The folks that live on the hill? It’s not exactly what you’d expect of a Kingsley Amis title, but in another two years the old devil will be 70 and perhaps he is beginning to mellow. John McDermott remarks in his appealing study of Amis’s novels that the hero-as-shit, at large in a world of mutual animosity and obsessive self-interest, is one of their most characteristic figures. In The folks that live on the hill the hero-as-shit has given way to the hero-as-patriarch. Harry Caldecote, a retired librarian, heads an extended family of the weak, the lost and the habitually drunk who constantly turn to him for assistance. Harry feels mysteriously responsible for his tribe of feckless relatives. Outside his family, he is fondly regarded by the shopkeepers, bartenders and minicab drivers of Shepherd’s Hill, his chosen patch of North London. Folksiness in Amis’s new novel is only intermittently an object of satire.
The time is 1990, and Harry, twice divorced, shares a house with his widowed sister. The absence of his ex-wives and their replacement by a live-in sister and the occasional, girlfriend are Harry’s solution to the dilemma that has plagued many an earlier Amis hero. As a senior citizen living with his sister, he can take his pleasures more or less as he likes without having to run the gauntlet of marital disapproval. What he regards as one of his weak points – dislike of actually seeming a shit – can be indulged in the knowledge that he doesn’t really need to be a shit any longer. His past experiences are presumably reflected in an apophthegm which he takes, surprisingly enough, from Joyce’s Mr Duffy: ‘Friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.’ Not if you are brother and sister, he finds.
Since Harry’s ex-wives are non-persons so far as this novel is concerned, the road is clear for an unabashed affirmation of the benigner aspects of patriarchy. Harry takes a modest pride in what he would call his philogynistic tendencies. True, there are times when a wantonly chauvinist thought comes to mind (‘Well, he was not going to let himself be got down by a bloody dyke at his time of life’), but he has no sooner had such a thought than he virtuously suppresses it. Having little to do each day except to pay a social call or two at his favourite drinking establishments, Harry is frequently called upon by the women in his life to act as a one-man emergency service.
Traditionally, the patriarch as a literary character is not let off so lightly. Beside Job, King Lear and the Vicar of Wakefield, Harry Caldecote most certainly has nothing to complain of. The biggest threat to his peace of mind comes, one would guess, from the precocious minicab driver who warns him that the whole ‘drinking culture’ is destined to follow smoking into oblivion. Otherwise, the worst that can happen is that his household might turn into a home for displaced persons. Among those more or less committed to his care are Fiona, his daughter, an alcoholic with a long record of passing out in taxis and at parties; Bunty, his ex-stepdaughter, who is besieged by an estranged husband and mesmerised by a brutal lesbian lover; and two pathetically inadequate male blood-relatives, wastrel Piers and henpecked Freddie.
Being written from the viewpoint of each of these characters (except Piers) and a number of others in turn, The folks that live on the hill is as cheerful and gregarious as a crowded saloon bar. It presents a world full of eavesdroppers, mimics and overlapping voices. The clash of idioms is, as ever, an Amis speciality. Here it ranges from the Wardour Street fustian spoken by two Asian brothers, through the Wodehouse-and-water of Harry’s own age-group, to the contemporary tinkle of the Shepherd’s Hill shop-fronts (Beautiful Dreamers for beds, Potandum for wines but only by the case). Idiom and identity are intertwined, so that on the not infrequent occasions when two characters strike up a mutual dislike, linguistic battle is immediately joined.
But this is also a traditional comedy of manners in which the protagonist sets out to exercise his authority over the profusion of idioms. Harry’s running battle with Désirée – his brother’s wife, who once had a passing fling with Harry himself – sums up his attempts to control and suppress moral and linguistic anarchy. Désirée, significantly, is the embodiment of both verbal and sexual licence. When, at a dinner party with Harry and his sister, Désirée holds forth about her husband’s recent prostate operation and its miraculous effect on his amatory powers, Harry angrily cuts her off.
This episode might be compared with the famous visit to Box Hill in Jane Austen’s Emma, with the heroine’s unfeeling sally against Miss Bates and Mr Knightley’s authoritative rebuke. Harry’s motive, like Mr Knightley’s, is of a chivalrous nature. His bereaved sister Clare is the one who is hurt by Désirée’s indiscretion. Protector of the weak, mender of broken reeds (there is actually some business with a broken flute belonging to Clare) and agony uncle, Harry Caldecote emerges by the end as a person to whom considerable moral and sentimental stature is attributed. Representing a standard of language and behaviour which has, as he says, mellowed and ‘grown wise over the years’, Harry seems less at the mercy of militant womanhood than of his own rather tangible complacency. And if The folks that live on the hill is also a portrait of Britain, or at least of London, in 1990, then one thing is obvious: some of his earlier heroes may have been angry and difficult, but now Uncle Kingsley is telling us he likes it here.
