The tradition of the Commedia del’Arte is apparent in all three of these novels. A repertory company of stock characters is presented to an audience already familiar with many of the masks, half-knowing what to expect of them, and the maskers seem to improvise witty or pathetic dialogue, according to an agreed storyline. D.M. Thomas remarks that he is indebted to Germaine Greer for supplying him with information about the tradition of the improvisatrici in Italy: he has constructed Swallow (‘the second,’ he says, ‘in a series of improvisational novels’) in the form of a story about an ancient and honourable literary contest, at which great storytellers of all nations improvise a fictional narrative in accordance with a theme chosen by the judges. The odd thing is that D.M. Thomas is not a storyteller. Swallow is the sort of book that attracts descriptions like ‘metafiction’, ‘fabulation’ and ‘self-referential’ – words that came into vogue at the same time as ‘ego-trip’. Plausibility is not attempted. None of the tales told are any good. They break off in confusion. They smell of midnight oil, not of improvisation. Two of them are in verse, with hard-sought rhymes. One of them is disqualified on grounds of plagiarism. ‘Even the author of Swallow,’ as the blurb bemusedly admits, ‘becomes involved indirectly, through a memoir of adolescence he has written.’ Swallow is a novel to be discussed by lecturers, not read for pleasure.
To ginger up his non-story, D.M. Thomas introduces post-Chatterley musings (give them an inch and they’ll take an ell) which do indeed look like improvisations, straight from the stream of consciousness. Here is a Russian at the improvisers’ prize-giving: ‘I get phases like tonight when I’d love to fuck almost every woman I see. Look at that magnificent, fat, blowsy frau dancing with the Pole. God, I’d love to get it up her and stifle myself between her breasts!’ Here is another Russian, visiting Washington:
Surkov thought of the Kennedys. Marilyn Monroe, whom he had met at a party in Los Angeles. A stab of sorrow.
‘I don’t like this fucking city,’ he growled. ‘It’s all male power. It’s as bad as Moscow.’ He nodded towards an obelisk, and said: ‘Why do they have a prick but no cunt? You have enough fucking feminists in this country – why don’t they protest? Why don’t they insist on erecting a cunt, in memory of – I don’t know – Annie Oakley, Marilyn Monroe, the witches of Salem?’
A little of this goes a long way; but D.M. Thomas goes from length to length.
The Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe play no further part in Swallow. Another familiar mask is borrowed from American politics, to give the reader a recognisable stock character. This is Ronald Reagan, here renamed President O’Reilly. (David Lodge’s version, ‘Ronald Ruck’, was funnier.) D.M. Thomas offers a farcical interview with President O’Reilly in which the old man is so confused that he can only answer the question before the last:
‘What is your outlook on death?’
‘You’ll have to ask my wife!’
‘What are your feelings about the possibility of a Third World War?’
‘I’ll be ready for it when it comes!’
‘Do you think it can be prevented?’
‘I don’t believe that’s a serious possibility!’
This is quite funny, I suppose, and it is followed by a panicky sketch based on the theory that Reagan is about to blow up the world in his senile dementia and that we would all be safer with a fifty-year-old President. Other stock characters are borrowed from fiction, notably King Solomon’s Mines, which D.M. Thomas read with interest when he was a small boy in Australia. Like other boys, he wondered what sort of quarterdeck language Commander Good used when he was swearing at Zulus and whether he responded erotically to the devotion of his beautiful Zulu girl companion. Rider Haggard did not go into details. D.M. Thomas attempts to make up for this deficiency.
Even the title, Swallow, is a sort of stock character. D.M. Thomas tells us that ‘swallow’ is a slang word, among seasoned travellers, meaning a foreign woman who seduces male visitors in order to blackmail them for financial or political gain. Curiously enough, such a ‘swallow’ appears in both the other novels under review. Perhaps all three got the idea from the newspapers. In Morning Star (named after Lucifer, not the newspaper), Simon Raven tells of a Conservative MP whose ‘swallow’ is described as ‘a half-caste tart in India’. In First Among Equals, Jeffrey Archer introduces a Labour MP who is likewise endangered by a young black girl ‘in a white leather mini skirt so short it might have been better described as a handkerchief’.
