These novels, all in the literary-prize-winning league, tell us of areas with which we are probably unfamiliar. William Kennedy’s Ironweed is about Albany, capital of the State of New York. Julian Barnes writes about the France of Gustave Flaubert, as discussed in an irrational, pedantic manner by a British admirer of Flaubert’s work. Anita Desai, daughter of a German mother and a Bengali father, writes about the world of Indian poets, a very male (not macho) group devoted to the Urdu language as it struggles against ‘that vegetarian monster, Hindi’. This novel, In Custody, is for me the least ‘foreign’, the least ‘alien’: it is Commonwealth literature, pertinent to Wales and Africa and the West Indies.
Ironweed is more exotic. Many Londoners have visited New York City, but what do we know of Albany? The citizens of Manhattan may tell us that Albany is a square, conservative place, snobbish about its Dutch origins and its tulip festival, and named after our least successful king, James II, when he was Duke of York and Albany. One year, when I told friends in Manhattan that I was going to Albany to hear the hippy, marijuana-influenced poems of a Londoner who was living with another poet, half-Negro and half-Cherokee, the New York City people seemed annoyed, feeling that Albany was not supposed to be hippy. Towns get labelled: William Kennedy, in his fifties now, has at last persuaded the literary world of New York City that Albany is not merely a stodgy block of municipal offices but also a wild Irish town. Ironweed has won the Pulitzer Prize, after being rejected by 13 publishers.
Saul Bellow urged the Viking Press to publish it, since he admired Kennedy’s other Albany novels, Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game: both these books have now been re-published as Penguin paperbacks.The first is about the Albany gangster, Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond; the second is about a poker-player and pool hustler called Billy Phelan, who meets his long-lost father, Francis, toward the end of the book. The old man looks like ‘Pete the Tramp without a hat, without the spiky moustache, without the comedy’. Billy asks Francis: ‘What happened to your finger?’ The father replies: ‘Some wine bum went nuts and chopped it off. Tried to cut my feet off with a cleaver, but all he got was a piece of the finger ... He wanted my shoes. I had good-lookin’ shoes on and he didn’t have none.’ Later on, Billy hears how Francis once killed a man during a trolley strike. ‘We were 12, 14, like that,’ says one of Francis’s friends, ‘and your father was seven or eight years older and on strike. But we hated the scabs as much as he did and we all had stones of our own. Any one of us might have done what he did, but your father had that ball-player’s arm.’ Francis’s stone ‘flew out of his fist like a bullet and caught the scab driver on the head ... The cops didn’t care about catching your father, of course. They were all with the strikers. But the Traction Company bosses forced them into a manhunt, and so we all knew your father couldn’t go back home for a while.’ Francis did eventually return to Albany and stayed for 15 years. ‘Yeah,’ Billy said. ‘He stayed until he killed somebody else.’
This Francis Phelan, the old bum or wino with blood on his hands, is the principal character in the new sequel, Ironweed. He returns to Albany in 1938, accompanied by other alcoholic tramps, including a well-educated and musical woman called Helen and a weak, grey-haired man called Rudy, who claims to be half-Cherokee – but Francis, who bullies Rudy in a protective way, tells him his mother was only a Mex: ‘That’s why you got them high cheekbones. Indian I don’t buy.’ William Kennedy tells us some more about the killing of the scab and the other killings and acts of violence for which Francis accepts responsibility: flashbacks to times past are presented with skill and boldness, using visions of ghosts whom Francis defies. Saul Bellow has remarked that the old murderer may be seen as ‘a traditional champion, the fated man, a type out of Icelandic or Irish epic’. We might also compare him with the hero-villains of Shakespeare, with Brutus, Macbeth or Richard III, raging at the ghosts of their victims.
Francis Phelan is not a pathetic old man: he is frightening. When we walk guiltily past the alcoholic tramps of Charing Cross, there are some who seem too degraded to be helped and others who seem too formidable: old Francis Phelan is of the latter sort. He gets a job in Albany, assisting a rag-and-bone man, but he decides to jack it in before the day is over – and he wants his full pay, five dollars seventy-five. He shows his employer his right hand ‘digits gone, scars blazing, veins pounding, fingers curled in the vague beginnings of a fist’. He remarks: ‘I’m mean as hell when I get riled up ... That hand’s seen it all. I mean the worst. Dead men took their last ride on that hand.’ The rag-and-bone man pays up, remarking: ‘A bum is a bum. I hire no more bums. You I don’t like.’ So Francis spends the money on a turkey and takes it to the worthy Albany wife he left behind, so many years before, and he is introduced to his grandchildren and half-forgiven by his daughter and his son, before setting out on the road again, to sleep ‘among the weeds’.
