successful writer of romantic fiction. Matters bubble up at a family dinner party: ‘Nicola kicked the cat, whose name was Mercy, out of the way, and the cat went straight to the grate and squatted, crapping its revenge, and Brenda wailed and pointed at Mercy, and Harness became over-excited and leapt up against Andy in semi-sexual assault, and Ruth just stood there, a giantess, and did nothing, and Bobbo lost his temper.’ When the dinner party breaks up, Bobbo denounces his wife as a she-devil. She decides to be a she-devil, which means to want revenge, power, money, and to be loved and not love in return. So after what appears to be a symbolic initiation contrived with a dirty old man in a park, she burns the family house to ashes, taking care to engineer such appearances of negligence as will deprive Bobbo of any compensation from an insurance company.
Painstaking and ingenious further acts of vengeance upon Bobbo and Mary occupy the rest of the story. Mary has a mother (‘a part-time whore of a mother’) whom she has ruthlessly dumped in a disagreeable Home for aged persons; she contrives that the smelly old lady shall go on a visit to her daughter and then be refused readmittance to the Home on the score of an incontinence which Ruth has cleverly faked. Bobbo is an accountant. Ruth manages to insinuate herself covertly into his office and cook and confuse his books so successfully as both to build up a large private fortune for herself and to land him, through machinations with a judge, with a long spell in gaol. There is a great deal of this sort of fun, diversified with various sexual high jinks, as when the judge who sentences Bobbo binds Ruth ‘hand and foot to the bed, beating her with an old-fashioned bamboo carpet-beater’.
The climax of the book moves, if a little uncertainly, into the region of parable or fable. We hate because we envy, and because we envy we seek to become what we hate. Cosmetic surgeons operate agonisingly on Ruth for months, years. She has provided them with a full-length photograph of Mary, cut from the dust-jacket of one of her trashy books. She, Ruth, must be made just like that. So successful is this vagary that when Mary dies and warders bring a bemused Bobbo to attend her funeral he supposes Ruth, who also attends, to be the dead woman. Ruth now owns Mary’s former dwelling, and here she brings Bobbo on his eventual release from prison. Sometimes she lets him sleep with her and sometimes – but only for the pleasure of humiliating him – she sleeps with her manservant. It is a matter of power. ‘I have all, and he has none. As I was, so is he now.’ This is an entertaining book, but with very little of substantial human nature. Its people are like those of Restoration Comedy as described by Charles Lamb: ‘sports of a witty fancy’ set in ‘altogether a speculative scheme of things’.
The remaining books are by American writers. ‘The Train’ is one of the shortest of the 12 stories in Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. It begins: ‘The woman was called Miss Dent, and earlier that evening she’d held a gun at a man. She’d made him get down in the dirt and plead for his life.’ We learn nothing more about Miss Dent, except that now in the small hours she is in the deserted waiting-room of a railway station, proposing to board any train that turns up, and that ‘she wanted to stop thinking about the man and how he’d acted toward her after taking what he wanted.’ Two other people arrive together: a garish middle-aged woman and an old man with white hair and a white silk cravat and no shoes. Little passes between Miss Dent and these new arrivals. But ‘it seemed to Miss Dent that they gave off an air of agitation, of having just left somewhere in a great hurry and not yet being able to find a way to talk about it.’ But they do converse together, speaking of a house filled with simps and vipers, of ‘that imbecile they call Captain Nick’, of persons whose ‘entire existence is taken up with café au lait and cigarettes, their precious Swiss chocolate and those goddamned macaws’. This talk is incomprehensible both to Miss Dent and to ourselves. A train comes in, and the three board it. The people already on the train are not very interested in them. ‘The passengers had seen things more various than this in their lifetime. The world is filled with business of every sort, as they well knew.’ The journey is resumed and the story concludes: ‘The train began to move forward. It went slowly at first, but it began to pick up speed. It moved faster until once more it sped through the dark countryside, its brilliant cars throwing light onto the roadbed.’
Whence and whither the train, we don’t know. But what whences and whithers do we know? There is a touch of Kafka in this story, and in others in the volume there is more than a touch of Joyce. Mr Carver is an absorbed student of the demotic speech of his countrymen, and employs his knowledge much as Joyce does in Dubliners:
I had a job and Patti didn’t. I worked a few hours a night for the hospital. It was a nothing job. I did some work, signed the card for eight hours, went drinking with the nurses.