But, unlike D.M. Thomas, both Raven and Archer are accomplished storytellers, keen on verisimilitude. Both are skilled in the use of stock characters, people who seem familiar, so that we may guess how they will respond to events – guess, not predict, for Archer and Raven are acquainted with the least-likely-person technique. Both add credibility by making use of their personal acquaintance with well-known politicians: but they have different ways and means of borrowing from political life in a non-libellous style.
After completing his ten-volume novel sequence, Alms for Oblivion, the hard-working Simon Raven published a memoir in which he made it plain that some of his recurring maskers, his repertory of stock characters, were extrapolated from boys he had known at school: he had invented possible future careers for them, not intended to mirror reality. For instance, his fictional ‘Peter Morrison’, the decent Conservative MP, has nothing to do with the real-life Peter Morrison MP but was inspired by boyhood memories of the real-life James Prior. The fictional ‘Peter Morrison MP’ reappears in Morning Star, the first volume of Raven’s new novel sequence, but now he seems nothing like James Prior MP. We are more likely to think of James Prior when we read Jeffrey Archer’s First Among Equals, which is partly concerned with a decent and respected Conservative MP who is put in charge of Northern Ireland by Mrs Thatcher.
Jeffrey Archer has brought real people into his novel, to mingle with his own creations. He treats all the real people, from the editor of the Daily Mirror to Sir Alec Douglas-Home (as he then was), with tact and courtesy. This makes life difficult for the reviewer, who cannot be so condemnatory about real people as about fictional, and to some degree hampers the author: the real people he describes may seem too predictable for credibility. For instance, Mary Wilson is welcoming guests at 10 Downing Street and immediately begins talking about the difficulty of getting poetry published. Well, she would, wouldn’t she? No, actually.
An anecdote may help me here. When I was preparing in 1982 to review Simon Raven’s memoir, partly about James Prior, I was persuaded to attend a party to launch an anthology of poems edited by a Conservative MP. My first surprise was to find James Prior and Geoffrey Howe coming up the stairs behind me. Then I found that all the poets had been given red roses to wear, to distinguish them from the politicians. This was hardly necessary, since most of the politicians looked like T.S. Eliot and most of the poets looked like Michael Foot – with Mary Wilson as one of the exceptions. Although I warned the heroine of Mrs Wilson’s Diary that I was a journalist, she favoured me with her political opinions (sound, I thought, if unorthodox) and I changed the subject, asking if she thought it a good idea for me to ask James Prior about Simon Raven. She said she was more interested in whether Simon Raven was related to Canon Charles Raven. The character Jago in C.P. Snow’s novel sequence is said to be based on the late Canon, and I found that my ideas of Jago and the real Canon Raven were almost inextricably mixed: this made me recognise that I would find it impossible to ask James Prior about ‘Peter Morrison MP’ and his creator, Simon Raven. My name-dropping anecdote may help to illustrate the difficulty of honestly reviewing Archer’s and Raven’s blends of fiction with newsworthy fact.
First Among Equals has the appeal of an old-fashioned children’s board game, the sort where you had four model horses of different colours and threw dice to see which would win. Jeffrey Archer’s book begins with a drawing by Charles Griffin (the Daily Mirror cartoonist) depicting four fictional MPs (two Labour, two Tories), followed by a prologue describing their early lives and hinting that one of them is destined to become Prime Minister. Since I predicted the winner, I can congratulate Jeffrey Archer on putting my favourite over his hurdles so excitingly. The book is also like a different kind of game, Agatha Christie’s, in which you have to spot the person whom Agatha Christie thinks her readers will suppose to be the least likely person. To add to the gaming spirit, Charles Griffin has supplied cartoons in which the four fictional candidates jump over hurdles, mingling with Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and the Kinnocks. When the story reaches 1975, the artist draws the two fictional Tories acting as bookmakers, while Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher are harnessed as racehorses.
