HUMAN NATURE – a short story

The next post will be on or before Sunday 5th May

HUMAN NATURE – a short story

It was in the roasting summer of 1984, meaning all of thirty-five years ago, and I was at a crowded party held in an exquisite country cottage on the outskirts of a small town in my native West Cumbria. That town, unlike most in the decaying industrial belt along the Solway Firth, was also undeniably handsome, one of two such townships in fact (the other I can disclose, and despite all its thronging Lake District tourists, is Keswick by Derwentwater). I had been there about twenty minutes when suddenly something very unexpected happened, involving myself and the hostess Connie. We had been chatting a while, and she seemed to me distracted, possibly unhappy, though Connie who was in her mid-forties and a talented sculptor, was so legendarily vague and self-absorbed it was impossible to detect any subtler shades of mood. At any rate she urged me to reach up at the elegant and massive antique table, where a beautiful array of colourful food was on display, including as centrepiece a chromatic mountain of fish kedgeree cleverly tinted with odorous saffon. Connie, who had fine brown hair and limpid eyes, and a habit of smiling when you least expected it, suddenly moved some six inches in front of me, after being stood by my side in conversation. Without more ado, as if it was some party game or forfeit she had just then ingeniously invented, she reached blindly behind herself and took firm hold of both of my hands. She then placed them swiftly on her breasts, meaning on top of the pretty floral-patterned blue blouse she was wearing, and started studiously massaging them into massaging her. As part of this lightning manoeuvre, she effectively pinioned my arms with her back pressed against my chest, almost as if she had bagged me as a custodial specimen, her private pet and exclusive possession, and with the clear hint she was unlikely to let me go for the rest of the evening, or possibly for ever.

You might imagine I was shocked at this point, but in truth I wasn’t, or at any rate not very much. This was not, I stress, because either Connie or I had ever had any feelings for each other, though we had always been friendly and chatted easily enough should we bump into each other at the cinema or theatre or in the streets of the small town. Nor was my wife Maria, who was stood a few yards off and could clearly see Connie clutching my hands to her blouse, remotely put out by the bizarre and compromising spectacle. Maria and I had been happily married for five years and neither of us had ever strayed and neither ever would, and when she saw what was happening  (and thankfully she’d observed Connie’s preliminary unilateral grab) she raised her eyebrows and smiled as if to imply that Connie was Connie, and therefore her Carry On Shenanigans in Bloody Old West Cumbria didn’t mean anything in the last event. When we compared notes later, we both agreed that Connie being so perennially scatty, vague, abstracted, in her own little sculptor’s world, not quite there, and a dozen other straining modifiers and metaphors, that never quite expressed her absolute yet always completely elusive nature… that because she was all of that, she was a special and forgivable case, which is to say not wholly responsible for her actions. In many ways one assimilated her to the status of a child, rather than an adult, even though she had two teenage daughters, Kezia and Jane, and made a decent income teaching sculpture in a technical college. Maria better than I, had rapidly understood what this naive manoeuvre was all about, for my wife had known Connie’s husband Tam a few years before she and I had met, and Maria had seen him, invariably minus Connie, in action at sundry other parties, where his womanising was comically autopilot and undisguised. Hence, even though Tam had no obvious new lover in tow here tonight, Maria and I deduced he must have one tucked away somewhere else, and somehow Connie had learnt about it and decided to play a kind of artless six-year-old’s tit for tat by grabbing Maria’s innocent husband and getting him to massage her vigorously in public.

Tam, who had also observed the whole thing, simply grinned at me now with a look of comic apology and grateful understanding of my obvious tolerance. Like Maria, he raised his lazy eyebrows as all-purpose disclaimer, as if to say, you know what Connie is like, it doesn’t mean anything, because it is Connie. It was evidently no more consequential than if one of his daughters, say Kezia when she was just six, tired and in a tearful tantrum, had shouted, I blinking hate you Dad! and then stomped off to bed in a petulant fume…

At length I realised I couldn’t stay there for ever, annealed to Connie’s perspiring back, so prised myself away as best I could.

I said to her, “I think Maria wants me…”

Connie looked moderately astonished. “Really?”

It was hard to work out whether she had been boozing to excess in that enveloping mist of vagueness, though I thought on balance not. In any event, she began chatting affably to someone filling their plate, and as if nothing had occurred. Maria meanwhile was signalling me to come over and look at something which was causing her great amusement. She pointed smiling to another example of extreme lack of inhibition, though in this case it was reciprocal and unambiguous. One of Tam and Connie’s neighbours, a stocky, bluff and argumentative college lecturer in his late thirties called Hughie, was centre floor and was extremely drunk by eight o’ clock. Hughie was married with two small children, but was conspicuously not here with his wife Tamsin, who most likely was seeing to the kids only three doors away. Instead, he was dancing with an attractive and impressively dressed young woman with mesmerising fair hair and very large ear rings, who was probably about fifteen years his junior. She was called Cora and might perhaps have been a college administrator or a friend of someone here, but no one seemed to know who she was or how they had met. Cora might well have been trying in principle to dance, but Hughie was more or less collapsed like a laden sack into her arms. Like two teenagers at some old-fashioned provincial disco, they were smooching heavily, and Hughie wore an expression of addled, beatific rapture, and she too was smiling contentedly as he squeezed and massaged her skirted behind like some parody of a leery Mafia boss… and for all the bemused partygoers to see…

Maria snorted her merriment. “Look at him kneading her behind as if it was bread dough and he was a drunken baker. Some people don’t care, do they? It’s a hell of an education being here, in my opinion.”

Tam Driver and Hughie James were two working class boys made good, and both by coincidence were from rural East Anglia. They were both comfortably tenured college lecturers in obscure West Cumbria, and were now living only yards apart in expensive renovated cottages, situated in what is decorously called The Fringe Lake District. Hughie might be prominently here at Tam’s party, but there was a fair chance he had invited himself, and not without a crude pugnacity. The pair of them were outwardly amiable in the public sphere, but certainly no love was lost. In private Tam thought Hughie was a philistine, and not just because he was currently treating Cora’s backside as if it was two lemons from which he was trying to squeeze every last item of juice. Hughie like Tam taught the Humanities, and he took an interest in amateur drama and musicals and penned the occasional unpublished poem. But he was also comically addicted to the radio agricultural soap opera The Archers, which made his older colleague snort with incredulous contempt. Tam had informed me that when Hughie went on a six-month sabbatical to Canada, because it was pre-internet days, he actually got a friend to tape six months’ worth of the soap on audio-cassettes and post them out week by week to Toronto, an epic labour of love on the part of that most selfless dogsbody. The Archers fan also very much relished crime novels, which thirty years ago had less chic status than they do now, and which certainly did not spawn a hundred TV adaptations in the form of Nordic Noir. Determined Hughie had even wangled permission to teach a module in Crime Fiction at the college, and thought he was an innovative genius for doing so. This of course stoked Tam’s incredulous ire, and he growled to me one day:

“Teaching fucking ‘crime novels’ for fuck’s sake! Anyone with any brains knows there is only one detective novel worth reading, and only ever will be. Fyodor Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment I mean. All the rest are tepid cross word puzzles for stand-up comedians like Hughie James.”

