At the beginning of Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities a well-dressed couple arrives at the scene of an accident on a busy street in Vienna. The lady is uncomfortable, ‘had a disagreeable sensation in the pit of her stomach, which she felt entitled to take for compassion’. The man, after a pause, says: ‘These heavy lorries they use here have too long a braking-distance.’ The lady is much relieved. ‘Though she had doubtless heard the expression many times before, she did not know what a braking-distance was, nor had she any wish to know; it was sufficient for her that by this means the horrible happening could be fitted into some kind of pattern, so becoming a technical problem that no longer directly concerned her.’
A good deal of modern fiction, with its ambitions and anxieties of interpretation, is implicit in this passage. What does the lady feel, if it is not compassion? What is the consoling force of the possibly quite irrelevant technical information? Where does the hint of comedy come from, why are we laughing? The braking-distance of the lorry is a myth; based on fact, as most modern myths are, but all the same an invocation of orderly gods and an explicable, properly-run universe. Theology is everywhere, the sceptical Valéry said, and this may be a tiny proof. The perception is disturbing to rational, fact-hungry humans, and it haunts the books under review.
A fact is what won’t go away, what we cannot not know, as Henry James remarked of the real. Yet when we bring one closer, stare at it, test our loyalty to it, it begins to shimmer with complication. Without becoming less factual, it floats off into myth. Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar looks at the sky, his lawn, the sea, starlings, tortoises, Roman rooftops, a girl, giraffes and much else. He wants only to observe, to learn a modest lesson from creatures and things. But he can’t. There is too much to see in them, for a start. When he tries to describe some rare cheeses thoroughly to himself, the queue in the shop moves him along, bumps him back into ordinariness and the advertised cheeses he knows. And there is too much of himself and his culture in the world he watches anyway: the universe is littered with the signs of our needs, with mythologies. The protagonist in Parrot’s Perch collects facts about Christian martyrs with a view to undoing our fascination with pain. But doesn’t the fascination remain in the collection itself, isn’t the gathering ‘stained with a secret complicity’? The characters in Maggie Gee’s Light Years keep going to London Zoo as a refuge from human mess or human coldness. But the animals are too tame and nearly human themselves – too far from the wild to be anything other than furry or sliding myths. One of the characters (and the author) hoards information about the galaxy and the life of the earth, but instead of underlining human insignificance it becomes a metaphor for both loneliness and pattern.
Perhaps the best focus for all this is the picture of Mr Palomar in Mexico, visiting a pre-Hispanic ruin. His friend is ‘an impassioned and eloquent expert’, full of stories about Quetzalcoatl, the god-king who takes the form of a plumed serpent; about wonderful coyotes and jaguars. ‘Mr Palomar’s friend pauses at each stone, transforms it into a cosmic tale, an allegory, a moral reflection.’ At the same time a group of schoolboys is being taken round the ruins. At each stone or pyramid or statue, the teacher provides copious factual details – date, civilisation, building material – and adds: ‘We don’t know what it means.’ At last Mr Palomar’s friend can stand it no longer. The teacher shows the boys a beautiful wall of serpents. ‘This is the wall of serpents. Each serpent has a skull in its mouth. We don’t know what they mean.’ Mr Palomar’s friend says: ‘Yes, we do! It’s the continuity of life and death; the serpents are life, the skulls are death.’ Mr Palomar thinks his friend’s interpretation still needs an interpretation (‘What did death, life, continuity, passage mean for the ancient Toltecs?’) and also knows that ‘not to interpret is impossible.’ Impossible for us, that is. Once the school group is round the corner, the teacher says: ‘No es verdad, it is not true, what the señor said. We don’t know what they mean.’
We don’t know: we can’t bear not to know. Mr Palomar is the fictional embodiment of this condition: not exactly a character, but not an abstraction either. More like an animated hypothesis, a theory with a wife and children and funny habits. It is as if Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, that dream of the marooned intellect, had been rigged out with the gait and posture of Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. Why is such a person impossible, Valéry asked, not expecting an answer. The question turns us into Monsieur Teste, he then rather alarmingly said. Teste is the demon of possibility. One of the great virtues of fiction is that it can make us wonder what we have done with the notion of the possible.