Sometimes the impoverished language has to evoke occasions of mounting horror. In ‘Vitamins’ the narrator – the man with the nothing job – takes a girl called Donna late at night into the Off-Broadway, ‘a spade place in a spade neighbourhood ... run by a spade named Khaki’. There is another spade, Nelson, ‘just back from Nam today’, compulsively showing round a gook’s ear in a silver cigarette-case. Nelson overwhelms the couple with malign obscenities, and offers the girl a large sum of money if she will fellate him. The narrator and Donna escape, and get to his car:
I opened the door for her. I started us back ... Donna stayed over her side. She’d used the lighter on a cigarette, but she wouldn’t talk.
I tried to say something. I said, ‘Look, Donna, don’t get on a downer because of this. I’m sorry it happened,’ I said.
‘I could of used the money,’ Donna said. ‘That’s what I was thinking.’
I kept driving and didn’t look at her.
‘It’s true,’ she said. ‘I could of used the money.’
This is a very black epiphany, in ‘Preservation’ a young man who has been terminated in his job of roofing new houses quickly sinks into apathy, spending almost all of every day on a sofa. Then there is a lesser calamity. Sandy, his wife, opens the fridge and finds everything thawed. The machine is awash in pools of melted ice cream. Her husband turns voluble as he mops up and investigates:
‘Goddamn it,’ he said, ‘when it rains, it pours. Hey, this fridge can’t be more than ten years old. It was nearly new when we bought it. Listen, my folks had a fridge that lasted them twenty-five years. They gave it to my brother when he got married, It was working fine. Hey, what’s going on? ... We lost our Freon,’ he said and stopped wiping. ‘That’s what happened. I can smell it. The Feon leaked out. Something happened and the Freon went. Hey, I saw this happen to somebody else’s box once.’ He was calm now. He started wiping again. ‘It’s the Freon,’ he said.
She stopped what she was doing and looked at him. ‘We need another fridge,’ she said.
They search through newspaper advertisements for something they can afford. Sandy sees that they must go to a type of auction sale that her husband feels to be demeaning. She turns away to prepare a meal, and when she looks at him again it is to find that not only the fridge has broken down. The fridge is in a puddle and so is her husband: a puddle of his own tears. ‘She knew she’d never again in her life see anything so unusual. But she didn’t know what to make of it yet. She thought she’d better put on some lipstick, get her coat, and go ahead to the auction.’ The unemployed man returns to his sofa.
In this story, and in others like it, Mr Carver is advancing under cover of seemingly flat reportage to a commanding view of character and conduct. The method is perhaps in some danger of hardening into a formula, and in the best stories it is modified, although never abandoned. ‘Feathers’ begins on the familiar note:
This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper. I didn’t know his wife and he didn’t know Fran. That made us even. But Bud and I were friends. And I knew there was a little baby at Bud’s house.
Fran and her husband Jack, the narrator, have no baby; they have decided they don’t want kids – not now and perhaps never. This may be why Fran is edgy over the invitation, and inclined to talk tartly about taking Bud and his wife a present. Perhaps they should take a bottle of wine, and drink it themselves if their hosts don’t like it. Fran eventually settles for a loaf of her homebaked bread. Bud and Olla live in an isolated house twenty miles out of town (‘It’s the sticks out here,’ Fran says) and – what is also disconcerting – own a peacock which, although beautiful, is enormous, screeches hideously, and apparently is allowed indoors. The loaf is handed over. ‘What’s this?’ Olla asks. ‘Oh, it’s homemade bread. Well, thanks. Sit down anywhere.’ The evening goes quite well, although nobody shows much conversational resource. The baby cries and has to be brought into the room. The peacock comes too, and the baby plays with it. But if the peacock is beautiful the baby turns out to be unbelievably ugly. It becomes clear that the parents are aware of this, but have accepted it and are full of pride and joy in their child. ‘He’ll by God be turning out for football before long,’ his father says. Fran asks Olla if she may hold the baby, and soon she is fondling it. Then, from Jack, we have this:
That evening at Bud and Olla’s was special. I knew it was special. That evening I fell good about almost everything in my life ... I made a wish that evening ... What I wished for was that I’d never forget or otherwise let go of that evening. That’s one wish of mine that came true. And it was bad luck for me that it did. But, of course, I couldn’t know that then.
He doesn’t know it when, at parting, they all hug one another; when Olla, in return for the bread, gives Fran, with an ominousness we are trusted to detect, a bunch of the peacock’s feathers; when, later that night, and on Fran’s initiative, he begets a child. Years pass, during which the couples never meet again. But Jack and Bud still work together, and sometimes, very cautiously, Bud, during a lunch hour, asks how things go:
Once in a blue moon, he asks about my family. When he does, I tell him everybody’s fine. ‘Everybody’s fine,’ I say. I close the lunch pail and lake out my cigarettes. Bud nods and sips his coffee. The truth is, my kid has a conniving streak in him. But I don’t talk about it. Not even with his mother. Especially her. She and I talk less and less as it is. Mostly it’s just TV. But I remember that night.