Ironweed is a good title. The word does not appear in the Chambers Dictionary but Webster’s tells us that it means ragweed in Britain, and knapweed, blueweed or blue vervain in the United States. We associate the word ‘weed’ with something contemptible, to be got rid of: but in America it also suggests toughness and freedom – so that they can say ‘militarism is a tough weed to kill’ or ‘uncontrolled deer herds may become serious weeds.’ This is a foreign novel, exotic, even now when Britain is becoming so Americanised, perhaps Irish-Americanised, in its political and industrial confrontations. Francis’s weak friend, Rudy, is killed by a gang of members of the American Legion when the bums are peacefully camping among the weeds. Francis sees ‘the phalanx of men in Legionnaires’ caps advancing into the firelight with baseball bats in their hands ... “Filthy bums,” one raider said ... and caught the wobbling Rudy just above neck level ...’ It doesn’t sound like the British Legion, does it? Rudy, before he dies, asks who the raiders were. ‘They’re the guys on the other team,’ explains Francis. ‘They don’t like us filthy bums.’ Poor Rudy replies: ‘You ain’t filthy. You got a new suit.’
Doris Grumbach, Joseph Heller and Alison Lurie have all praised this Albany novel, the two ladies admiring its ‘low comedy’ and its ‘rollicking, black wit’. Fair enough, I suppose: but I did not laugh much myself. The story is too rough and too credible to be amusing – too like a bum’s rush. It has the flavour of Steinbeck without the sentiment and nobility: instead there is a peculiarly American eeriness. Francis is ‘hexed’ by his ghosts: outside his wife’s house he sees the ghosts putting up bleachings so that they can all watch him. (Bleachings are cheap seats for spectators at American sports.) Among the ghosts is a little runt whom Francis had once thought too small to hit – so he rubbed his face in the dirt and bit a piece out of the back of his neck. Almost as weird as the ghosts are the Albany children in their Hallowe’en masks. Francis is amused by these mischievous imps until they punch his friend Helen in the stomach and steal her wretched purse. Ironweed is perhaps more like a tragedy than a ‘low comedy’, since we cannot help admiring Francis’s heroic vigour, even as we recognise that he may deserve what he gets.
Anita Desai’s In Custody is much nearer to the British tradition of ‘wry comedy’ in fiction: it might almost be a ‘British Council novel’ by an Englishman, if he knew enough. One remarkable feature is Anita Desai’s self-confidence and plausibility when dealing with males and their dealings with one another while no woman is present: in this she resembles the more hard-hearted Patricia Highsmith. It is not until page 58 that a woman appears – and then she is presented as a shrewish wife. In fact, all three of the principal females are seen as shrewish wives: yet somehow, with considerable subtlety, Anita Desai has written a feminist novel.
The principal character is Deven, a teacher at a college in an Indian provincial town where the Hindus and the Muslims sometimes quarrel, and the newspapers – both in Hindi and Urdu – remind readers that India is a secular state, especially at certain times of the year when the festivals of the two religions might clash. Deven has to teach Hindi, but he loves Urdu poetry. We need to understand that Urdu literature is largely the work of Muslims – though the language is said to be spoken by 23 million people in India and by three million in Pakistan. Deven is rather meek, easily led; his wife is annoyed by his lack of vigour. He is pushed around by his old schoolfellow, Murad, a Delhi man, more aggressive and of more prosperous parentage: the relationship between Deven and Murad is like that of the Indian graduates in Dilip Hiro’s recent play, Apply, Apply, No Reply. Murad makes Deven contribute to his magazine of Urdu literature (without pay) and he persuades him to interview an old man called Nur whom Deven admires as a great Urdu poet. He even makes Deven use a tape-recorder for this exercise, and Deven has no idea how to work the thing.
Urdu poems are written in the Perso-Arabic script, and the literary-social tradition seems, by this account, to resemble that of the Arab poets whom I met recently in Baghdad: there is a celebratory ‘wine, woman and song’ spirit, quite at odds with our idea of Muslim fundamentalism, and a tendency for younger men to eulogise old poets and encourage them to behave youthfully. Wives may be tolerant or annoyed by this world of men congratulating one another. Deven meets two wives of the poet Nur. One of them is quite young in spirit: she is regarded as a low-class girl whom the great poet picked up once; she counters this by making her birthday a festival, dressing up and reciting her own verse – but Deven and the other men do not want to hear her. Deven cannot get his interview with Nur because the old man drinks so much, carousing with his men friends. Deven tells the angry wife: ‘We came to pay our respects out of regard for a great man, a poet –’ She hisses at him. ‘He was a poet, a scholar ... Look at him! ... You followers of his – you have reduced him to that!’