For Amis to take as his protagonist a retired librarian, sensitive to the shades of his own and others’ feelings and with a strong sense of proper and improper uses of language, is a way of both writing and not writing about being a writer. The other two novelists under review are more blatant in this respect, since both Michèle Roberts and David Grossman have written novels which pivot on the sentimental privileging of authorship. ‘I want to tell you my stories. I want to record my life with you. I want to give myself a history,’ insists one of Roberts’s narrators, a contemporary writer addressing her lover. In In the Red Kitchen her voice mingles with those of the others – like herself, ghosts, spirits, displaced persons – who are also intent on telling their stories.
The writer moves into a house in Hackney which was once inhabited by Flora Milk, a famous Victorian medium, and by Flora’s embittered and envious younger sister. Then there are the confessions of Hat, an Ancient Egyptian princess who apparently was Flora’s spirit control. These stories from Ancient Egypt and from Mid-Victorian and late 20th-century London interweave like a multiple haunting. Michèle Roberts’s earlier work includes The Wild Girl, which purports to be the fifth Gospel according to Mary Magdalene. In formal terms In the Red Kitchen is more experimental but perhaps less successful than its predecessor. I am not wholly convinced by Roberts’s decision to thrust her contemporary narrator into a confessional historical novel.
If sometimes the material is close to a Gothic tale, the mood is that of the present-day women’s novel, brooding and contemplative rather than melodramatic. The Ancient Egyptian sequences have a momentary grandeur, with the exhilaration of the princess’s seizure of power and the creepy mysteries of Pharaonic copulation and burial. But these sequences are unsustained, and their authenticity is perhaps questioned by other parts of the narrative. The spiritual reappearance of Hat coincides all too neatly with the Egyptian renaissance in Victorian architecture, as evidenced by the baroque North London cemetery, full of middle-class tombs like Pharaonic vaults, in which both Flora Milk and the contemporary narrator find inspiration.
The principal historical puzzle in the novel concerns not the Pharaohs but the nature and appeal of Victorian Spiritualism, a craze which spread throughout the civilised world after its inception in 1848 in the United States. Many of the spirit mediums who arose in response to the sudden demand were teenage girls, often of the working class. Success as a medium was a career attended with all the rewards and dangers of becoming a film-star. Allegations of couch-casting, for instance, surround the story of Florence Cook, the Hackney girl who is acknowledged as the original of Flora Milk. The authenticity of Florence’s spiritual powers was vouched for by a Victorian scientist, William Crookes, who also became besotted with ‘Katie King’, the spirit whose materialisations were the high point of Florence Cook’s séances.
There was no middle ground in the 19th-century Spiritualist debate. Either the voice you heard and the form you dimly saw in the dark really were those of little Johnny who had recently passed away, or you were the victim of a gross mechanical conjuring trick. Not surprisingly, In the Red Kitchen eschews such positivist certainties. Flora may be a genuine medium, a fraud, a hysteric, or some confused combination of all three. Her voice in the novel can only be an imaginative construct, a problematic identity. As the Egyptian princess says, ‘words mean life. The absence of words means death.’ The only séance is the scene of writing, and to cast a spell you simply spell out the words. But the series of soliloquies which make up Roberts’s novel amount to a failure or refusal of mediumship.
Early in See Under: Love David Grossman’s narrative persona, a boy growing up in Israel in the late Fifties, makes an entry in his notebook under the heading ‘IMPORTANT DECISION!!!’ The decision is to become a writer, like his grandfather. But Momik’s grandfather, Anshel Wasserman, and his parents are survivors of the extermination camps. The young boy becomes intensely curious about the camps, since except for Grandfather Wasserman, who is now insane, the grown-ups around him refuse to speak about their experiences. To Momik’s childish imagination the enemies are not people but the ‘Nazi beast’, a fierce wild animal he hopes to hunt and tame. He practices on a hedgehog, a toad, a cat and a young raven whom he imprisons in locked wooden crates in an unused cellar. Momik’s mini-menagerie, or mini-Belsen, is the first instance in the novel of what becomes known as LNIY, the ‘Little Nazi in Yourself’ factor which complicates our moral revulsion from the Holocaust and the criminals who perpetrated it.
