Adam Thorpe’s first novel, Ulverton (1992), was set in a fictional downland village, and traced its history from 17th-century isolation to M4 dormitory town. Thorpe told the story of this small English utopia in a mixture of letters, diaries and interviews. Each of the 12 sections of the novel is written in a different idiom, and can be read as a short story. The first is the narrative of an illiterate shepherd in 1650, the last the transcript of a 1988 television documentary about plans to develop the village. Living people in one chapter have become memories by the next and ghosts in the third. An imaginative boy in 1650 has by 1712 hardened into an authoritative old man, whose stories of witchcraft are credulously believed. Those stories in turn become a nice bit of local colour for a visiting writer in the 1950s. A white horse, carved out of chalk on the hillside by an 18th-century clergyman, is viewed as ancient by amateur archaeologists in 1914. At each stage, a wedge has been driven between people and place, and Ulverton has been transformed into myth.
Ulverton is far from the unquestioning pastoral many reviewers took it to be, although part of its popularity may derive from this misreading. The novel is deeply pessimistic about the capacity of pastoral to tell truthful stories about the landscape. A period of forgetting – when the old shape of the village fades under the pressure of enclosures and mechanisation – gives way to a time of misremembering. Nineteenth and 20th-century attempts to frame the landscape, in the manner of Fox Talbot, Pitt Rivers or Edward Thomas, are viewed with suspicion. Their pastoral fantasies – expressed in photography, archaeology or poetry – become a mark of distance and loss.
In the closing pages, Thorpe plays a postmodern trick, suddenly introducing a character called Adam Thorpe. He is a member of a local group campaigning against a proposed new housing development, and the author of the shepherd’s story. This metafiction, as it is intended to, brings Thorpe’s whole whiggish house tumbling down. His anti-pastoral consumes itself, leaving only the landscape itself, and the tumulus on the chalk scarp, which has resisted all attempts at interpretation.
Thorpe deployed metafiction lavishly in his next three novels: Still (1995), in which a film-maker struggles to produce the perfect work; Pieces of Light (1998), in which Ulverton makes a self-conscious reappearance; and Nineteen Twenty-One (2001), in which a man tries to write the first definitive novel of the First World War. Thorpe’s artists do not have a good time. The director in Still can’t make his film; the novelist in Nineteen Twenty-One can’t write his book; and a writer in Ulverton sees the only copy of his life’s work burned by his disgruntled secretary.
Thorpe’s self-referential stories lack the playfulness of the high postmodernists. The metafiction of Borges and Calvino celebrates the relationship between storytellers and readers; Thorpe’s stories return repeatedly to the isolated figure of the novelist, who separates himself from society in order to indulge his fantasies. Herbert Bradman in Ulverton is self-absorbed; Joseph Monrow in Nineteen Twenty-One is a more attractive character but doesn’t end up writing much. In Thorpe’s account, a writer must withdraw from society, but he pays a price for closeting himself away.
Thorpe uses a phrase by Charles Laughton as the epigraph to Still: ‘The most beautiful thing of all is the complete stillness of an audience so intent it hardly breathes.’ Take this a stage too far, however, and your precious audience will disappear, tired of waiting for the metafictional enlightenment it feels has been promised. Only in his two most recent novels – No Telling (2003) and now The Rules of Perspective – has Thorpe begun to speak in a narrative voice more distinctly his own, and less compromised by the anxiety of influence. Yet, as his authorial voice has grown more assured, Thorpe’s protagonists have found it increasingly hard to express themselves.
Heinrich Hoffer and Corporal Neal Parry in The Rules of Perspective are typical Thorpe characters. By the end of the Second World War, Hoffer has outlived enough of his colleagues to be appointed Acting Acting Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Lohenfelde, a fictional Westphalian town. Parry meanwhile has landed in Normandy with the Allied Third Army and marched to Lohenfelde to sustained bombardment. The novel opens with Hoffer’s death in the firestorm. Hours later, Parry arrives in the vaults of the museum where Hoffer had been hiding. He steals a painting from the wreckage: Landscape in Ruins by Christian Vollerdt, which he thinks may be valuable, but turns out to be a fake.
The bombing is the centre of the novel, from which two quite separate stories unwind: Parry’s dazed morning after, and Hoffer’s vain attempt to protect himself and his paintings in the hours leading up to his death. Parry and Hoffer would rather have been artists than curators. Parry took a few art classes back home in West Virginia ‘to help him get along in advertising’. Hoffer had grander dreams, but his ambitions have been halted by the national epidemic of narcissism which has filled his beloved museum with muscular images of the Aryan ideal. He has hidden his favourite works away in the ancient vaults below the museum, but in every other respect has done his duty by the system, pillorying in public the ‘degenerate’ art he secretly loves; allowing local Nazi bosses to plunder his collection for pictures of ripe flesh to hang on their office walls; and looking mutely on as the remainder of his museum’s treasures are taken off to be hidden in the salt mines.
Hoffer collaborates because it is his job to do so. He is not an originator, but an archivist. He cannot speak out. Only in the private space of his archive can he express himself. So in order to maximise that private space he creates a more private archive within the archive, and then an even more private archive within that. Finally, he finds a place, known only to him, where he hides the most significant painting in the collection, a late Van Gogh which seems to include a depiction of the artist at work.