If this story is less than perfect it is because of an occasional loss of momentum in the interest of liberally documenting the commonplace or representative character of Jack, Fran, Bud and Olla. Nothing of the kind blemishes ‘A Small, Good Thing’. On Saturday afternoon Ann Weiss visits a bakery and orders a birthday cake for her son Scotty, who will be eight on Monday. She finds the baker efficient but unresponsive. The cake will say SCOTTY in green icing. On Monday on his way to school Scotty is knocked over by a car and taken to hospital. His condition is judged not to be serious, but through several days and nights one or other of his parents never leaves his bedside. The doctors declare that Scotty is asleep, and will presently awake. But Scotty passes into coma. His mother is persuaded to go home for a brief rest, and the baker rings her up. He has evolved a nocturnal technique for harassing customers who fail to collect their orders. Mrs Weiss thinks the call is from the hospital. ‘Is it Scotty, for Christ’s sake?’
‘Scotty,’ the man’s voice said. ‘It’s about Scotty, yes. It has to do with Scotty, that problem. Have you forgotten about Scotty?’ the man said. Then he hung up.
Scotty dies. The harassment continues. Eventually the parents drive to the bakery, late at night. The baker is at work and surly, but when made to understand the situation he turns contrite and sympathetic. He says that eating is a small, good thing at such a time. So they eat rolls and drink coffee, and he tells them about his life. Then he brings something further:
‘Smell this,’ the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. ‘It’s a heavy bread, but rich.’ They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread ... They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
This austerely told story, with its strange sacramental conclusion, seems to me a masterpiece.
The Cannibal Galaxy presents a very different American scene. Joseph Brill, a Jewish boy brought up in Paris, survives the German occupation by hiding for years in cellars and haylofts. He manages to read widely, to study at the Sorbonne, and eventually to emigrate to the United States. A wealthy patroness establishes him as the headmaster of a school, at which he attempts to develop what he calls the Dual Curriculum: ‘one half concentrating on the Treasures of Western Culture, the other half given over, in their original tongues, to the priceless Legacy of Scripture and Commentaries.’ This noble project doesn’t go well. The pupils are very American, which means mediocre, and Brill eventually makes the mistake of pinning all his hopes on one of them for no better reason than her mother’s appearing to be intellectually distinguished as ‘an imagistic linguistic logician’. In the end everything goes wrong, including in some degree the book itself. The early part, set in France, is taut and vigorous; the rest tends to get snagged in strained dialogue and verbal superfluities. Here, for example, is Principal Brill, as he is called, meditating on his own name: ‘This title, with its syncopated engine, its locomotive rapidity, its tongue-twisting undercarriage, its lightfooted vibration, brought one to attention like an approaching express. The urgent stutter of its imperious syllables invested the air with civilisation and authority.’ How does a very intelligent novelist come doggedly to overwrite in this and sundry other ways? A solution to the puzzle is perhaps afforded by her publisher, who tells us on the dust-jacket that her academic employments have included that of ‘fiction workshop instructor’. Habituated to urging upon ranks of dull apprentices the importance of keeping language lively on every page, Cynthia Ozick has conceivably allowed herself to become her own pupil, with unfortunate results.
Pupillage at any stage of her career is inconceivable of Jane Bowles. Two Serious Ladies, a novel begun when she was 21, is a strangely mature and confident achievement of a totally original sort. When her characters speak it is to an effect at once inconsequent and inevitable, piercing and tangential, wholly authentic to some seldom-explored region between the outward and the inner man. And her narrative is in perfect consonance with this. Other writers are adept at passing from grave to gay: Jane Bowles presents a faithful vision of life as simultaneously humdrum and bizarre. Her career as a writer was cut short by tragic illness. The present gathering together of all her surviving work makes an important book and an enduring monument to her genius.
Let it come down, now reissued in this country after more than thirty years, is the strongest and most impressive of Paul Bowles’s novels. It is also the grimmest. As one follows the story through the vice and drug-ridden labyrinths of Tangier, one almost expects to meet Mephistopheles himself, muttering that this is hell nor is he out of it. Not that Mr Bowles’s attitude to his subject holds any hint of diablerie, or offers even the most fleeting concession to gratuitous melodrama. We are simply told – and in a dispassionate prose of unvarying excellence – that thus things are, even to that point of total terror upon which the action concludes.