Imaginary homelands essa.., p.24

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 24


Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

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  The surface of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day, is almost perfectly still. Stevens, a butler well past his prime, is on a week’s motoring holiday in the West Country. He tootles around, taking in the sights and encountering a series of green-and-pleasant country folk who seem to have escaped from one of those English films of the 1950s in which the lower orders doff their caps and behave with respect towards a gent with properly creased trousers and flattened vowels. It is, in fact, July 1956; but other, timeless worlds, the world of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, the upstairs-downstairs world of Hudson, Mrs Bridges and the Bellamys, are also in the air.

  Nothing much happens. The high point of Mr Stevens’s little outing is his visit to Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, the great house to which Stevens is still attached as ‘part of the package’, even though ownership has passed from Lord Darlington to a jovial American named Farraday who has a disconcerting tendency to banter. Stevens hopes to persuade Miss Kenton to return to the Hall. His hopes come to nothing. He makes his way home. Tiny events; but why, then, is the ageing manservant to be found, near the end of his holiday, weeping before a complete stranger on the pier at Weymouth? Why, when the stranger tells him that he ought to put his feet up and enjoy the evening of his life, is it so hard for Stevens to accept such sensible, if banal, advice? What has blighted the remains of his day?

  Just below the understatement of the novel’s surface is a turbulence as immense as it is slow; for The Remains of the Day is in fact a brilliant subversion of the fictional modes from which it at first seems to descend. Death, change, pain and evil invade the Wodehouse-world; the time-hallowed bonds between master and servant, and the codes by which both live, are no longer dependable absolutes but rather sources of ruinous self-deceptions; even the gallery of happy yokels turns out to stand for the post-war values of democracy and individual and collective rights which have turned Stevens and his kind into tragicomic anachronisms. ‘You can’t have dignity if you’re a slave,’ the butler is informed in a Devon cottage; but for Stevens, dignity has always meant the subjugation of the self to the job, and of his destiny to his master’s. What then is our true relationship to power? Are we its servants or its possessors? It is the rare achievement of Ishiguro’s novel to pose Big Questions (What is Englishness? What is greatness? What is dignity?) with a delicacy and humour that do not obscure the tough-mindedness beneath.

  The real story here is that of a man destroyed by the ideas upon which he has built his life. Stevens is much preoccupied by ‘greatness’, which, for him, means something very like restraint. (The greatness of the British landscape lies, he believes, in its lack of the ‘unseemly demonstrativeness’ of African and American scenery.) It was his father, also a butler, who epitomized this idea of greatness; yet it was just this notion which stood between father and son, breeding deep resentments and an inarticulacy of the emotions that destroyed their love.

  In Stevens’s view, greatness in a butler ‘has to do crucially with the butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.’ This is linked to Englishness: Continentals and Celts do not make good butlers because of their tendency to ‘run about screaming’ at the slightest provocation. Yet it is Stevens’s longing for such ‘greatness’ that wrecked his one chance of finding romantic love; hiding within his role, he long ago drove Miss Kenton away, into the arms of another man. ‘Why, why, why do you always have to pretend?’ she asked in despair. His greatness is revealed as a mask, a cowardice, a lie.

  His greatest defeat was brought about by his most profound conviction—that his master was working for the good of humanity, and that his own glory lay in serving him. But Lord Darlington ended his days in disgrace as a Nazi collaborator and dupe; Stevens, a cut-price St Peter, denied him at least twice, but felt for ever tainted by his master’s fall. Darlington, like Stevens, was destroyed by his own code of ethics; his disapproval of the ungentlemanly harshness of the Treaty of Versailles is what led him towards his collaborationist doom. Ideals can corrupt as thoroughly as cynicism.

  But at least Lord Darlington chose his own path. ‘I cannot even claim that,’ Stevens mourns. ‘You see, I trusted … I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really, one has to ask oneself, what dignity is there in that?’ His whole life has been a foolish mistake; his only defence against the horror of this knowledge is that same facility for self-deception which proved his undoing. It’s a cruel and beautiful conclusion to a story both beautiful and cruel.

  Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills, was set in postwar Nagasaki but never mentioned the Bomb; his new book is set in the very month that Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, but fails to mention the crisis, even though the Suez débâcle marked the end of a certain kind of Britain whose passing is a subject of the novel. Ishiguro’s second ‘Japanese’ novel, An Artist of the Floating World, also dealt with themes of collaboration, self-deception, self-betrayal and with certain notions of formality and dignity that recur here. It seems that England and Japan may not be so very unlike one another, beneath their rather differently inscrutable surfaces.















  In one of the key texts of Surrealism, Paris Peasant, Louis Aragon spoke of his ‘sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday life.’ Defining reality as ‘the apparent absence of contradiction,’ he explained: ‘The marvellous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.’ The surrealist’s task of revealing these contradictions—literally ‘against-sayings’, or denials of what is commonly held to be the case—requires a relentless intensity of vision, powered by an innately iconoclastic form of intellectual energy. It is this task which Michel Tournier has set himself in Gemini. Echoing Aragon’s fifty-five-year-old thesis, Tournier makes one of his characters reflect that ‘Under its apparent banality, the world is decidedly full of barely concealed wonders—just like Ali Baba’s cave.’ On the enormous loom of Gemini, Tournier weaves banalities into wonders: rubbish dumps, tapeworm, Venetian honeymoons, even the weather, are here transmuted into the stuff of marvels. (This is not a random metaphor: near the centre of Tournier’s web of symbols stands the tall shape of an old Jacquard machine.)

  Gemini is about a pair of identical twins, collectively known as Jean-Paul. This is something like saying that Ulysses is about a man walking around Dublin. Because Tournier uses the theme of twinship to explore a near-infinity of dualities: heterosexuality and homosexuality, city and countryside, Heaven and Hell. Here we discover the profound opposition of chronology and meteorology: on the one side, the fixed, regulated march of the hours, and on the other, the wild, unpredictable fluctuation of the seasons; and, in a passage of startling metaphysical originality, we are told that ‘Christ has to be superseded’—not by any Manichean Satan, but by the Spirit, the Holy Ghost.

  It will be clear that Gemini is not light reading; and yet, such is the electricity of Tournier’s intelligence, so skilfully does he weave his shimmering web, that for the greater part of this mammoth book the reader is mesmerized by the sheer daring of the conception and the audacity with which the author carries it off. The magic wanes in the last third, but by then the momentum which has been built is strong enough to sweep us on to the finale.

  Gemini begins in a small community on the Breton coast. It opens, significantly, with a description of the weather conditions. The book was originally called Les Météores, and Tournier insists on reviving the true meaning of the word: as meteorologists know, it refers to any atmospheric phenomenon at all. The element of most interest to Tournier
is the air: in Gemini, the air is truly everywhere. It is a gale which pushes the young homosexual Daniel to his death in a foul pit full of rats; and it is ‘wind, tempest, breath’ which, for the priest Thomas, is the Earthly manifestation of the Holy Ghost. No breeze, in these pages, blows by accident, whether for good or ill.

  In ‘Les Pierres Sonnantes’—the ‘Sounding Stones’—live the twin-children, Jean and Paul, so alarmingly identical that their parents cannot tell them apart; and, in one memorable incident, when their father Édouard mixes up photographs of the pair, Jean himself fails to separate himself from his Other half. They are a complete organism: they speak their own language, ‘Aeolian’ (named after Aeolus, the wind god); their private game of Bep is their abiding interest; they often join, head to tail in ‘geminate communion’, an echo of their position in the womb; to which is added a rite of semen. For Paul, the dominant twin, to whom twinship is unquestionably superior to ‘normal’ humanity, his twinned life is a treasure to be preserved at all costs. ‘Every pregnant woman carries two children in her womb,’ he imagines. ‘But the stronger will not tolerate the presence of a brother … and, having strangled him, he eats him … Mankind is made up of ogres … We alone, you understand, are innocent. We alone came into this world hand in hand, a smile of brotherhood on our lips.’

