State of Grace.
by Joy Williams.
Doubleday. 260 pp. $6.95.
The Summer Before the Dark.
by Doris Lessing.
Knopf. 273 pp. $6.95.
The Hothouse by the East River.
by Muriel Spark.
Viking. 146 pp. $5.95.
The Black Prince.
by Iris Murdoch.
Viking. 366 pp. $7.95.
Joy Williams's State of Grace comes with the imprimatur of the Paris Review Editions and carries fine promotion from George Plimpton and a number of equally prominent friends of writing. Let me confess to some astonishment. For Joy Williams is pouring forth a tepid Creative Writing ooze which has become stock in trade at the universities, and which is strictly a habit of the permanently would-be novelist. Here are a few of her more wonderfully worked-over set pieces: “Almost all arms and noons and lips and anger are the same and love.” “I don't look at all pregnant and never would have thought it of myself, but I've been told firmly that it's so. I peed into a paper cup and now I know.” “I live by the airport, what is this that hits my house, that showers my roof on takeoff? We can hear it. What crap is this, I demand to know.” These are taken from the first ten pages of Miss Williams's book. Somewhere further on a male character will be heard telling the heroine, “Well, kiss my coccyx.” And in a metaphor that deliberately mixes the organs of speech and sex, Miss Williams has gone well beyond John Updike at his coyest:
I want to have him love me. The fact that he does already troubles both of us. I prop the pillow behind my back and begin a conversation. The room is close. I've spilled some scent and it's in the carpet. I open my lips and the words enter my furred mouth.
Miss Williams has not understood that whatever tries to be prose-poetry ends up with the worst of both worlds, and is at once ersatz prose and ersatz poetry.
The heroine of this novel is Kate—I almost said Kate Williams. But, though there are touches that look autobiographical, one cannot be sure. The novel brings Kate from her pregnancy to the birth of her child, with generous flashbacks to her religious childhood and her early free-living and free-loving adulthood. I will only say that as far as one can separate style from content, the first-person protagonist from the author who watches over her, Kate appears to share certain characteristics with her creator. She is self-indulgent and not obviously intelligent, and she stands in a passive relation to her experience. Just so does Miss Williams answer to the muse of an impersonal and artificially heightened style. When the author gets down to earthly affairs and listens to a secondary character, she simply does not hear the way he would sound. But then, as a backwoods type in her novel most ungracefully avers, “That's something which ain't easy at all!” Since there is no movement from Kate the child to the Kate who can have a child, the desert spaces of plot demand no summary. Though the religious episodes may have been deeply felt by the author, again one cannot be sure. “The Reverend is talking about the grave, how deep and insatiable it is, just like the barren womb. It's never satisfied, he is saying.” Yes, thank you, we caught “insatiable” the first time around but are glad nevertheless to learn that Miss Williams knows what it means. Leaving aside the stylistic density, however, even the conceit which it supports is silly. In what sense is a grave or a barren womb insatiable? Like many of Miss Williams's metaphors, this one gives the impression of being old and sick with use and, at the same time, bad in a new way. Actually, the off-realism of this book—the air of disbelief—is less than calculated. The author just has not taught herself to write continuous prose. Of course, the worst feature of such a performance is that it holds the world of experience not too close up but too far away. Most sins are pardonable in a first novel, but perhaps not all. We cease to be concerned whether or not Miss Williams is true to herself, her manner in reaching the goal is so patently false.
To imply Doris Lessing was in the least part false would be actionable. And quite properly: the terms of praise that are commonly applied to her writing, like “conscientious,” “scrupulous,” “ambitious,” amount to a single very high compliment which she has worked hard to deserve. About modern life generally, and about the historical and political issues that make its sleep restless, she is never anything but right-minded. Sometimes painfully so: it is so much easier to love humanity than to like one's neighbor, yet Mrs. Lessing, who is a good and honest lover of humanity, behaves decently also toward those impossible nasty specifics. One recalls, in The Golden Notebook, the steady stream of supplicants who come to bed down with the heroine, boors in varying degrees, and the rigid charity that guides each evaluation as she dismisses them into her notebooks. Kate Brown of The Summer Before the Dark is a different sort of heroine, not really an intellectual and in no sense the author's mouthpiece; but her stance toward a lumpish American lover is notable for the same warmth, sympathy, humor, and exasperation made good by self-criticism. Thus Mrs. Lessing's virtues and those of the women she writes about. Yet, with all of her humanly desirable traits, she seems to me a somewhat overrated novelist.