Mr Palomar in any case is not as impossible as Monsieur Teste; and not as mannered and ultimately tiresome as Monsieur Hulot. He is very engaging and very silly, and never free of his author’s fond irony. He ‘vacillates at length’ between two views of a particular question, and indeed his life on the page consists of lengthy, strenuous vacillation. This is how we meet him:
Mr Palomar is standing on the shore, looking at a wave. Not that he is lost in contemplation of the waves. He is not lost, because he is quite aware of what he is doing: he wants to look at a wave and he is looking at it. He is not contemplating, because for contemplation you need the right temperament, the right mood, and the right combination of exterior circumstances ... Finally it is not ‘the waves’ that he means to look at, but just one individual wave.
The job is not so easy, but Calvino’s patient account of Mr Palomar’s problems with the wave gives rise to an indirect, unexpectedly beautiful description of the sea: ‘And so the wave continues to grow and gain strength until the clash with contrary waves gradually dulls it and makes it disappear, or else twists it until it is confused in one of the many dynasties of oblique waves slammed, with them, against the shore.’
Mr Palomar takes a swim, thinks about naked bosoms on beaches – is it a sign of prejudice to avert your eyes? He listens to a pair of blackbirds and wonders whether their signals are very different from those he exchanges with his wife. ‘The equal whistle of man and blackbird now seems to him a bridge thrown over the abyss ... Mr Palomar hopes always that silence contains something more than what language can say. But what if language were really the goal towards which everything in existence tends?’ Mr Palomar, shopping, wants the rich foods to speak to him: ‘he would like the duck and hare pâtés, from their platters, to show they prefer him to the others ... No, nothing vibrates ... Perhaps, for all the sincerity of his love of galantines, galantines do not love him.’ An albino gorilla, lost in his biological loneliness, hugs a rubber tire as if he knew what a symbol was. This, Palomar thinks, is how we seek to escape from ‘the dismay of living’: ‘investing oneself in things, recognising oneself in signs’.
Calvino provides an index to the volume, identifying recurrences of ‘three kinds of experience and inquiry’: visual, anthropological ‘or cultural in the broad sense’, and speculative. He is quite serious and also mildly mocking. These experiences matter, and mingle interestingly in the text. Calvino, one of the most inventive and thoughtful of writers, has been working (and playing) for years with the uses we make of fiction. But Mr Palomar suggests an additional triumph, or reminds us of an old one: a triumph of tone. I can’t judge William Weaver’s translation, but unless he has improved on Calvino, it must give a fair measure of the style: precise, wry, lucid, analytic, subtly lyrical. What is delicately mocked, in this impeccably straight-faced prose, is writing itself: the ambitions and stiffness and poverty of writing, in the face of the multiple, shifting, unwritten world. Of course you have to write very well to be in a position to mock. We can all fail to say what we mean, any day. Calvino’s failure is substantial, and calculated, an ironic punctuation of silence: ‘In fact, silence can also be considered a kind of speech, since it is a rejection of the use to which others put words; but the meaning of this silent speech lies in its interruptions, in what is, from time to time, actually said, giving a meaning to what is unsaid.’
The protagonist of Michel Rio’s Parrot’s Perch has been close to silence for about a year. He is a Latin American priest who was tortured for resisting his government, and has been given refuge in a French monastery. The abbot asks him to give the commentary on the Eucharist one Sunday, and after some hesitation, in a voice whose very monotony speaks of trauma and despair, he preaches a remarkable sermon on pain; on ‘the cult of pain which is one of the bases of our religion’. He lists the martyrs and their torments, their long, lovely names and their excruciations. Decapitated, racked, boiled, flayed, flogged, drowned, quartered, blinded, mutilated, crucified, fed to the beasts, broken on the wheel, they all died in Christ. ‘Make up the cruellest tortures you can imagine,’ the apostle Andrew is supposed to have said. ‘The more constant I am in the torment I suffer in the name of my King, the more I shall please Him.’ ‘Such tribulations became and still are exempla,’ the priest says, ‘and we see in them not just a veneration for beings who refused to betray their ideas, but a veritable fascination with the redemptive power of pain. And if Redemption is a goal, it seems to me that suffering, which has coloured it in blood, is a goal as well, because the two cannot be dissociated. I dare not tell you what I make of Andrew’s words, or of the words of those who find them fit subject for a sermon.’