  But Jean, the other twin, rebels. Twinship, for him, has become a cage. His early attempts at asserting his independence sometimes misfire: insisting on going shopping for clothes separately, he returns home, having chosen garments identical in every respect to those selected by his brother. Later, he attempts to marry; but Paul drives Sophie away, first seducing her and then horrifying her when she realizes that Jean, her fiancé, has come to her from his brother’s bed. But Jean does break away, and this break represents a moment of transformation for the novel itself.

  Before that, however, we have spent a good deal of time away from the twins, from their weak father Édouard and their earth-mother, Maria-Barbara; away, too, from the mentally handicapped children at St Brigitte’s next door—children whose enforced enclosure in a solipsistic world forms a wholly unsentimentalized echo of the twins’ self-absorption.

  This time is spent in the company of the twins’ ‘shocking uncle’, Alexandre, who makes of his homosexuality a totem almost as powerful as Paul’s theory of twinship. (World War Two, when it comes, is to Alexandre a heterosexual business, nothing to do with him, except of course for the fact that Hitler is exterminating his kind.) Alexandre’s exuberance gives the first half of the book much of its drive and verve; he lives dangerously, walking the street with his trusty swordstick ‘Fleurette’ in search of conventionally oriented males: ‘Heterosexuals are my women,’ he reveals. He is the manager of a garbage firm called TURDCO (The Urban Refuse Disposal Company), and in the sections of the book narrated by him he turns this ‘lunar landscape’ of refuse into a world of revelations, the truth of which society seeks to disguise, but which it cannot hide from its garbage-men. These passages in praise of faeces are kissed with genius; in them, Tournier performs the vertiginously difficult feat of imbuing the worst things in the world with a kind of radiance and meaning. (It is easy to see why Jean Genet thinks so highly of this book.) At the Saint-Escobille dump outside Paris during the war—to take just one instance—the rubbish-train from Paris brings Alexandre strange, resonant symbols of the time; dogs, for instance. ‘Hundreds of thousands of dead dogs! Thirty-five wagonloads of them!’ Because the fleeing Parisians had abandoned their pets, and the Nazis had had them massacred.

  Alexandre is, in a way, killed by the twins. He sees them in Casablanca and, not knowing that there are two of them, or recognizing them as his nephews, he falls in love with this ‘ubiquitous boy’, like an Aschenbach of shit; and when he stumbles across the two performing their rite of union, and sees that there is no chance for him against such completeness, he goes deliberately into the murderous docks at night and is killed. As a homosexual, he is, after all, only a counterfeit twin: ‘he is usurping a condition which does not belong to him.’

  Alexandre dies. Maria-Barbara is sent to Buchenwald. Édouard doesn’t last much longer. Sophie is chased away, but this deed splits the twins for good. Jean takes off on a long odyssey around the world, ‘throwing himself’, to escape from Paul, ‘into the arms of anyone he meets.’ Paul, of course, pursues him. And the book changes. Mirroring its characters’ eruption out of the egg of geminate completeness into this global quest, the novel becomes linear, sequential, episodic—and a good deal less gripping. Intellectually, it remains rigorous and satisfying, showing how what began as a pursuit changes, for Paul, into a determination to have all Jean’s experiences after him, to prevent their drifting apart; and then, when he begins to accept that he may never find Jean again, his journey—which goes from Venice to North Africa, Japan, Vancouver, until the linear quest becomes circular, a two-dimensional mirror-image of the geminate egg, as it heads back home across Canada—turns into the physical expression of what Alexandre’s friend, Thomas the priest, describes as universal didymy: ‘the unpaired twin died and a brother to all men was born in his place.’ The quest contains many gripping images, too: a whole series of gardens, for example, represent Jean’s search for Eden, and the amputation of Paul’s left limbs in an accident beneath the Berlin Wall (itself a symbol of lost unity, the city as a divided egg) is the physical expression of his loss of twinship.