Tam was also a poet, but unlike Hughie, a published one. He had an original talent and a fine intelligence right enough, but was innately ambitious and craved after a Faber or equivalent imprint, which eluded him painfully for the rest of his life. Thanks to his heavy smoking he died of a rapid cancer aged only sixty, having divorced dizzy Connie and remarried her diametric opposite, a shrewd and balanced former lawyer’s wife called Marjorie, just a year earlier. It didn’t help his career that writing for the Sunday broadsheets and various magazines, he was a merciless critic of both prose and verse, and was impressively frightened of no one, Booker and Nobel winners included. I bristled and all but cheered in my chair one day, as I read with admiring envy his reasoned, copiously evidenced, and irrefutable demolition of a ventriloquial if vainglorious Martin Amis novel of the Nineteen Eighties…

Tam had sneered, “It would be nice if Martin, or his other unconvincing avatar Martina, as he terms himself here, could manage to distinguish prose from pose… I don’t believe a word of this vaudeville joke of a novel.”

Only a week later, in an august Sunday heavy, came a mocking excoriation of a preening Julian Barnes masterwork, where the jovial authorial voice, according to Tam, was absolutely identical to the breezily facetious tone of Barnes’s TV reviews in the New Statesman a decade earlier. Soon after, for good measure, with meticulous and decorous precision, he stamped on the latest hilarious epic poem by the TV polymath Clive James, even declaring that his eminent Scottish editor should spend a night in the Edinburgh stocks for printing something so amateurish and dire. Within a single month, Tam had put his hobnailed boot into that hallowed unassailable triumvirate, and thus become an insolent heretic who had declared that all three emperors wore no clothes. If all this should sound meagre, inconsequential and masonic stuff, be aware that the number of truly fearless and independent-minded critics, both then and three decades on, could be counted on just two fingers, which is to say that Tam Driver constituted a full fifty per cent of the national quotient.

Tam was one of my best friends, and yet he was one of those (and they are always men) who I could have talked to for a thousand years, and never known who was sat there before me. He rarely spoke of anything personal, and if he did it was a distanced precis or a polite summary, not a revelation, however modest. I know perhaps five men in the whole world who are not like that, which explains why I prefer the company of women, the majority of whom do not hygienically summarise but speak with a natural transparence about themselves. Sometimes of course a biographical horror can make people hedging and self-protective and it was only after Tam’s death I learned that he was in a near fatal car crash when he was just five years old. I had known the man for twenty-five years and knew nothing about the accident, nor it transpired did even one of his closest friends. That protective distance of his was consonant with his avowed intoxication with Art, meaning literature and great music, in his case the finest classical composers and jazz. He had abandoned school defiantly at sixteen and done countless humdrum jobs, before becoming a mature student and spending three years reading the greatest of books and listening to Bach, and realising what in his terms, life was finally all about. However, there is an inevitable penalty for making High Culture your Deity (or in making it your Wife or your Husband  by marrying it) which is that you often become incapable of being  an ordinary soul and thus of talking  to other ordinary souls, and I have seen Tam patently at a loss to talk unselfconsciously with even the friendly old men with their flat caps in the corner of a Workington or Whitehaven or Maryport saloon bar. Meanwhile Tam would have been the first to acknowledge that many of the greatest writers: Hardy, George Eliot, Dickens, Zola. Gorky and many more, have the acutest of ears and can render the tone and timbre and consequence of the speech of ordinary folk, not as cosmetic local colour, but as the enduring stuff of life itself…

None of these reflections came into full focus for me, until four or five years after Tam died. One evening I was thinking about the considerable number of people one meets in this world, who lack any sense of private boundaries, meaning they are frequently presumptuous, would-be controlling, and often irritating, and can occasionally catastrophically get on your nerves, and who no one in their right mind would wish to share a closeted month of self-catering on a minor Outer Hebridean island in severely inclement weather, in say mid-January…

But what are we to do with such people, I ask you directly now in the spring of 2019, and I also ask myself, and I also ask the ghost of the poet Tam Driver. Should we, to preserve our basic sanity and our treasured independence, ignore them, run like the wind from them, satirise them, pillory them, incarcerate them, excommunicate them from polite or impolite society, and if so should it be forever more?

The answer came after reading the works of the Donegal writer Peadar O’ Donnell, born in the 1890s on a remote and tiny Irish island, and whose first tongue was Ulster Gaelic. In a nutshell, what the Irishman said was, tempting as it is, you cannot kick the bores and nuisances and monomaniacs and busybodies and pains in the arse, and serial adulterers, and not even the drunken gropers out of your, or anyone else’s life for evermore, it simply cannot be done. On the manifest grounds that if over the course of history, everyone had successfully done that, there would have been no Shakespeare, no Dickens, no Dostoievsky, no Virginia Woolf, no operas, no Verdi, no Donizetti, no Rolling Stones, no Joni Mitchell, no anything worth having, and Tam Driver would have been the first to be up in irate arms about that…

What O’ Donnell said was:

The great thing about this world is that it is full of people. Human nature is great stuff

In the reductive technical world of Psychotherapy, it is called Deliberate Reframing. In the Gospels, it is called simply a Parable. In Zen it is called a Koan. To achieve such an exemplary insight, you need to have the patience of a saint, and the mind of a child, and the instincts of a dog and the prescient silence of a cat…

And the reward, at the end of the day is…

Who knows?

Advertisements

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ VIOLET TREFUSIS

The next post will be on or before Sunday April 28th

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ VIOLET TREFUSIS

‘Caroline was certainly pretty, but she looked sullen and extinguished. The most noticeable thing about her was her hair, which was the colour of sherry and probably waved naturally, but it was parted down the middle and plastered into an unbecoming bandeau. Why try to look like a Luini Madonna, when one’s expression is that of a schoolboy who has been kept in on a half holiday?’

Hunt the Slipper (1937) by Violet Trefusis

Somewhere around the mid-1930s wealthy English socialite Caroline Crome who is in her early 20s is being scrutinised by her future lover, the middle-aged Nigel Benson, who resides with his unmarried sister Molly in a handsome rural pile called, significantly, Ambush. Note in the 3-sentence extract above that there is an enormous, quite uncanny amount being told and hinted about the young woman, and in the sharpest and most economical manner, in terms of ironic qualifications and nuanced comic wonderment. Caroline, daughter of the aptly named Lord and Lady Random of the eponymous mansion, has been married off to young Sir Anthony Crome, who lives with his mother in another mansion called Critchley, but she soon finds Anthony dull, and slowly though by no means easily, she falls for his one and only good friend, Nigel. But and before I elaborate on the story, I’d ask you to look again at the passage above, and reflect that in its density and lateral richness and deliberate comic bluntness, it is rather like a virtuoso jazz musician, inasmuch as lots of things are happening at once and yet the author/musician is in total and lucid control of her material. I emphasise this, because such technically adroit and complex writers of any gender are extremely thin on the ground (the remarkably subtle stories of US Deep South writer Eudora Welty, 1909-2001, as in the 1941 A Curtain of Green, are a worthy parallel) and one major literary injustice among many affecting Trefusis (1894-1972) is that her critical reception has always been guarded and mixed. It didn’t help that, as she spent much of her life in France. she wrote equally well in 2 languages, and several of her 7 novels are in French. For complex copyright reasons, the wonderful feminist Virago Press who put some of her books back in print in the 80s, were unable to do so with her unpublished novels that only survive in manuscript. If you’ve heard of Trefusis at all (I myself hadn’t till I was in my mid 50s) it is probably in the context of upmarket literary scandal, for between 1918 and 1921 she was lover of the novelist  and later owner of Sissinghurst and its legendary gardens, Vita Sackville-West(1892-1962) who in turn was lover of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf’s famous 1928 novel Orlando has a central character who keeps changing gender throughout various periods of history, and is based on Vita, and likewise the novel also fictionalises Trefusis as Sasha, a wild even savage princess who is part of a Russian embassy entourage.