Spiritually, Mrs. Lessing belongs to the school of D. H. Lawrence, and in her case all too clearly spirit is style. She agrees with Lawrence in being a great hater, indeed much of her strongest writing is in this vein. A highly effective passage in The Summer Before the Dark describes the life-cycle of the American airline stewardess:
They offer drinks. They lay before you, with tenderness and intimate smiles, trays of packaged meals. They send loving messages through the intercom: “We love you, we need you, please come again, please love us.” And they walk up and down, up and down, smiling, smiling, being admired by men and by women. Their business is to be admired. As they move about displaying themselves, the fever rises. At the beginning of the flight a girl is fresh and radiant with general friendliness, but soon she seems ready to explode with the forces of attention she has absorbed. She is blown up with it; she probably has a temperature—she certainly looks as if she has, with flushed cheeks and glazed excited eyes.
And she smiles. She smiles. She smiles.
One can imagine that when she gets back to her room after a flight she is restless, can't sit down, can't sleep, can't stop smiling, can't eat. She is too stimulated, she can't switch herself off. If she has a man, what can that poor nothing's love be compared to what she has been receiving from dozens of men all day. And imagine what happens when this victim marries! Which of course is bound to happen very soon: the marriage rate is high in the profession, like the divorce rate.
Notice all the repetitions: that, too, is just like Lawrence. The emphasis in such writing is bound to be on feeling, but at this very dear cost: there is not much seeing. To hold with the emphasis is to believe that art, far from being reflective, ought to be all immersion. For Mrs. Lessing the price is certainly right, since she is constitutionally unable to be selective about detail. Perhaps a just and faintly damning praise of her work would be that reading it is often like reading medium-bad Lawrence. The work flows, it keeps your attention, but the effects are diffuse. We are not licensed to set these writers in opposition, but, even going by the limited rules of his own later fiction we may note that Lawrence has an unfair advantage over his disciple. For he is an inveterate and unreserved hater, whereas Mrs. Lessing sometimes feels obliged to pull back. Understanding all and forgiving all: yet the kindness of the philosophic heart can grow, on this see-saw, a little insufferable, so that we long for the cruel novelistic head.
Kate Brown is a middle-aged housewife whose main worries have always centered on the caretaking of her family's London house. She has several nearly grow-up children and a loving but unfaithful husband. Mrs. Lessing's novel follows Kate through a single manic and despairing summer, with a love affair in Spain and then a long convalescence (from sickness, the affair, and, no doubt, life) in London. After this summer will come the falling away into a sterile and sexless, a resigned and unrebellious middle age. Or so Mrs. Lessing might dub it; she likes to pound things home. The Summer Before the Dark has a large ideological element, from which it frees itself, at odd intervals, just when the atmosphere seems thickest, but to which it finally succumbs. Probably Mrs. Lessing surprised even herself with the plain-as-your-nose ironies of her conclusion, where Kate meets up with a wild young thing named Maureen. They share a flat and have talks; Maureen, we are given to see, faces the choice Kate once had. And she is going to knuckle under in the end, she too is headed for disaster, though for the moment she despises Kate's unfreedom.
Because she is a rather careless writer—and she may be correct in thinking that revision would strangulate her special vitality—Mrs. Lessing needs a good deal of roomy indeterminacy to work out the destinies of her characters. Kate is simply too tight: like the author, yet too unlike. Hence the occasional eeriness, despite this writer's very great wealth of incidental material. It is as if the minor characters were moving about, disembodied, in the ether of Kate's mind. They are disabled for the most ordinary activities. They cannot talk straight. A youthful prig, in Kate's eyes one of the new breed of fascists, says: “Yes, I am not ashamed to say it, it is decency we want, we have had enough of muck for muck's sake, we need standards now.” When Kate reacts to some experience by summoning a cliché Mrs. Lessing feels duty-bound to report it, as with the “suave impersonal Organization” which Kate works for and resents. It is too bad. Up to now woodenness has been the last thing one expected from Mrs. Lessing. But I ought to add, in mitigation, that there are admirably vivid passages throughout the first two-thirds of the book. True, the writing can get too breathlessly quick for its own good: “The fact that this super-polite American had let her carry heavy suitcases and had not even noticed it said everything about his state.” But such lapses are rare enough, and the critics who have complained about them are in a peculiar state of mind, if they can do so while admitting Mrs. Lessing as an international artist of the first rank. Technically, The Summer Before the Dark is not beneath her usual level.