The sermon gets a little muddled after this, confuses the question of pain with the question of belief, and nothing in the book quite lives up to this austere and demanding beginning. The priest, Joachim, talks to the abbot, takes a walk in the Breton countryside, meets a peasant woman who moves him strangely, because she intuitively responds to his despair, and to ‘the humility that lay at the very heart of his rebellion’. He stands on a crumbling cliff, watches the Atlantic breakers crashing in, and after trying to merge with the landscape, in a ‘soothing coincidence of geography and mood’, he finds peace, it seems, by walking off the cliff into a death which is the only possible erasure of intolerable memory. The parrot’s perch, we learn, is a torture technique much used in Latin America. You hang the victim upside down, so that his whole weight pulls on his forearms. ‘Soon he becomes convinced that his fingers will explode. His arms seem to be breaking. The parrot’s perch is usually only a starting point for other tortures.’
The novel is a bit thin-blooded, in spite of its fraught subject; highly literary and intellectual, as we might expect of a writer who confesses (on the dust-jacket) to ‘a special affection for Conrad and Chomsky’. Too much signalling and symmetry in those names. There is a flimsiness even in this book’s unmistakable elegance, a sense of difficult ideas being turned into philosophical dance tunes. But if the ideas are entertained rather than suffered, they are not trivialised or thrown away, and it is good to see a writer using fiction as a place to think. Joachim’s later meditations and his final peace are dubious, but his questions and his nightmares remain. Is it true that the courage of the saints is ‘an inhuman response to an inhuman situation’? ‘How are torturers born? Who are they? And doesn’t their insanity lie solely in that conversion of the imaginary into action?’ It is the officer in charge of torturing Joachim who reasonably (diabolically) says: ‘I think no moral conviction justifies a scream of pain.’ Mr Palomar’s questions are milder and more complex, but Rio, in this his third novel, is similarly trying to explore a mind severed from the world, or unable to find a home in it.
With Maggie Gee’s very lively Light Years, also a third novel, we move to more familiar fictional ground, and a world people are more or less at home in. But it is only slightly more familiar, and the people are only more or less at home. Harold and Lottie, a married couple, 45 and 35 years old, have a brawling row, and Harold leaves. They are thoroughly miserable on their own, even when they are pretending they are not. They have sad, self-deceiving affairs with others, and they stay apart, through pride and confusion and a little bad luck, for a whole year. The book follows them diligently, month by month, notes their dipping and swerving moods, the changing weather, the foliage, the migrations of birds and the conjunctions of the stars. Harold and Lottie finally fall into each other’s arms at the zoo, animals doomed after all to happiness.
They will grow old, and they will be ill, but they will not often be unhappy.
They will quarrel, massively, briefly.
Harold will be appalled by her and laugh at her and sometimes ignore her ... Lottie will be cross and bossy with Harold and sometimes take him for granted again ...
They are not transfigured; they are only human.
Lottie is very rich – when she feels depressed she fills her house with £500 worth of spring flowers from Harrods. ‘If something was lost, she would simply get another.’ Harold is a would-be writer, not writing. They don’t have much in common, and have agreed to differ on, among other things, America, the Bomb, feminism, religion, bedtime and dope. Harold is the feminist. What they do have in common, they painfully, stupidly discover, is their terrible lack of each other. Lottie paints her handsome house white all over, goes to Paris, sees old friends, gets entangled with a florid (and as it turns out kooky) Swiss tycoon. Harold retreats to Bournemouth, stares at the sea, meets an art student, takes her to Paris, falls out with her, stays on alone, and comes back to face, or fail to face, his fussy actress mother’s lonely death. The immediate cause of Lottie and Harold’s quarrel was a Golden Lion tamarin, a rare New-World monkey which Lottie bought as a pet. The poor creature cringes in its fancy cage, gets sick, and dies within days, to everyone’s guilty dismay. Harold’s sorrow over the animal is lessened by his gloating at the thought of how ashamed Lottie will be, and this thought in turn makes him ashamed. ‘We’re a horrible species.’ We imprison and humiliate other species; torture each other.
