In his new novel William Boyd returns to Africa, the scene of his first successes, but not to the west of A Good Man in Africa or the east of An Ice-Cream War. Brazzaville Beach goes for the centre – and appropriately so, since the questions it raises are more searching than before. They’re pursued with a narrative fluency and clarity of design that rewards and deserves attention.
In a beach house on the Congolese coast a woman is taking to heart Socrates’s remark (which is also the novel’s epigraph) that the unexamined life is not worth living. She’s called Hope Clearwater, but her life hasn’t exactly been plain sailing. Clearwater is actually her married name, and it has in the end a grim application to the fate of her husband, a mathematician; she herself has a doctorate in life sciences, and is therefore a trained observer and interpreter of nature. Back in England, during the time of her marriage, she worked on the dating of hedgerows and coppices (each species represents a hundred years, roughly speaking). It doesn’t sound very exciting, but William Boyd knows that almost any research has its own fascination, once you understand how its methods relate to its objectives. Both the present book and its predecessor The New Confessions are themselves well researched and as a result superior to Boyd’s comic vein – as in Stars and Bars – where the invention is coarse and forced by comparison.
In Africa, Hope joins the team on the Grosso Arvore Research Centre directed by the celebrated primatologist Eugene Mallabar. After over twenty years in the field he knows more about the society of wild chimpanzees than anyone else. His books – The Peaceful Primate, Primate’s Progress – are famous, and the final summa of his great work is in proof. Nevertheless, keeping the project going has been difficult. Grosso Arvore is deep in the interior and communications have been hampered by protracted civil war. Chimpanzees are genetically closer to man than any other species; Angolans call them ‘the mockmen’. What Hope discovers is that their society – watched over so benignly by Mallabar for so long – is also capable of internecine violence and gratuitous cruelty. A group of chimps secede from the main tribe and are hunted down by those they have left. In a series of scenes which are the more powerful for not being over-written Hope sees for herself the terrible things the creatures are capable of. The trouble is that Mallabar won’t believe it – in more than one way he can’t afford to – and her other colleagues take their cue from him. Hope feels driven to break away too, only to have her Land Rover commandeered by some guerrillas on the run from the federal army. Her growing sense of panic and isolation as a result of the discoveries no one else wants to accept gives the narrative plenty of momentum.
However, the obvious parallel between the war of the chimps and human conflict takes second place to another fearful symmetry – that between Hope’s African life and her English one. Chronologically, the latter precedes the former, but William Boyd adroitly interleaves and intercuts the two stories so that the juxtaposition makes them seem concurrent. The effect is to enhance the reader’s wish to reach the resolution in each case, so that he can fully understand their interdependence.
Dating hedgerows may have its satisfactions, especially in primeval Dorset, but what gives Hope’s English narrative its drama is her husband’s deteriorating mental state. It’s hard for most people to grasp how mathematicians think at the best of times, and even more so when, like John Clearwater, they’re straining to discover formulae which will irreversibly enlarge our understanding of how life works. Tired of game theory, he has moved on to the study of turbulence and discontinuity; his ambition is to find ‘a simple algorithm that would reproduce the magical, infinite variety of the natural world’ – something that would always be known as the Clearwater Set. He seeks the ultimate scientific satisfaction, when pure abstraction and the workings of nature correspond. Because the turn towards catastrophe in his mind and the consequent breakdown of his marriage to Hope run alongside her observation, in Africa, of disintegration and death among the chimpanzees, we are bound to wonder as she does whether this discouraging analogue indicates what may be generally expected to obtain. In fact, Hope’s reflections at Brazzaville Beach – as relayed through italicised sections which provide a frame for the other narratives – are optimistic rather than otherwise. Attracted as Hope is to the relief from the pressure of phenomena and contingency which mathematics provides, she clings even more to the thought that proof may always lack some ultimate rigour. She is comforted by Pascal’s defence of intuition when the calculus falters. She knows that there is something beyond what can be demonstrated which she’s prepared to trust.
But for all its interest in such matters, Brazzaville Beach doesn’t seem over-cerebral. The two stories generate real suspense, the action sequences are handled with a steady nerve and eye, and if the characterisation is sometimes no more than serviceable, the feeling for and description of the African landscape carry conviction. It’s William Boyd’s strongest performance so far.
The narrator of A.N. Wilson’s The Bottle in the Smoke is also engaged in retrospect and revaluation, as any hero of a roman fleuve is likely to be. It’s the second novel in a sequence begun with Incline our hearts (1988), which took us through the orphaned Julian Ramsay’s early years – his upbringing by aunt and clerical uncle, the hell of boarding-school, sexual initiation in France during the holidays, the tedium of National Service. Also introduced were various members of the Lampitt tribe, whose genealogy and idiosyncrasies are obsessively studied by Uncle Roy, and the devious Raphael Hunter, ambitious biographer of a defunct Lampitt famous as a belletrist in his day. Readers staining with the new novel are supplied with enough briefings on previous events to get the general picture.
Having weathered childhood and adolescence. Julian’s problem is simply to know what to do with his life. He doesn’t want to stay in his degrading office job and escapes to work as a part-time barman in a Soho pub. He would like to act, to write and to have a really serious love-affair. By the end of the book he has in some sense achieved these ambitions, but not in ways which bring him satisfaction or status. His satirical novel sinks without trace – and anyway he owes its publication to Hunter’s suspect influence. As an actor he is ignominiously typecast because of his posh accent in the radio serial The Mulberrys (obviously related to The Archers, of which A.N. Wilson is a confessed fan). And his initially passionate marriage to one of the inescapable Lampitt dynasty collapses into estrangement and recrimination.