  What this section lacks is more traditionally novelistic satisfactions. The global journey cannot avoid sounding like a travelogue; the characters encountered are inevitably minor, rarely gripping and in one instance—the gardener-sage, Shonin, in Japan—like a pretentious echo of that monk who used to teach David Carradine (‘Grasshopper’) the meaning of life in the Kung Fu TV series.

  The ending, however—in which Paul surmounts the loss of his limbs by a sort of act of supranatural will—is worth waiting for; and there is no doubt that this is a book of rare intelligence, originality and that intensity of sight of which Aragon was also a master. Tournier and Aragon are far from being twins, however: Gemini is a novel impregnated with theology, after all, and Aragon’s view of God was that he was ‘a disgusting and vulgar idea’.



  At the beginning of Italo Calvino’s first book for six years, an entirely fictional personage named You, the Reader, buys and settles down with a novel which he firmly believes to be the new Calvino. ‘You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognize it at all. But now that you think about it, who ever said this author had an unmistakable tone? On the contrary, he is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next.’ One of the difficulties with writing about Italo Calvino is that he has already said about himself just about everything there is to be said.

  If on a winter’s night a traveller distils into a single volume what is perhaps the dominant characteristic of Calvino’s entire output: his protean, metamorphic genius for never doing the same thing twice. In the space of 260 pages, we are given the beginnings of no fewer than ten novels, each of which is a transmogrified avatar of the previous one; we also have a more or less fully developed love story between the above-mentioned You and Ludmilla, the Other Reader; plus, for good measure, a conspiracy-theory fiction about a secret organization known as the Organization of Apocryphal Power, run by a fiendish translator named Ermes Marana, whose purpose may or may not be the subversion of fiction itself. The OAP is vaguely reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s underground postal service, the Tristero System, and almost certainly has covert links with Buñuel’s Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, the only comic terrorist organization in the history of the cinema. (Buñuel’s film The Phantom bf Liberty, with its almost infinite sequence of plots which take over the movie, one after the other, with astonishing casualness, and are then themselves supplanted with hilarious ease, is the work of art which most closely resembles If…)

  It is entirely possible
that Calvino is not a human being at all, but a planet, something like the planet Solaris of Stanislaw Lem’s great novel. Solaris, like Calvino, possesses the power of seeing into the deepest recesses of human minds and then bringing their dreams to life. Reading Calvino, you are constantly assailed by the notion that he is writing down what you have always known, except that you’ve never thought of it before.

  The first message from the planet Calvino was received on Earth as long ago as 1947. This was The Path to the Nest of Spiders, a war story sired by Ernest Hemingway out of Italian neo-realist cinema about a cobbler’s apprentice who joins the partisans and who finally finds the friend he has always longed to have. In spite of its marvellous title, the novel is no better than worthy, and the last sentence appears to have dipped its feet in slush: ‘And they walk on, the big man and the child, into the night, amid the fireflies, holding each other by the hand.’

  I have quoted this line in full because it is the last example on record of a bad sentence by Italo Calvino. After Spiders, he tells us, ‘Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the [‘neo-realistic’] novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.’

  Instant metamorphosis, caterpillar into butterfly, Samsa into giant bug. In 1952, he published The Cloven Viscount, which, along with its successors The Baron in the Trees and The Non-Existent Knight, he has now collected in the volume entitled Our Ancestors. The Cloven Viscount is about a cloven viscount, vertically bisected by a cannonball in medieval Bohemia. The two halves continue to live, the one fiendishly evil, the other impossibly good. Both halves are unbearable. In the end they fight a duel; the Bad ‘Un and the Good ‘Un each manage to slice each other at the very edges, reopening the terrible wounds of their bisection, and are sewn back together by the story’s most appealing character, his name a homage to Calvino’s favourite writer, R. L. Stevenson: Dr Trelawney it is who performs the operation. This is a happy ending, but for the story’s youthful narrator it is also the moment of childhood’s end; Dr Trelawney, the tippling medic, leaves on a British ship, ‘hitched on board astride a barrel of cancarone wine,’ ‘and I was left behind, in this world of ours full of responsibilities and wills-o-the-wisp.’

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