What follows next is going to sound like a spectacularly racy, albeit elevated version of the Archers or Eastenders, but here goes. Violet’s mother was the Hon Alice Keppel, wife of the Hon George Keppel, and Alice was favourite mistress of the British monarch Edward 7th (Honourable George apparently made himself obligingly scarce when the royal made his weekly visits). Violet was sent to an exclusive London girls’ school where she met Vita Sackville-West and their friendship continued until they became lovers when both in their mid-twenties. Despite her own impressively top draw adultery, Alice could not accept the scandal of an openly Lesbian daughter, so had her married off to Major Denys Trefusis in 1919. Violet having sworn eternal love to Vita, made Denys promise their marriage would never be consummated, and ditto Vita when she was married off to Harold Nicholson requested the same of him. Harold was in any case bisexual, meaning marriage in his case was a handy social camouflage. Nevertheless, Violet and Vita kept fleeing their marriages to be with each other, often to France, and once were pursued by anguished Denys in an aeroplane. That’s enough of the pulse racing stuff to be going on with, but and before I forget, just to emphasise that Violet Trefusis still does not get her just critical acclaim, not even in 2019, and is much less read than Sackville-West who in my view is a far inferior, even clumpingly awkward writer. Vita’s 1931 All Passion Spent, for example, is a limp, jejune and underwritten affair with a title to match, and Woolf several times wrote that her lover was often ‘too fluent’ aka was often a bad writer. Yet astonishingly, in her day Sackville-West was regarded by critics as a greater talent than Woolf, and she certainly sold more books, ironically some of them with the famous Hogarth Press which Virginia and her husband Leonard owned and ran.

But back to Hunt the Slipper.  Here is Nigel’s sister Molly, a gardening fanatic who devotes herself to looking after both herbaceous borders and feckless Nigel, as she muses tenderly about her insomniac brother:

‘He gets so little, meaning sleep. She was glad to contribute to that little. An excellent sleeper herself, she was rather proud of his insomnia. It set him aside as a superior being. Like Nietzsche, he only obtained by violence what was given others freely’

One obvious thing here is that Trefusis has a very subtle and caustic wit, and the publishing industry both in her day and now, seems to be suspicious of women authors who are both very funny and very clever, and much prefer the acceptably facetious. The only female British author I can think of who managed to succeed as a razor sharp and clever comic stylist, was Muriel Spark (1918-2006) possibly in part because some of her books e.g The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) were eminently filmable, whereas Trefusis’s miniature masterpieces are less adaptable in cinematic terms.

Meanwhile, in the context of their illicit love affair, it is Caroline, not Nigel, who has always been the rebel and the iconoclast. She and Anthony have a little daughter called Margaret who Anthony adores, but Caroline finds her plain and dull, to the point that she even slaps her at times out of pure irritation. Not only does she struggle to bond with her child, she is neither a gardener like Molly and her mother in law, nor is she a cherisher of objects like her husband and her lover. Nigel and Anthony both love their ancestral homes to distraction, and they also collect antiques, furniture and ‘bibelots’. Recall that Violet’s lover Vita, owner of Sissinghurst, was an avid horticulturalist, and for years wrote a gardening column for The Observer, and then read Caroline’s observation on such worthy pastimes.

‘That was it…a turn in the garden was good English dogma…whereas a new kind of bath salts was Discovery. Surely there was something maudlin about the way these old women gushed over each embryonic plant: could it be that gardening was their last sexual outlet?’

Nonetheless, the real strength of this novel is the subtly woven thread of the two lovers’ stop-start infatuation, which also explains the title of the novel, the party game slipper which always seems within reach but stays tantalisingly elusive. They first meet inconclusively at Critchley, as naïve Sir Anthony thinks meeting a sound chap like his friend Nigel might distract his wife from her occasional doldrums. Later by coincidence Nigel happens to be in Paris at the same time as the Cromes, and there Caroline is carrying on flagrantly with a handsome Chilean called Melo. Typically, Anthony is incapable of being jealous, as Melo is not only not a gentleman, he is a ‘dago’ foreigner, hence there can be no conceivable danger in their dancing together all night. Trefusis’ shrewd evocation of Melo and his obvious limits is masterly in its economy.

‘He had no friends. Le chic was his undoing. He was really a perfectly harmless childishly vain young man with a taste for playing the maracas…and a talent for dancing which almost amounted to genius. Completely self-possessed, fashion rather than passion dictated his affairs, and he was capable of giving excellent and disinterested advice to young women on the art of running their faces.’

Melo is also very fickle and lies to Caroline when he cancels an evening assignation, the excuse being his mother has turned up in Paris out of the blue. In fact, he has a rendezvous with one of the most elegant women in Europe, namely Terpischore von Putsch, also known as Terps, the widow of a Senator. Terps has ‘bones that were joss sticks, her eyes were by Faberge, her heart made out of Venetian glass, was a pretty toy’. By chance, Caroline spots the two of them together in a taxi, and returns to her hotel in great distress, virtually paralysed by the betrayal. As it happens, Anthony has just been called back to England, because his mother Lady Crome has suddenly been taken ill. And fortuitously, it is Nigel who escorts her back to the hotel, for he has seen her in the street in a state of obvious shock and has ministered alcohol and guided her to her bed. Intimacy predictably follows, and very soon the middle-aged bachelor finds himself completely infatuated with his best friend’s young wife. Caroline before long has to return to England, but Nigel stays on with Molly on a European jaunt, taking in Monte Carlo, Florence and Rome, a blurred itinerary if ever there was, as now the whole of his life hinges on her letters and their unpredictable arrival. Her correspondence is both perfunctory and scarce, and he is driven to madness by this passive and paralysing obsession, and even becomes suicidal in Rome.

‘How could he get even with her, the bitch? How dared she make him suffer so, encouraging him in one letter, annihilating him in the next? He loathed her, despised her, longed for a whole harem of women on whom to wreak his vengeance. A second whisky and soda…made him leer at quite a respectable American girl who was sitting opposite him in the lounge. She got up and walked away.’

By a miracle Nigel’s torment does eventually cool, and as the great Stendhal (1783-1842) has analysed at length, in his treatise on the torment of unfulfilled passion entitled On Love (1822), his lesser ardour suddenly prompts Caroline to realise how much she misses him and to increase hers. They become lovers at Critchley when Anthony is away, and of course, at Ambush, with Molly ignoring everything apart from her flowering shrubs, they can behave as they like. Everything would seem to be secure for ever more, especially as Anthony is the blindest of naïve cuckolds, who sees his wife’s new happiness (she has stopped slapping little Margaret for example) as down to Nigel’s regular fraternal visits, it being inconceivable that his friend would betray him. Two things get seriously in the way however, one being that Caroline wants to show off her lover in London, somewhere else where they can behave as they like. This entails Nigel not only deserting his beloved Ambush, but also going dancing and partying, which not only bores him stiff, but gives rise to anguished jealousy when she is dancing with someone else. Caroline eventually relents on all that, but will not concede on something far more important. Guilt at his treachery to Anthony aside, Nigel would be happy to stay her lover for evermore, as long as he can stay at Ambush and have his bibelots as well as his mistress. But Caroline, for all her volatile moods, is now genuinely in love, and wants to leave Antony and to marry Nigel. Nigel meanwhile is appalled, not just as the prospect of his life being turned upside down, but at her callousness towards her doting husband and neglected daughter.