Wilson’s narrator – theoretically writing from a position in late middle age – looks back on all this with some mortification, as well he might. He feels properly ashamed of the pain he caused then, and tells us that avoiding it has become a preoccupation now. Nevertheless, behind his self-castigation a certain complacency seems to lurk. The impression may partly be created by the mature Julian’s intermittent reflections on life in general: these tend towards a weary fatalism of tone which in turn creates an exonerating context for the younger self’s inadequacies. It isn’t quite clear whether the novel’s sententiousness is down to the hero-narrator, or more candidly offered as offcuts of authorial wisdom. Either way, it doesn’t strike home with much effect because – although often unexceptionable – it lacks intellectual force and doesn’t seem hard-won. Blake is meant to be a significant presence in A Bottle in the Smoke, both as a poet and as the subject of Gilchrist’s Life, and his view that ‘the inner world is all-important’ is appealed to more than once. But Julian’s re-creation of his former life and sensations isn’t informed by the kind of consuming curiosity necessary to maintain interest through several volumes, and hasn’t the energy which might (in Blakean terms) convert egocentricity into eternal delight.
In this novel Hunter functions not only as a rival in love, as he did before, but also as a literary alter ego. His Lampitt book has launched him on a successful career as an arts programme presenter and cultural middleman. The biography itself and Hunter’s behaviour over the family papers reveal him as a fixer without scruple. He contrasts unfavourably with the painter Pirbright, a naive genius ‘discovered’ by Hunter in one of his television series, for whom Julian worked in the detested office. Pirbright does nothing when he gets home except produce canvases, often on religious themes and somewhere between Lowry and Stanley Spencer in manner – pictures now in national galleries and recognised as masterpieces. His ordinariness has something in common with Day Muckley, writer of Yorkshire sagas and once a best-seller, now fixture in Julian’s Dean Street bar. Hunter cannot be at ease with such simple and dedicated souls: like any biographer, he infers, implies shapes and gets it wrong. Indeed a biographer telling the story of his own life, Julian suggests, would mislead since, in the absence of written evidence, he would have no access to the all-important inner world. A.N. Wilson is, of course, himself the author of several successful biographies, and – unless he is merely exploiting the fact – we may assume some self-doubt, or at least internal debate. As an independent character, however, Hunter is too obviously a shadow, too much a projection of such literary – as also, where Julian is concerned, of sexual – anxieties, to function very satisfactorily on his own account.
Fictional persons signed up for a series need to be resilient, and some of those carried forward from Incline our hearts are beginning to flag. In particular, one begins to feel – as the young Julian used to do when forced to listen to his uncle’s anecdotes – that it’s possible to have a surfeit of Lampitts. Nor do the regulars at the Black Bottle – wittily reproduced though their idioms are – prove to have much mileage in them, though their drunken theological disputes might be indulged on the grounds that they form an antemasque to the narrator’s austerer speculations. The mysteriousness and unpredictableness of the best of Anthony Powell’s recurring characters in his ‘Music of Time’ sequence are absent. It may not yet be clear even to the author whether Wilson’s series will match Powell’s in scale, and there are clear differences of interest and method, but the parallel is bound to come up, and isn’t at present to the younger author’s advantage. The painter Pirbright prompts memories of Powell’s artist Edgar Deacon, and seems undeveloped by comparison; Lord Lampitt, who affects an unconvincingly demotic accent in line with his political sympathies, is a mere cartoon beside Powell’s aristocratic leftie Erridge. In the end, it is an open question whether this sequence of novels, with all its formal problems and its inbuilt drift to the diffuse, is going to make the best use of A.N: Wilson’s undoubted talent.
We first meet Alice, heroine of Barbara Trapido’s third novel, while she’s still at school, and she retains a wide-eyed impressionability even when initiated into adult life. She’s amazed by the sudden arrival of Jem, insubordinate and outrageous, with a knowing precocity of reference and (apparently) a fascinating eccentric family: her own comfortable but conventional background immediately looks pallid. Jem knows about culture and introduces Alice to The Magic Flute. Alice has a stammer like Papageno, but it disappears in Jem’s exhilarating company. A girl who, sitting up in bed eating toffees, can say, talking of Michelangelo, ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever really scrutinised David’s penis, but he looks as if he’s just had his pubic hair styled by Vidal Sassoon,’ is clearly going to enlarge Alice’s horizons. Jem is full of stories and has written some, which she entrusts to Alice’s care, as her dearest friend. Jem’s disappearance plunges Alice into a grief which she assuages by study so effectively that she gets a place at Oxford, and there finds herself courted by a popular young schoolmaster. Roland teaches well, believes in leadership and games, and thinks in his old-fashioned way that women are a jolly good idea even when, like his Alice, they have quite a decent brain. When it comes to it, however, Alice can’t bring herself to become his. Her emergent sense of independence is encouraged by life in her digs – a chaotic and not over-clean place by the canal, occupied by an egalitarian don, his neurotic Californian wife who’s too busy working on her novel to look after three disorderly children, and the punk daughter of her first marriage – a typical Oxford household, in fact. At least the rickety chest-of-drawers in Alice’s attic is lined with old copies of the LRB.
When she at last hears again from Jem her friend is dying in a Catholic hospice; Alice inherits her illegitimate baby. It needs a father, and one duly turns up in the questionable transatlantic shape of Giovanni B. Angeletti, publisher of Jem’s novel and occasional pastrycook. The rest of the story concerns the ordeals set up by this Sarastro figure and the felicity to which they lead. Temples of Delight could easily have become the victim of its own fancifulness, but the erotic zest of Barbara Trapido’s invention offsets any schoolgirlish feyness, and if the Mozartian analogies are more playful than ponderous, most readers aren’t going to complain about that.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.