Deven gets his interview only through the assistance of the poet’s senior wife, who seems jealously hostile toward the junior wife: it costs him a pretty penny, in several skilfully complicated ways. While it is easy to sympathise with the unfortunate, well-meaning, put-upon Deven, we are bound to feel that he ought to have listened to the younger wife’s poetry and perhaps to remember that as the main point in Anita Desai’s clever, charming and serious comedy.
The wives of the poet Nur may remind us of faithful Penelope, waiting for Odysseus to make his way home. Who could compare poor Penelope with Gustave Flaubert? Only a poet with the bizarre imagination of Ezra Pound: ‘His true Penelope was Flaubert ...’ – an extraordinary metaphor. Yet the narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot is presented as a man with something like a passion for that chilling novelist, possessively following in Flaubert’s footsteps and snapping at his other admirers, concerned to denounce Dr Enid Starkie for being wrong about the colour of Madame Bovary’s eyes, seeking out the stuffed parrot which Flaubert got from the Museum of Rouen to inspire him when he was writing the story called ‘Un Coeur Simple’. David Hockney produced an etching to illustrate that story, and it is reproduced on the dust-cover of Julian Barnes’s novel. The narrator is interested – in an untidy, stream-of-consciousness way – in the significance of that parrot, appearing to the old woman in ‘Un Coeur Simple’ as a stand-in for the Holy Ghost. The narrator notes other examples of Flaubert’s connections with parrots, remarking for instance that the Carthaginian interpreters in Salammbô each had a parrot tattooed on his chest, as a trademark. If the narrator were a poet, he could write verse about the parrot connection: but he is a tedious British physician, called Braithwaite, who goes to France to look at Flaubert’s statue and attempt the fatuous task of discovering which of the stuffed parrots in the museums was the bird Flaubert actually used.
Sometimes Braithwaite rambles on, in a desultory, conversational manner, like a boring fan offering little-known facts about his hero. Sometimes he makes lists of events, with dates. One chapter is called ‘Braithwaite’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas’. Under the heading ‘N’ we get: ‘Normandy. Always wet. Inhabited by a sly, proud, taciturn people. Put your head on one side and remark: “Of course, we must never forget that Flaubert came from Normandy.” ’ Under the heading ‘X’ we get; ‘Xylophone. There is no record of Flaubert ever having heard the xylophone. Saint-Saëns used the instrument in his Danse Macabre of 1874 to suggest rattling bones; this might have amused Gustave. Perhaps he heard the glockenspiel in Switzerland.’ Another chapter is in the form of a parodied examination paper about Flaubert, with questions like this: ‘According to Du Camp, the name Bovary should be pronounced with a short o (as in bother). Should we follow his instruction; and if so, why?’ All this stuff is intended to provoke and madden, like a schoolboy annoying a teacher with a pointless, monotonous noise.
Yet, under the shaggy-dog story of Braithwaite’s investigations, there are little hints about the narrator’s life and his late wife, a suggestion that they were rather like M. and Mme Bovary. This too is provoking, since the story of the Braithwaites is never brought out into the open, never decoded, and if Braithwaite were a competent writer we would suspect him of deliberate malice, like that of Sainte-Beuve when reviewing Salammbô. In one of Braithwaite’s lists we read: ‘1862. Publication of Salammbô. Succès fou. Sainte-Beuve writes to Matthew Arnold: “Salammbô is our great event!” ...’ But if you turn up Sainte-Beuve’s long review of that novel, in the Everyman edition, you will find that the English translator introduces it as ‘an interesting glimpse of the great critic in one of his feline and destructive moods ... Everything in this review is calculated to give a false impression of Flaubert’s novel – even Sainte-Beuve’s own style, which, as if infected by the monotony of its subject, affects for the occasion a deliberate ponderosity and a most perfidious drabness.’ The review is followed by a reprint of Flaubert’s reply to the review, in which the novelist seems perversely pleased by his critic’s perversity. Dr Braithwaite – or Julian Barnes – is emulating this way of writing, offering (in the language of received ideas) a ‘bleak smile’ of ‘grim satisfaction’ at ‘the human condition’. It deserves to win the Shaggy Parrot Prize.