While this unresolved contention is bubbling away, Caroline makes a visit to her extraordinary family, and this is one of the comic high points of the novel. To describe the Randoms as eccentric is excessive understatement. Her mother is very keen on ornithology, especially the icterine warbler, and she has no interest in running the house, so that Lord Random the ex-diplomat survives mostly on breakfast cereals. Dinner is always at least an hour late, and is frequently organised by one of Caroline’s three brothers, all of whom live at Random, all of whom are collectors of objects, and only one of whom Terence, is married, to, of all things, a penniless emigre Russian.

‘Terence collected keys. The only key that didn’t interest him was the key to his wife’s heart. Once she had grown accustomed to his angelic beauty, she discovered his angelic coldness.’

As for the dinner Caroline is offered on the first night of her visit:

‘Lord Random thought it was time to intervene. “Leave your mother alone boys, and attend to your- er – chicken.”

“It isn’t chicken, it’s peahen,” came the indignant reply.

Caroline pushed away her plate. “Faugh! I might have guessed it was something disgusting. Really, it’s like dining with the Borgias! The next time I come here I’ll provide my own food.”

…Lord Random offered Caroline a covered dish. “Here child, you’d better have some of my puffed wheat. It’s quite safe.”’

This is high class farce, worthy of Evelyn Waugh, indeed funnier than Waugh in my opinion. However, what follows next gets less and less farcical, as Caroline pressures Nigel into telling Anthony about their affair and insisting that he must divorce her. After a colossal struggle, Nigel eventually musters enough courage, at which point Anthony is suddenly struck down with typhoid fever and almost dies. The aftermath is that his heart is so weak that any shock could kill him, which thankfully puts paid to any immediate disclosure. Caroline’s next strategy is to get Nigel to go abroad again partying, and in an attempt to stir him into jealousy, starts making much of a naive and rich 55-year-old Canadian called Tom, a man so ignorant he thinks Picasso is the name of a holiday resort. When Nigel has to return to England, Caroline refuses to go with him, but stays on with Tom, so that he believes things must have finished and is in terminal despair. It gets even worse, when Anthony turns up pitifully distraught with a letter from Caroline saying she is in love with Tom, and their marriage must end, and he must look after Margaret. Even at this stage Anthony has no idea that Nigel Benson has betrayed him. While her shattered husband is staying with Nigel, a letter arrives in Caroline’s handwriting which he assumes can only confirm what she had told Anthony. Then, the cruellest of all conceivable tragedies. Fool that he is, he doesn’t open the letter for several days, only to discover that Tom was a hoax and a lure, nothing more, intended solely to spur Nigel into putting his money where his mouth was, and to marry her. Her appalling letter concludes:

‘…if you’re not here by Friday I shall run away with Tom and it’s no use trying to find me. When I think of all the trouble I’ve gone to, to induce you to take such a natural step, it makes my blood boil, and I see red. And you say that you love me!  If you’re not here by Friday, I never wish to see you again.

This is final. Don’t be a fool.’

And yes, he has missed Caroline’s deadline…

SHOCKING STUFF

The next post will be on or before Friday 26th April

SHOCKING STUFF

My friend the American writer Lorna Tracy (born 1934) who for years co-edited Stand Magazine with her late husband the poet Jon Silkin (1930-1997), once complained that she received an enormous number of unsolicited and unreadable short stories about what life was like in the Aftermath of a Nuclear War. As she put it, there was so little pliable fictional material for any writer to work with, given the utterly reduced, absolute and nightmarish vacuum succeeding any nuclear holocaust, it would have needed a genius to render the thing artistically. Round about that time, I was thinking exactly the same thing about the burgeoning number of novels produced by fashionable British/Irish writers, which were all about Murderous Psychopaths and/or Serial Killers, for at one stage and despite the extreme statistical rarity of such appalling and terrifying individuals, it really looked as if everyone felt they must include one as part of the supercharged formula. Co Monaghan Ulsterman Patrick McCabe (born 1955) hit the big time with the blood-splattered Butcher Boy with its picaresquely disturbed small-town murderer and slaughter house worker called Francie, and it was successfully filmed in 1997 by Neil Jordan. The Welsh equivalent arrived in 2001 when Niall Griffiths (born 1966) published the boldly titled Sheepshagger which was about the mountain boy, Ianto, a feral drug crazed psychopath, and his rather poetic obsession with extreme violence. Both were meant to be radically uninhibited studies of characters so deprived, damaged and suffering such irreversible societal alienation, their psychopathy must therefore be ipso facto authentic, not to say structurally inevitable.

All that sounds good on paper, but after wading my way through both of them, my feeling was that neither McCabe nor Griffiths would have known what a real flesh and blood (or possibly fleshless and bloodless) psychopath was like, even if it had stood up and waved a handkerchief at them at the Booker awards. For instead of rendering a credible imaginative version of three-dimensional visceral madness, they both opted for the shorthand in your face approach of in Griffiths’ case, four letter all-purpose ranting demotic monologues by Ianto…and by a quaint inversion in McCabe’s book, he had Francie musing repetitively over a schoolboys’ comic cartoon character, namely Winker Watson of the old Dandy. What I’m saying is, their versions of disturbed and violent psychotics, were in fact acceptably stylised caricatures, which apart from anything else made them eminently filmable (Sheepshagger became a movie in 2012) for instead of making your blood run cold as any real psychos would have, they became almost cherishable and victorious antiheroes. Compare either of them with the vivid and hair-raising evocations of innately homicidal characters as in the novels of a giant like Emile Zola, 1840-1902 (qv the 1890 The Beast in Man, also frequently filmed) and you will see that the modern UK/Irish  version is a kind of anodyne and I would argue teenage rendition of psychosis, nowhere in the realm of the painfully real and infinitely distressing thing. For it would surely take an artist of massive imaginative power, another Zola or another Fyodor Dostoievsky, to project convincingly into someone who inhabits the ugliest, most barren and most wretchedly estranged areas of human, or arguably inhuman experience.