David Grossman, who writes in Hebrew, is a novelist of passion, imagination and encyclopedic range. He shows Momik, now an adult, collecting material for a Holocaust Encyclopedia, and the last third of the novel continues Momik’s narrative by means of a mini-encyclopedia of articles alphabetically arranged. Grossman is wholly equal to the demands of the ‘Holocaust novel’, yet one of the most appealing aspects of this sprawling, voracious book is its deep attachment to the emotional and moral horizons of the imaginative child. Long ago, Anshel Wasser man was a Polish writer of Science Fiction adventure stories, the creator of a popular serial following the exploits of a band of boys known as the Children of the Heart. Momik discovers or invents a sequel to these stories, put together on the orders of a concentration camp commander who was a childhood fan of Wasserman’s writings. Neigel, the commander, then passes off the stories as his own.
See Under: Love transforms the deathcamps, presented by means of the horrific details with which everyone is now familiar, into a setting for scenes of telling and listening, writing and reading. There are no less than four writers or would-be writers in the novel. In addition to Momik, Wasserman and Neigel, there is the actual Polish novelist Bruno Schulz, who was murdered by an SS officer in the Drohobycz ghetto in 1942. In keeping with the theme of childlike narrative Grossman imagines a miraculous escape for Schulz, who flees to Danzig, jumps into the sea and is rescued by his ability to grow fins and join in the travels of a shoal of salmon. This part of the novel is a sustained poetic extravaganza, not very closely connected with what comes before or after it. See Under: Love is reminiscent at times of a Hebrew Golden Notebook, a collection of disjecta membra unified by the various disguises of the struggling novelist.
The story of Neigel and Wasserman is that of a mythic confrontation between the Nazi exterminator who is ‘human after all’ and the Jew who turns out against all the odds to be immortal. Wasserman has been in the gas-chambers and he wants to die but cannot. A Jew who cannot die is a threat to good order in the camp (‘What if other Jews were to catch on to undying now?’), but there is little to be done about him, so Neigel makes him his ‘house Jew’ and gets him to tell stories. Wasserman, a Scheherezade in reverse, does so on condition that Neigel puts a bullet in his head at the end of each episode – surely one of them will work! – but turns up in Israel after the war, while Neigel commits suicide.
The personal bond between master and slave or torturer and victim is a virtually indispensable device of the totalitarian novel, from Darkness at Noon to Margaret Atwood’s recent feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale. The fact that the torturers have so much time to devote to an individual protagonist is, one suspects, one of the main differences between tyrannical regimes in fiction and in life. As Grossman implies, the scene of interrogation is an archetypal narrative situation, and through the medium of the Nazi commander with a pathetic desire for a bedtime story this novel subverts the power relations customary in an interrogation. One of the oddities of See Under: Love, however, is that Momik, the authorial persona, is intrusively present throughout the Neigel-Wasserman dialogues. There are several justifications for this. Momik has had to reconstruct his grandfather’s experiences from hints and scraps gleaned from the obsessive gibberish that is all the old man can now manage by way of communication. Moreover, as a camp survivor, Wasserman cannot in decency be implicated in his persecutor’s mentality. It is Momik, the Israeli boy, who alone can be used to illustrate the ‘Little Nazi in Yourself, theme.
Ranged against this theme, however, are the Children of the Heart, who represent a perpetual human hope, shared by Jew and Nazi alike. The Nazis worshipped an Aryan, post-Christian ‘new man’, setting up babyfarms so that the production of new men could be put on an industrial footing. Momik’s surname, however, is Neuman, and the Children of the Heart (in Wasserman’s sequel to his earlier story) discover in the terror-ridden Warsaw ghetto a miraculous baby, Kazik, who may indeed by the prototype of a genuinely Utopian man. Kazik is a prodigy of accelerated growth who in each hour gets through three years of normal life. Inevitably, given the time and place of his birth, he ends by committing suicide, perhaps encouraging Neigel to do the same. Grossman’s juxtaposition of the deathcamps with the story of Kazik not only reflects a Post-Modernist privileging of the acts of writing and reading, but places the old-fashioned fictional panacea of naked sentiment – an appeal to the tender emotions – at the heart of his imaginative reconstruction of the Holocaust.