Muriel Spark is a fabulist. Her American publisher has offered a comparison with Kafka and, though this is surely to mistake her weight, I can recognize it as a noble try. To Kafka, our subjectivity was desolating, it made us blind and literally subject to everything outside ourselves. Mrs. Spark prefers to see the catastrophe from the point of view of the fates, who are after all having a pleasant time. Mrs. Spark has been accused of heartlessness toward her characters, but I would diagnose the situation this way: while she knows that the people in her stories are in the very nature of things pitiable, she refuses to pity them. That would be claiming too much for herself.
A British couple living in New York, Paul and Elsa, are the exotic flowers that inhabit The Hothouse by the East River. Their marriage is in trouble, Paul cannot decide what is the matter with Elsa. Her shadow points in the wrong direction; or rather, it maintains a steady direction even as the sun moves. Partly, it is an instance of emotional resistance materializing, of a deep-buried malaise suddenly assuming its allegorical shape. All of which, abstractly, Paul can accept. But why? It transpires that Elsa once had, or very likely had, an affair with a German prisoner of war named Helmut Kiel. Paul and Elsa had been helping with radio propaganda, broadcast by the prisoners for the British, and Kiel happened to be a second available man. But now, we discover, Kiel has turned up in a shoe store in New York. Elsa promptly leaves for Munich with him. Yet how can it be Kiel, whom the records list as having died years ago? No matter; in the end Paul and Elsa, who are reunited, race around some New York City streets to avoid their old British friends, but they are caught at last; an expensive car pulls up to the curb alongside them, opens its doors, and relieves these insomniac souls. Everybody in the car, including Paul and Elsa, has been dead since the end of the war.
Paul and Elsa have needed to share their worst family secret before they could rest in peace. In the meantime Mrs. Spark plays a few of her characteristic games, and delightfully. Paul's psychoanalyst follows Elsa around the city in the role of private detective. Elsa's psychoanalyst, blessed with the name Garven Bey, takes over as family servant. Possibly it is a new turn on the well-worn game of Compton-Burnett, though, for that matter, much of the present-tense pseudo-objective writing reads like a parody of the French New Novel. At all events, there is an undiminished supply of the happily surrealistic knick-knacks that give Mrs. Spark her distinction. The family daughter, Katerina, addressing a note to her mother, “Mrs. Paul Hazlett, H.C.F.”—for Highest Common Factor. Mysterious messages written on the soles of shoes. And then that shadow. At one piont Garven, who has been the first to see it, gazes at the entire scene before him and silently forms the word “sick.” This is how Mrs. Spark keeps her excruciation beneath the surface; in fact, she most resembles Kafka in the austerity of her method. For my part, I am better able to appreciate the jagged strokes of wit when they are softened by nostalgia or romance, as in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means. Yet it has to be said that Mrs. Spark, whatever she does from one book to the next, remains an indispensable writer. One feels the world would be visibly a poorer place without her.
Indispensability, it may be, is what Iris Murdoch has failed once too often to achieve. I can think of no other reason for the strange antagonism her work has met with in certain quarters. The consensus is that she diverts but does not satisfy. Still, why ask for more? The difficulty, one will be told, is that Miss Murdoch appears to hold out more. I should think a compromise might be arranged on the following terms: Miss Murdoch writes philosophical conversations and casts them in the form of novels. In a novel by Miss Murdoch I generally find that intellectual curiosity, together with a susceptibility to her skill in the melodramatic arts, compels me to read on. One must allow for certain conventions, such as the pages of straight dialogue, the picking away at motives, the transparent cunning of the narrative: yet these are fair enough. For those who can stay with the conventions, The Black Prince will look like Miss Murdoch at the very top of her manner.