It has always been possible for a gifted writer to shock their readers in a cathartic, meaning artistically instructive manner, but without resorting to outlandish, factitious or pathologically violent characters. One author who was doing this successfully long before McCabe and Griffiths (or before Alan Warner in his gory 1995 Morvern Callar set in a fictionalised Oban in the Highlands, or Bret Easton Ellis and his 2000 American Psycho, both successfully filmed) was the story writer and novelist Guy de Maupassant. Maupassant, 1850-1893, (the honorific ‘de’ was his father’s wishful thinking) published in his short life no less than 300 stories, 5 novels (the recently filmed Bel Ami is the best known) a few travel books, and rapidly became phenomenally and lucratively successful, and has been read in every language ever since. Admired by Leo Tolstoy and Nietzsche, and subsequently a role model for the stories of O’ Henry and Somerset Maugham, he was born of bourgeois parents with a father violent enough for his mother to successfully seek a legal separation when such things were virtually unheard of. He died of syphilis aged 42, which might have been congenital, and a year before that he attempted to slit his throat and was consigned to a private mental asylum. Significantly then, male violence, whether actual or threatened, and whether evident in 19th C French peasants or aristocrats, is a regular feature of his stories, as is the contemplation of suicide. However, the threat of violence, which is to say a form of mental bullying, is not just confined to men, for there are regular spectacularly heartless women in the stories, so vicious and so callous in some cases, that your eyes all but pop out of your head. You are shocked not so much by what they do as fictional characters, but by the fact they are very obviously based on real originals, meaning you suddenly have the transforming illumination, that human beings in apparently minor circumscribed domestic dramas, are capable of being so heartlessly and egotistically appalling, it is almost beyond belief.

Below I give thumbnail summaries of 3 of Maupassant’s most shocking stories. With at least one of them you do not know whether to laugh or cry, for it is both blackly comic and extremely pitiful. All 3 have stunningly callous and unsentimental antagonists, 2 of them female and one of them male. After reading these brief and potently disorienting parables, most of them about 1500 words long, you are left with the conclusion that human beings at their solitary worst (none of these antagonists work in cooperation with other bullies, they are strictly autonomous monsters you might say) are more atrocious than even the wildest of wild animals. Also that the collective horrors and mass cruelties of every century, are surely the explicable result of infinite numbers of these solo antagonists blindly and instinctively uniting and cohering to do their vicious worst. The titles of the summaries are  my own, and if you wish to seek out the originals, I suggest you zestfully work your way through all 300 of de Maupassant’s tales, for they are not all shocking by any means, some of them are very funny or very sad, and  you will scarcely be wasting your time reading everything written by an author of such extraordinary talent.

THE MAN WHO TRIED TO MAKE HIS WIFE UGLY

A landed French aristocrat with a penchant for having his domineering way, marries a beautiful young woman in her early 20s. The worrying problem is she is so beautiful he starts to feel pathologically jealous of possible attentions from other men, not least because he himself is given to infidelity. His bizarre solution is to have her more or less continuously pregnant, in the hope that she will eventually lose all her looks and there will be no chance of any rivals. So it is that by her late 20s she has 7 children and is thoroughly exhausted and wretched, even if her beauty is still exquisite. She confronts him one day and says she understands and abhors his perverse thinking, even though he has never confessed to it, and she refuses to have any further pregnancies. Enraged and astounded, he is about to strike her, when she stops him in mid-air by telling him that one of the 7 children is not his! She flinches when she says it of course, but instead of beating her, he is stupefied and instantly crumples, whereupon she clinches things by informing him she will never tell him who the father was, not even on her death bed.

He slinks away defeated, and for the next few years wanders about like a ghostly shadow, obsessed with the identity of this child not his, and with all the torturing implications in terms of his personal honour and his future heirs. At last he begs her without fear of any reprisal, to put him out of his misery and tell her which child is someone else’s. He simply cannot take any more of this diabolical guessing, and now being just a shadow of himself, he has no wish to seek revenge, simply to free himself of this crippling anguish. At which point, his beautiful wife relents and assures him that all the children are his, she has always been faithful to him, and her confession was a justified fabrication to stop him so cruelly destroying her looks. Reasonably enough, she might have anticipated the aristocrat would become homicidally violent, but no he slinks away again, and we are left to wonder whether he really believes in her retraction or whether the torture will continue for ever more

THE MAN WHO BECAME A HEN 

In the quiet French countryside, a fat, lazy and amiable man of late middle age runs a popular public house. He is married to a remorseless bully of a woman who derides and nags him for his laziness and who resents his good nature which she sees as contemptible weakness. One day the landlord tragically takes an apoplectic fit, and becomes virtually paralysed. All he can do is sit in his bed and with a struggle turn sideways. Nevertheless, he copes as best he can by having his bed put right next to the public bar, and by chatting to his friends the customers through the walls. However, his wife happens to have one abiding passion which is raising poultry, and one day one of the customers jokes that her husband with his flabby bulk could at least earn his keep by hatching their eggs. Remarkably she takes this at face value, and instructs her husband that unless he agrees to play the broody hen, she will give him nothing to eat. Pliable as he is, the pitiful invalid protests at the outlandish proposal, but she sticks to her promise and gradually starves him into submission. With the first clutch of eggs under his motionless arms, the man gradually grows bored, so that fidgeting and turning in his bed, he promptly turns the clutch into an omelette. Enraged, his wife threatens to starve him again, until with a great struggle he manages to restrain all movement, and eventually hatches a beautiful little chick from underneath his arm. The couple happen to be childless, and as the tiny chick cheeps gently under the wing of its ‘mother’, the hopeless cripple is overcome with emotion, and tears of pride and love for this new offspring start streaming down his face

HOW TO CHEAT DEATH

A poor young peasant has a widowed mother who is seriously ill and who will obviously die very soon. He is her only child but he has to work every day to earn his bread, meaning he cannot manage the customary all-night vigils by her bedside, even though a kindly neighbour has agreed to see to her during the day. He therefore has to call in the stony old woman in the village who specialises in tending dying folk by night. For rich people she charges a certain nightly rate and for peasants less, but it is still far too much as far as the peasant is concerned.  It swiftly comes down to crude haggling, and assuring her the doctor says his mother will die very soon, within a couple of days at most, he agrees to pay her the standard peasant rate. But in the remote case that those last days drag out to a week or even longer, he insists on an inclusive reduced rate. After lengthy tussling the attendant snorts her agreement, and on her first night with the mother is confident that the end will be soon. She is therefore severely perturbed, indeed openly angry with her charge the next night, when she seems to have made a modest improvement. The old nurse does a few rapid sums and decides that this terminal decline cannot possibly be allowed to follow its own anarchic course. Quietly she steals down to the kitchen to bring up a mop and a pail and then rummaging in the bedroom wardrobe, she finds a vast sheet. She inverts the pail on her head, covers herself with the ghostly white cloth, and then by the death bed vigil of candlelight, makes the stick end of the mop look like some variation on a mediaeval lance. Moving towards the bed, she makes a muted howling sound designed not to wake the son, but to wake his mother who stares in petrified astonishment and gasps in raw horror at this terrible phantom…

Then she takes a fatal heart attack, and so assures the smiling attendant that she will not be fleeced by her wily young son…  

COME BACK, SPITTING IMAGE

The next post will be on or before Friday 19th April

COME BACK, SPITTING IMAGE

About a week ago something quite remarkable happened to me, which is to say I have never experienced anything like it in all my 68 years. I was sat in all innocence in my Kythnos house of an early evening, musing vaguely about the business of mimicry, human mimicry that is, as in the debatable and, as a rule, downmarket entertainments of TV Impressionists and Tribute Bands (qv the Jimi Hendrix tribute band from Hexham, Northumbria, UK called, right, you’ve guessed it, ‘Jimi Hexham’). Those impressionists not only mimic, they also strive to ‘imitate’ in every possible sense the original models, and if there were any justice in the world they would be rewarded according to the brilliance of their imitation. Sadly, that isn’t always the case, but that in any event is a distraction from my story, because the extraordinary thing that happened next was my mind suddenly seemed go into freefall and started thinking about all other examples of imitation to be found in that capacious entity called the Cosmos. By which I mean within the human and the animal, and why stop there, the botanical and even the immaterial and transcendental context. Before I knew it, I started to think and with a considerable degree of dizziness that I had found myself a new Universal, a new Explanation, a New Imaginative Key to Human Knowledge…me the as a rule humble Kythno-Cumbrian who hitherto had discovered precisely nothing original in any field of human endeavour, other than my one and only invented culinary dish (roast potatoes in orange juice, olive oil and basil, in case you are wondering).