While Hoffer is busy hiding his degenerate art in the basement, a Jewish girl is hiding in the attic. Her presence there is barely explained; but her appearance in the novel is clearly supposed to remind the reader of Anne Frank and her account of the war – which, Thorpe intimates, cannot be evaded by any subsequent writer. Frank’s diary is the paradigm of authenticity, a text which speaks only to and for its author. Entries from the mysterious girl’s diary, in which she reflects solipsistically on her plight, punctuate the book:
I am not at all certain I am alive. What is being alive? Occasionally I see birds. The birds are alive, but that is no proof of my own existence: just as words in a book can bring pictures, but the words are not alive, they are an illusion of life. I hear someone just below, but then I might still be a ghost. Or a god in my heaven, all alone.
On the day of the final American ground assault on Lohenfelde, Hoffer and his few remaining colleagues congregate among his cache of paintings in the vault. As the war pounds to a halt above their heads, they bicker, flirt and fall out. The noises of the battle reach only distantly into the cellar where this collection of misfits lurks: Herr Wolmer, the museum archivist; Frau Schenkel, the director’s secretary; and Hilde Winkel, the sexy Fascist research student after whom Hoffer vaguely lusts. Later they are joined by Herr Bendel, an SS officer obsessed with the hidden Van Gogh. Earlier in the war, Bendel had befriended Hoffer, but he disappeared after seducing his wife.
Hours after their deaths, Parry arrives on the scene. Like Hoffer, he has been overpromoted as a result of the exigencies of war. Unwilling to control his men, he hides out in the vault, surrounded by the hidden pictures and the corpses of Hoffer and his colleagues. Parry finds the fake painting, not realising it is a poor imitation that has been stored there only because it was a favourite of Frau Schenkel’s. As he busies himself removing the canvas from its frame, Hoffer’s wife arrives looking for her husband. Caught between lust and sympathy, Parry comforts her: ‘He felt like he was cheating on the dead husband with the spectacles only because the weight of her against his body was exciting him . . . In the back of his mind, right up in the corner, there was a wicked little face with a bubble that was saying: That guy with the spectacles can’t have fucked her too well.’
Parry’s story alternates with Hoffer’s throughout the book. The two men are similar – fearful, reclusive, self-concealing – and if the story were laid out chronologically Parry would look like Hoffer’s reincarnation, emerging alive from the cellar in which his alter ego dies. But Thorpe’s narrative structure, with the two timescales running simultaneously, makes it hard to believe in anything so forward-looking. We know from the outset that Hoffer does not survive the day, that most of his paintings burn with him, and that even the ones in the salt mines are subsequently destroyed. His hopes of a brighter future may ultimately be fulfilled, but it is a future that will not have him in it. Parry is at least given a shot at redemption at the end of the novel, when he tries – at enormous risk – to dig Hoffer’s family out of a buried bunker.
One of Thorpe’s rules of perspective is that the closer anyone stands to events of historical magnitude, the less reliable their witness statement is likely to be. The Rules of Perspective describes the trauma of World War Two, yet its protagonists can barely acknowledge what they’re living through. Parry numbs his emotions with tough talk, and the Germans in the basement worry that the Jews who are spending the war at summer camp will reappear in town at any minute. Only Bendel, the SS officer, knows that the Holocaust is happening, and he is driven mad by the knowledge. Yet the tension between Hoffer’s mental wanderings and his real predicament gives the book a nervous energy that was sometimes lacking in Thorpe’s earlier work.
Thorpe’s novels are fussy with silence. The first words spoken in Ulverton are murmured, so quietly that the narrator ‘could hardly hear’, and the closing soliloquy is addressed by a deranged man to himself. In No Telling, Gilles spends his boyhood staring out of the window of his family’s vacuum-cleaner salesroom, imagining that the ranks of machines behind him are an alien army which he commands, flying through space. When his uncle accosts him one morning, trying to break the spell, Gilles remains impassive: ‘Can’t you say something? Is there something wrong with you?’ his uncle asks. ‘Don’t know what to say,’ Gilles replies.
Thorpe is sceptical about words because they can’t necessarily achieve the effects they should. The amanuensis in Ulverton, obsessed with her author-employer, finds she is not included in the memoirs she is busy typing up, but is unable to confront him about it. Instead, her diary records her silence:
Lovely still day. Everything a bit like glass. Thought of those singers who can shatter it (glass). Made attempt (no one about) on Saddle Bridge leaning over but came out with a funny squeak. Fancy if I had and the world suddenly went with a pop. . . . Felt just like a little girl again, on the bridge. Looking into the water. Making my squeak. Yes yes.
Note that dismal echo of Joyce. Thorpe is conscious that he squeaks where his Modernist idols shattered glass.
Thorpe’s characters’ conversations are disjointed, halting, and usually interrupted, if not held in mutually incomprehensible languages. There is background noise, but no chatter. Thorpe is obsessive about the things people see, but doubts that people learn anything worth knowing through speech. His characters are cloth-eared and stammering. They hold their words in, just as he spills them out. The thick flood of his narratives contrasts with the trickle of his characters’ speech. The less they are able to say, the more he writes.