The Black Prince is narrated by a writer, Bradley Pearson, whose beliefs about the nature of art put one in mind of Miss Murdoch's. His best self, like hers, is ascetic; only for him the asceticism verges on criminal mania. Having published two dignified but unsuccessful novels and followed them with years of dedicated silence, he is just getting ready for his masterpiece when he falls in love with the barely post-adolescent daughter of a rival novelist. So he writes his masterpiece about the love affair, which in its ramifications includes an abortive involvement with the rival's wife, the suicide of his own sister, and the death by murder of his rival, Arnold Baffin. In the telling it is Baffin, uncomprehending and jealous, who breaks up the affair, and Mrs. Baffin who murders her husband after a suspected infidelity. Much of the novel's fascination comes from the conflict between the two men, who are in life as in art. Baffin is a sleazy and too-prolific author (but not without an elemental talent: the reader, if he wants, may think of Lawrence Durrell). May not Pearson have been jealous of his facility? In any case Pearson, whom we know to be subtly mad, goes to jail for the murder and there writes his masterpiece, The Black Prince. How far can he be trusted in accounting for himself? Miss Murdoch frames the novel with an editorial foreword and afterword by an artistically inclined felon who became Pearson's best friend before his death, and with four appendices presented as letters from participants in the story. By their style shall ye judge them. And, on the whole, Pearson and his friend emerge victorious. As it sorts out, as we match one version of the events with another, it is Pearson who seems virtually if not actually truthful.
A providential fiction, Pearson's novel says, a great work of art, is that which may be virtually and yet not actually true. Or is it Miss Murdoch's novel that says this? Pearson, one observes, is after a more severe objectification. When his lover-to-be, Julian Baffin, asks what books she ought to read, he pooh-poohs the easy modern stuff, Sons and Lovers and Mrs. Dalloway, and unhesitatingly settles on The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy. If Shakespeare made this group it would have to be with King Lear, for in the highest art we do not identify with the hero. But in a queer moment, Pearson contradicts himself and expounds a theory of Hamlet which inverts Eliot's cavil about the missing “objective correlative”—on the contrary, Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing.
“Hamlet is a wild act of audacity, a self-purging, a complete self-castigation in the presence of the god. Is Shakespeare a masochist? Of course. He is the king of masochists, his writing thrills with that secret. But because his god is a real god and not an eidolon of private fantasy, and because love has here invented language as if for the first time, he can change pain into poetry and orgasms into pure thought—”
“Bradley, wait, please, do stop, I'm not understanding you—”
“Shakespeare here makes the crisis of his own identity into the very central stuff of his art. He transmutes his private obsessions into a rhetoric so public that it can be mumbled by any child. He enacts the purification of speech, and yet also this is something comic, a sort of trick, like a huge pun, like a long almost pointless joke. Shakespeare cries out in agony, he writhes, he dances, he laughs, he shrieks, and he makes us laugh and shriek ourselves out of hell. Being is acting. We are tissues and tissues of different personae and yet we are nothing at all. What redeems us is that speech is ultimately divine. What part does every actor want to play? Hamlet.”
Great art must be calm—but adventurous; detached—but minutely attentive. These really are Miss Murdoch's views, and it is on the strength of them that she tries to salvage Pearson's novel. On his own reckoning Pearson is a failure because he is a liar. Where art, as Miss Murdoch noted in a different context, must invigorate without consoling, Pearson in his own fictional practice needs the consolation too: that he should be guiltless and loved. However, the Murdoch Black Prince saves the Pearson from its inconsistencies. Pearson, without meaning to, has produced a self-exposure very like the Hamlet he casually sketched. His narrowness and solipsism, his treachery, even his love of boys' books, help toward the final result. I have seen this Chinese-box experiment performed before, by Nabokov and others, but never with an outcome as complexly imaginative as Miss Murdoch's, and through it all she sustains her sobriety.
That we sense her larger presence always at hand, calm and scrutinizing, even with the lunatic artifices of this format, may be thought a sign of her virtuosity. For me there is more to it than that. The evenness of tone that has marked her fiction over the past twenty years is reviving, as if it were the staple of life in the novel: and of course it is. Maybe what bothers me about an author like Mrs. Lessing is precisely the harried sound of her prose, an air buzzing with the self-important need to utter truths that will be delivered up right away to the life beyond art. We have to remind ourselves that fiction serves fact best when it looks after its own. These novels have been influenced by the easy modern stuff, Mrs. Lessing's most overtly but the other three just as surely in the formal sense. But now that the techniques of modernism have become merely a set of tricks, or tics, we are no longer required to pay attention to them. We come back to the personality of the writer who either can or cannot tell us something interesting about human life, arouse our curiosity, and make us wise.