Let me explain. Suddenly, after thinking for some time about the most illustrious TV impressionist of recent years, Scotsman Rory Bremner (born 1961) and his satirical imitations of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, sundry US presidents and the like, I began to ponder all other examples of Imitation and as in an escalating whirlwind, there seemed to be no recognisable end to them, and more to the point they seemed to subtend almost every example of human and non-human endeavour. I need to stress that I had never once in all my life thought anywhere along these mesmerisingly reductive lines, and in such a rapid synthesising manner, and that the realisation came altogether gratuitously, more or less dropped on my head, rather than me striving to make any conceptual connection.

Here for example, and by way of starters (you will no doubt think of your own variations), are some examples of the ubiquitous phenomenon of Imitation Writ Large…

Both psychologists and linguists tell us that when an infant learns how to speak, they do so by Analogy and Imitation of their role models, customarily their parents, but also of course their siblings, TV programmes, playmates etc. They only learn to speak at all because seemingly, of their own volition, they decide to imitate, or let us say if they didn’t imitate their models, they would end up borderline mute and sadly disadvantaged for the rest of their life. Of course, their progress as they start to copy their learning templates is far from perfect, as like inadequate TV impressionists or inept tribute bands, they cannot get things right in one go. Hence unlike their Mum (even if when the wine is going down well, she is sometimes given to the hilarious colloquial) they will say ‘Me like Smarties’, as they cannot cognitively distinguish between subject and object, between who or what does the deed, and who or what they do it to. Ditto you rarely hear a 3-year-old resorting to the subjunctive mood as in, ‘Would that you made a lot more money Dad, so that we could have Sky Digital and 500 channels…’  for instead they will innocently lisp, ‘Me like Sky TV ’ an infant variation on, ‘me would also like the Moon.’

But let’s turn to the serious and pragmatic post-infant business of doing and achieving. When a grown child or an adult for that matter, learns any new educational or manual skill, they obviously do so by studious imitation. A 12-year-old for example learns how to solve a mathematical equation by imitating the teacher’s favoured method, and if they are unable to do that, they cannot learn the skill. That said, the important empirical variable here is the teacher’s mode of explanation, for if the teacher summarises their method badly or ambiguously, then the child cannot see how to do a successful imitation. This was in fact my own painful case, back in Gothic West Cumbria in 1963, when our incredibly foul-tempered, ever-salivating and aged spinster maths teacher Miss Puckridge told us all that in order to solve a simple equation, we must gather the x’s on one side and the numbers on the other, and to do this we must ‘change the sign and add’. It was that last bit that made nil sense at all to me, it might as well have been salivated in Elamite or Middle Vandalic, for what so-called signs must I change and to what else must I add the incomprehensible bastards? For long and fretful weeks I couldn’t get my equations right, until I confided with my older brother, and he immediately showed me a method as clear as day, and I have been able to solve 2x + 6 = 12 ever since, and it has been a considerable consolation to me in all life’s trials, as I’m sure you can appreciate. Likewise, and crucially, an apprentice plumber learns how to unblock a domestic drain and to make an entire household happy instead of forlorn and dysfunctional, by following closely their boss’s instructions, by imitating their method, both by attentively watching and carefully listening. Ditto any yoga student in an evening class in Stow on the Wold or Piddle Trenthide  or London SE21 learns how to get the utthitaparsvakonasana posture right by imitating Margie the teacher’s instructions to the letter…and if they don’t, or do it carefree and blasé, or when full of 15% wine, they might do their back in for the next 20 years and need more than yoga to sort it out…

A conceptual distance from the learning of skills, whether intellectual or practical, is the business of living a whole life according to moral, ethical or spiritual direction. When it comes to instructive role models striving Christians are adjured in the Biblical Epistles, to walk in the ways of the spiritual giants, meaning to Imitate the Saints. This is never going to be easy of course (especially the outlandish business of loving your enemies) no more than advanced plumbing skills or advanced mathematical calculus are ever going to be easy. One has to follow/imitate strict spiritual rules or strict spiritual directions in imitating the saints, and one way to start is with the Ten Commandments, which as one theologian has wisely pointed out are not called the Ten Suggestions…though most of us prefer to act as if that is exactly what they should have been called. By the same token, pious Hindus read the hallowed Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu, urges them to imitate his own example, and do their designated duty without attachment to either Reward or Loss, to either Pleasure or Pain. By which discipline, which is to say by learned imitation, they will not by their actions create Karma and thus will be freed from the cycle of Death and Rebirth called Samsara.

Then there are matters of a more diversionary, not to say glamorous nature. When an actor acts, they imitate the character as portrayed by the dramatist for the stage or the TV or film screen, and if we are lucky, they perform the sleight of hand of making us suspend disbelief and believe, almost as a child would, that we are watching real people in real dramas doing real and engaging things. Of course the number of variables here is considerable. Great acting comes by the actor imitating the subtlest depths and nuances of the character, assuming the character has any depth as rendered by the playwright. At this point, crucially the world divides into those who like Drama and those who prefer Melodrama which is also known as Soap Opera. The latter regularly concocts serious, even tragic, even devastating issues, but instead of rooting them in Credible Character, roots them in acceptably narcotising Stereotype. This same narcotic works as an analgesic, hence there is no Real Grief nor Real Rage nor Real Terror nor Real Joy in these prime-time TV melodramas. Their 2-dimensional characters are not and never will be real, for the simple reason that their feelings are, qua the audience’s wishful thinking, manufactured or cooked up by the obliging soap dramatist, which is to say they are not viscerally nor imaginatively felt by either dramatist or audience. None of which would matter all that much, until one reflects that some of the most powerful people in the world, e.g. political celebrities like Trump and Putin talk exactly like lead actors in the strangest soap opera, and Trump at his verbal worst conveys nothing but undiluted and incontinent melodrama. Even more worrying, almost every politician in the world, including the UK Labour and Tory variety, resorts, on hypnotised autopilot, to soaplike truisms, inasmuch as those godawful things called Political Speeches are never about itemised, specified and checkable realities, but instead a set of vacuous cheerleading motifs, full of indefinable wholly fictional entities (and very downmarket fiction at that). For example, slogans like ‘The British People will not accept this travesty of justice’ is surely the purest meaning the rankest bog-standard soap opera. For at some point, anyone remotely sane would surely ask themselves, who are these so called homogeneous and united British People when they are at home, in front of their flat screens and their TV dinners and their exercise machines and buy one get one free online vitamin pills? Can you see them, smell them, hear them, touch them, as something describably and ontologically real? Do they seem, these redoubtable ghosts, invented by cheery politicians, like genuine human beings or more like lathered soap? What exactly do they look like, smell like, feel like, in their so-called reality?  Where exactly do you find them, and does it involve turning over a stone?  How many times a minute do these phantoms check their smartphones, and does this make them in any sense more or less like a 24/7 soap that has been sold all over the world in 17 languages?