The Parliamentary history recorded in First Among Equals begins in 1964 and concludes in 1991. Since Jeffrey Archer served in Parliament from 1969 to 1974, he offers here the benefit of his experience, his hindsight and his guesswork. The story is told in neat, two-page sections, in each of which something interesting happens to one of the four candidates approaching his political, sexual or business hurdles, so that the reader gets hooked, while agreeably assimilating useful in formation about Parliamentary procedures or the more mysterious world of ‘business confidence’ manipulated by the most wicked of the four contenders.
This is Charles, the Tory squire and banker from the Sussex Downs, consumed with envy both for his elder brother (heir to an earldom) and for his Tory rival, Simon, the thrusting young meritocrat. On the Labour side we have Andrew, bred in a powerful Scots Conservative-and-Unionist clan, doomed to defect from Labour to the Social Democrats. (We may fancy we recognise in Andrew some aspects of Tarn Dalyell and of the late John P. Mackintosh.) Then there is Ray the precocious boy from Leeds who joined the Labour Party because of his anger about his granny’s pension; since the young Ray was not precocious about girls, his sexual naivety is a serious handicap to him as an MP, when he grows older and ‘more attractive to women’, a prey to the swallows. Which of these four will the Monarch choose as his or her Prime Minister during the hung Parliament of 1991? Who will be his predecessor, the veteran Labour man who takes over from the incompetent Kinnock? It would be unsporting to give more of the game away. The yarns about accident-prone Ray and reformed-villain Charles are the best. I find Andrew too much like Little Nell, and Simon too much like Walter Mitty: but these flaws will not harm Jeffrey Archer’s sales.
Simon Raven is playing in a different league from the D.M. Thomas Academicals and the Archer All-Stars. He is more ambitious: he has his eye on posterity. Galsworthy and Snow have left their sagas behind them, Anthony Powell rests on his laurels, but Simon Raven soldiers on. His new saga is to be called The Firstborn of Egypt and we may presume a reference to Exodus 12, 29. The forthcoming novels will be concerned with the children of Raven’s repertory characters – Peter Morrison MP, Tom Llewyllyn, the journalist turned don, and even the hideously disfigured homosexual, Fielding Gray. The sins of the parents may well be visited upon these children.
The more faithful of Simon Raven’s readers will look back at his earlier saga to remind themselves of the previous careers of the familiar characters: but this is not strictly necessary. Morning Star, like Raven’s other saga-novels, is a complete story, not needing predecessors (though, of course, it does advertise them); in this respect, at least, he is more satisfying than C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell, whose saga-novels rarely seem quite complete. The main story concerns the family of Gideon Stern, a London publisher. He is Jewish, his wife is a British Hellenist: their children are put into something like James’s Turn of the Screw predicament, while their parents are kidnapped by anti-Israeli terrorists, trying to force Stern to do something which it would be dishonourable for a Jew to do.
In accordance with the tradition of the Gothic novel, an apparently rational explanation is found for the preternatural events encompassing the children – but the eerie possibilities linger on in the reader’s mind, like the Hound of the Baskervilles or the Sussex Vampire. Morning Star is, despite the often self-mocking comedy, a powerful little tale, ‘disturbing’ in two ways: there is the haunting weirdness of Henry and M.R. James and their followers in ghostly imaginings, Walter de la Mare and L.P. Hartley; there is also the rather dangerous play with matters of paedogogy, paederasty and paedophilia. The Biblical and literary references are civilly made, not obtrusive, but some readers will want to follow them up. At one point, older men seem to want to appear as battered, worldly-wise Menelaus offering counsel to young Telemachus in search of a father.