Animals loom large in the novel. They share the planet with us, as Mr Palomar also thinks, recognising in the meat at the butcher’s ‘the person of a disemboweled brother’. This doesn’t stop him eating meat, because he is a carnivore; just as Lottie’s fondness for animals doesn’t stop her going to the zoo in furs. Animals and plants and stars remind us of our shabbiness and unreality. ‘Neither people nor their pain seemed real. Most of the world, after all, wasn’t human. What about bears and plankton? What about cacti, and stars?’ We have a precarious, unlikely tenure on our territory. ‘Very weird to think of humans and elephants chancing to live on the same planet.’
But stars and space loom even larger than animals, are scattered everywhere in the text, like treasures of spectacular fact. ‘In a year, light travels six million million miles.’ ‘The colour of the daytime sky on Mars is a warm pink, a flesh colour.’ ‘Venus is the closest planet to Earth. When it is close, it is very close: twenty-five million miles away.’ ‘Mercury ... is very small – only Pluto is smaller ... Its highest speed as it circles the sun is 127,000 miles per hour.’ Harold gets interested in the universe rather as the lady in Musil took to the notion of a braking-distance: as a body of knowledge to shut away terror, a twist on Pascal. It doesn’t help him much, though, only adds to his sense of smallness and bewilderment, his feeling that the world he can reach is wretched and ‘Harold-sized’. Maggie Gee herself, however, uses astronomy and earth history as formal and thematic markers; refrains and signs; time flies, time stretches, how late we are. The device can be sentimental at times, a dive into the pathetic fallacy: ‘But the silvery water refused to mourn.’ The water can’t mourn, or refuse to. Most of the world isn’t human. There are other sentimentalities too, a cosmic or biological maundering: ‘Love slips away in the beat of a heart.’ At other times the device triggers metaphors of loneliness, as I’ve suggested. But mainly, and most beautifully, it works like a bit of Flaubertian cross-cutting or distancing. It stakes out discrepancy, sometimes so total as to produce the sense of a gag rather than pathos. ‘After this, events began to move very fast, or rather the speed with which they moved became apparent, for all the time they were going very fast, as the Earth spun on its axis at a thousand miles an hour ...’ It’s a long way across the galaxy, but it’s a long way between people, when they meet by chance in Paris, for example, and can’t bring themselves to talk to each other, or test their mutual apparitions. And the final effect of this is not loneliness but an odd sense of order, or orbit – as if distance were not something to be travelled, but something that dies in time. Harold and Lottie are close in their separation, thinking the same thoughts.
Maggie Gee has a quick curiosity about her characters and their habitats, and a willingness to accept them. Lottie is reprehensible in all kinds of ways, thoughtless, bitchy, arrogant, spoiled, ignorant, but we like her all the same – partly because we see how her quiet, decent, 16-year-old son likes her and needs her and gets on with her. Harold is attractive to Lottie, but otherwise a well-intentioned creep, too self-absorbed to command our entire interest. What about me? is his constant cry, and he can’t use his self-pity to understand others. Lottie’s adamant, wrong-headed refusal of the very idea of self-pity is much more appealing. I wonder if Harold is meant to be quite so unsympathetic. Probably not.
There are moments when Gee’s invention flags. I could do without the cleaning lady who thinks in tautological saws (‘Money is money,’ ‘A home’s a home,’ ‘An employer is an employer’), and there are preachy touches too: ‘Actually it seems that only humans spoil a fertile planet with war.’ But generally the writing is crisp, attentive to surfaces, affectionate and encyclopedic in its chronicling of human and other change. It is writing that manifestly enjoys what it does. It jumps about in time, in tone, rustles up sharp similes like a conjuror producing unheard of rabbits. ‘Light runs faster than love or writing,’ Gee says in an overwrought last sentence. I wonder. You can’t read light, and this is very fast writing, which misses little on its rounds. Mr Palomar would be dizzy, and you could almost get rid of theology this way.