Meanwhile, if imitation is such a recognisable universal and an essential component of what it is to be human, then you can start to feel a pessimistic fatalism when you consider the likelihood of children helplessly imitating the wrong role models, and with all its implications for the world at large. We have all known small boys with fathers who are openly vaunting, bumptious and puerilely competitive, and seen how those kids when they reach adolescence suddenly start to ape their father to a tee. The good news is that at least when it comes to learned social behaviour, Free Will is still a reality, and plenty of teenagers opt to become the opposite of their Dad, possibly because they felt too painfully the demeaning tail end of all that masculine competitiveness. It is an undeniable fact that plenty of boys with violent and abusive fathers end up violent and abusive themselves, but it is also a fact that many others decide to  acknowledge their own vulnerability and closeted victimhood and make a crucial decision not to project, not to introject, not to act it all out for the rest of their lives, but to walk defiantly in the opposite direction of being kind and gentle to others.

There are clearly two principle varieties of imitation, that done in the crucial name of Learning and that done in the name of Diversionary Entertainment. The latter may be formalised and even provide a source of income as in TV Impressionists and Tribute Bands (The Beetles from Stony Stratford, The Rocking Stones from Todmorden, Elvis Preston from Preston, Lancs), or it can be informal as in the case of a schoolgirl doing a brilliant send up of her uptight PE teacher Ms Maggie McCorquodaile, she of the comical sniff, the surreal facial tic and the far too masculine voice.  The schoolgirl mimic won’t make any money out of it, but she will have great cache among her pals as her imitation is so pitch perfect that she has almost stolen or encapsulated and thus neutralised Maggie’s Identity or even Soul by her magical mimesis. It is that love of mimicry which once in the early 1970s lead to a mindboggling show called Who Do You Do? on UK’s ITV, where the camera went repeatedly along a whole row of performers of both sexes, none of them virtuosos, who often did the same impersonations, and to such a degree of monotonous sameness  the viewer would end up feeling dazed to the point of  non- imitative inanition. Take-offs of mad TV scientists Magnus Pyke and David Bellamy, of Marlon Brando as the Godfather, of James Cagney and his You Dirty Rat, of WC Fields and Mae West (minus of course her admirably outrageous double entendre) of avuncular Labour PM James Callaghan, not to speak of Ronald Reagan’s avowed heartthrob Margaret Thatcher when she was in opposition pre 1979…

There is no radio equivalent of TV impressionists as far as I know, though I do vividly recall the truly surreal phenomenon of radio ventriloquists as in the runaway 1950s BBC hit, Educating Archie, Archie being a talking schoolboy doll. The TV variety has justly almost vanished from the screen, and for one very good reason. Mechanical mimicry in itself is not enough unless it reaches virtuoso heights and to do that it would have to get inside the original’s soul, every nook and cranny of it, and as if the impressionist were another Olivier or Gielgud or Plowright.  As most UK impressionists tend to imitate topical politicians for easy laughs, they have the singular task of rendering wavering semantic vacuity, take it or leave it verbal imprecision, lack of a coherent and credible moral core, lack of a centre of existential gravity, whilst also conveying timid hypocrisy, timid double dealing, vain and forgettable mouthings, and all the rest. Bremner has survived longer than most as he does after a fashion take the piss out of politicians, but with nowhere near the scorn or mockery or seditious contempt that was so welcome in Spitting Image, the ITV’s satirical puppet show of 40 years ago.

The conclusion deserves a paragraph to itself and especially when we are all wallowing in the nightmarish morass of Brexit in April 2019. It is surely instructive that to get an authentic satirical edge, which is to say a moral weapon intended to pierce the thickest of insentient political hides, the creators of the show had to adopt a strategic and ineffable Double Imitation. The first Imitation was the Puppet Doll which imitated a Man or a Woman, and the second or Meta-Imitation was the Meta-Man or  Meta-Woman which mimicked the Politician as he or she bluffed and blustered and shuffled into relaxing Soap Opera mode and who has been soaping and lathering and relaxing ever since.

A GENIUS CALLED LIDIA JORGE

The  next post will be on or before Friday 12th April

A GENIUS CALLED LIDIA JORGE

Writing of her extraordinary 7th novel The Migrant Painter of Birds (1998, translated 2001), Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago says of Lidia Jorge (born 1946):

‘A remarkable book…written by one of the most important voices in new Portuguese literature.’

Given that Saramago (1922-2010) is in my view one of the most talented writers in the whole of world literature, past or present, this is a testimonial more authoritative and enduring than most. Jorge has published to date 4 story collections and 11 novels, but sadly only 2 of her books including this one are available in English, translated by the doyenne of Portuguese specialists Margaret Jull Costa. Saramago’s chosen term ‘remarkable’ is especially apt, because both theme and prose style here are unnervingly original as Jorge starts to play with the perplexing  notion of a worrying dual identity experienced by a young child all the way through to her thirties. The setting is an obscure village called Sao Sebastiao in the Portuguese Algarve, beginning in the early 1950s and taking us as far as 1983 when the ‘girl’ is in her mid thirties and has just discovered the truth about her paternity and confronted her father. Prior to this, in a massive farmhouse called Valmares, Francisco Dias lords it over his large family, his sons and their wives (including the girl’s mother) who bow to the irritable patriarch on all matters and grind away as his impoverished labourers and domestic skivvies. In the 1950s the Algarve under a Fascist government was remarkably primitive with flickering oil lamps and horse drawn buggies, and Jorge’s narrator reflects that the sternness and harshness of people like Francisco is consonant with the petrifying hardness and austerity of the reactionary government. This spartan and frugal mentality of the struggling peasant, is echoed with extreme precision when the author describes something as seemingly innocuous as the patriarch’s footsteps.

‘…there were the heavy footsteps of Francisco Dias, which, thanks to the two gleaming lines of tacks on the soles of his boots, had a metallic ring to them that followed him everywhere as if he were wearing a crown on his feet.’

It is the unexpected crown on his feet image which takes this finely wrought prose into the realm of the exceptional, or shall we say a quiet genius. For of course Francisco is no monarch but a bitter and disappointed man who neither loves nor is loved by his biddable children. His inordinately large farmhouse is explained by his buying up the most wretched land imaginable at rock bottom prices then getting his team of filial slaves to use pick and hoe to turn it into something fertile. And besides, there is a major fly in the ointment in the form of one son Walter, a rebel who refuses to stay at Valmares, but after his army years goes wandering the globe, only giving a clue to his whereabouts by posting home beautiful drawings of birds he makes in the various exotic countries: parrots from Brazil, ducks from Panama, storks from Casablanca and humming birds from Caracas. These drawings predictably charm the little girl back in Valmares who believes Walter is her uncle, for indeed whenever he sees her he calls her his niece. But Walter is instead her father, an inveterate and shameless womaniser who impregnates a young farmer’s daughter Maria Ema and then immediately vanishes abroad. Worse still he has a strange totemic custom, in that whenever he makes love to a woman and wherever in the world, he spreads his old army blanket down for her to lie on, a sacrilege in military terms for a soldier’s blanket is symbolically tantamount to his national flag, and is to be treated with reverence, not as an adjunct to random fornication. Meanwhile Maria Ema’s life, once she was abandoned, is pure purgatory, as her shamed parents go about doing everything to humiliate and punish her publicly. Ironically it is Francisco saves the day when he realises he can retrieve the Dias grandchild by marrying another son off to Maria Ema. The other son is Custodio who happens to be lame and is the most obedient of his family. As Maria Ema very obviously continues to hanker after vagabond Walter, everyone refers to Custodio as The Cuckold, which it has only just struck me as I write this, is another avine image, as it is derived from the word cuckoo.

‘On that far-off winter night, the rain was falling over the sandy plain, and the noise of the rain on the roof tiles protected us from the world and from the others in the house like a drawn curtain that no human force could wrench open. Had it been otherwise, Walter would not have come up the stairs or entered the room’

Over and again throughout the novel, we have this haunting image of Walter in the 1950s in his bare feet, carrying his shoes, and  going up to the girl’s bedroom to inspect her by an upraised oil lamp. He is coming to look at his daughter, though he invariably assures her she is his niece. She is of course besotted with this wandering uncle who does beautiful drawings and at times she imagines she is summoning him there from distant parts in some magical manner, as if he were part of a film, for she can seemingly force him to visit as she wishes.

‘She would have liked to tell him that she was fifteen, but that she could watch Walter’s film whenever she wanted…and that the film was an intangible inheritance, invisible to the others, but real to her, a film in which no one came or left unless she chose’

These dreamlike fantasies parallel her dreamlike ignorance of not knowing who she is, nor the identity of her roving hero. There is indeed so much of this vertiginous uncertainty that at times we wonder whether Walter ever actually came to her bedside, or if it was all her imagination. But at least one of the visits was real, for Walter later admits to one of his brothers now living and prospering in Canada, that he did on a secret visit enter her bedroom holding aloft his shoes to take a look at her. Far from being touched by this confession, the brother is horrified and in a round robin to his father and all of his siblings (all but Custodio and Maria Ema having fled the nest) he suggests that Walter only went back to Valmares to have his way with still infatuated Maria Ema, and even possibly to have incestuous relations with his daughter. Prior to this crucial revelation and almost as shocking, the girl when very young (in 1951) manages to get hold of Walter’s army revolver, complete with its tantalising golden bullets. She hides it carefully under the pillow or sometimes between the mattress, though taking it out often to play with it, and even once when Walter is stood there in her room.

‘And she cocked and uncocked the gun again and again, so that he would understand that she was afraid of nothing and of no one, for this was the night she managed both to be born and to say farewell, like the mayfly described in her zoology book in the chapter on insects of the genus Ephemera. Then he himself lowered her arm.

‘“Good God, what have we done to you?” he said.’

Note that that word ephemera is hardly insignificant in this context, given how on the unsettled margins of a fantasy existence Walter’s daughter invariably has found herself.

Later the whole of the Dias clan is thoroughly shaken, when Walter announces a surprise visit after years of absence. Maria Ema for one is overwhelmed with excitement, and cannot hide it to the extent that she starts putting make up on, which normally she only does for going to church.

‘But Maria Ema’s make up consisted of just a touch of lipstick. That was all. The transformation lay in her mouth. Her white flesh grew paler next to the bright rose of her mouth. Maria’s mouth became a real rose, a brilliant pearly rose, that put a sparkle in her eyes, smoothed her hair, made her waist more slender, her foot slimmer, her ankle finer, her hands softer…’

However the prodigal son brings very little comfort. After bluffly informing the Diases that the days of subsistence farming are over and tourism is the future, Walter abruptly departs and Maria Ema is to upset she retreats to bed, stops eating, and shows every sign of going into terminal decline. Ironically she is only saved from dying of love, by the sight of her daughter suddenly behaving like her errant father. The teenage girl decides to walk in the direction of the house of the local doctor, a curious dissipated man of about 30 called Dalila, who is a whisky addict and who invites her inside to embrace her, but insists she is in no danger as he is ‘as harmless as a woman’. The girl sees him as a glorified and comical eunuch with glass in hand ‘looking at her, wanting her, undressing her’. The same eunuch is however wise enough to shout at the girl when she mentions Walter’s revolver that she still keeps under her pillow, and he commands her to go and get it, and then flings it triumphantly into the sea. He also takes a titanic laughing fit when she tells him that Walter uses his army blanket for lovemaking. Meanwhile her daughter’s brazenness shocks Maria Ema into action, and she shakes off her lethal torpor and tells her that she will spy on her from now on and clip her wings. However Dalila’s drinking is so bad that before long he is carted off in an ambulance, after which the girl now in her late teens acquires a Citroen Dyane and starts to roam at large to meet as many men as she likes, and Maria can do nothing but vainly threaten.

By now Francisco is very depressed and pitifully uncomprehending, as all his sons bar Custodio have deserted him and gone to America, Canada and South America. They all initially have terrible back-breaking jobs in things like logging or underground mining, where one of them claims he never sees daylight, but as the years roll by, they all become fairytale prosperous. One gets rich in Real Estate, another has a fleet of taxi cars, they all write insultingly brief letters to their father once in a blue moon, and promise they will heed his command and return to divide the estate, but of course they never do. One of them vengefully discloses that Walter borrowed a lot of money from him and promised to pay it back and never did, and it is this breaking of his promise and the parallel disclosure in the same letter that he is her father, not her uncle, that causes the girl’s terminal disenchantment with her lifelong hero. In her thirties now in 1983 she learns that Walter is running a bar called Los Pajaros, The Birds, in a town in Fascist Argentina, where currently certain people are sanctioned to kidnap and drug leftists and fling them out of helicopters into the ocean near unpeopled Tierra del Fuego. Her poetic vengeance is to sit down in Valmares and to pen 3 short stories, all about Walter who is not named but in one of them is called The Fornicator. She promptly gets herself to Los Pajaros, and after some delay finds Walter and gives him the 3 stories to examine on the spot. Obediently he starts reading, and at first she is stupefied as he shows no visible response, and concludes he doesn’t even realise they are all about him! When at last the penny drops, Walter flies into a hate-filled rage and kicks her out of his bar.

‘His hatred was an old one, similar to the hatred seen by his daughter in certain men in Valmares. It was a barbarous hatred, that sent tables and chairs flying, that flung out at her the names of different members of the family, each one accompanied by an insult…’

She returns when  her father has calmed down a little, and with an urgent question. She wants to know why over all those years he drew all those birds with so much detail and love,  as if somehow the answer to that will spell out some renewal of her love for him. But the sad fact is, and it applies to many a disappointed child (and adult for that matter) past and present and anywhere in the world, that our fancies are our personal fancies only, and not the reality of the one we believe uniquely understands  and thereby truly cherishes us.

Her father  says, ‘Look, I did it, because I enjoyed it that’s all.’

A short while after Walter dies penniless, and a long while after that (typically he had addressed it inadequately) the girl receives a parcel covered in foreign stamps and many readdressings by conscientious postmasters from all over the world. Inside is Walter’s army blanket, the one on which the girl was conceived and where all her father’s lovers had spread themselves thereafter. And even to the end her so called father is in a cruel if contented state of thoroughly amnesic denial

To my niece, as sole inheritance, I leave this soldier’s blanket