“I should have availed myself of waggery,
had not malice been multitudinous.”
The English are known for their love of the eccentric. Batty dons, hapless clerics, Colonel Blimps, imperious aunts, and addled aristocrats are scattered over the landscape of the English popular imagination. In a society where a high value is placed on social conformity, the eccentric affords a needed release, a comic subversion of the cultural establishment. The English comic novelists have happily adopted the eccentric. Using the angle of vision provided by characters who are “off center,” these writers have been able to reveal the unsettling gap between public pretension and private reality.
The light comic novel—epitomized in the prelapsarian world of P.G. Wodehouse—has had a number of practitioners, but not a few English novelists have pressed the form into service as a serious vehicle for satire and social criticism. In this tradition the dominant figure is Evelyn Waugh, but while many novelists have focused on an upper-class milieu, or written with “wit” and “irony,” few have possessed Waugh’s searing moral vision, his unnerving sense of the anarchic emptiness beneath the skin of civilization. Waugh was able to join his awareness of comic absurdity to a standard of order by which to judge an age that admitted no standards at all. It is this centric drive which raises his art above the comedy of manners or social commentary, and it is why he remains a literary beacon in 20th-century fiction.
In A.N. Wilson we have at last a novelist who can be likened to Waugh· not only for his coruscating style, but for his perspective on what is left of the Christian West. Wilson is not very well-known in this country; Wise Virgin (1983), his sixth novel, was his first published in the U.S.; Scandal is his seventh. Still in his 30’s, Wilson was for a time the literary editor of The Spectator. He has written biographies of such unfashionable authors as Sir Walter Scott and Hilaire Belloc. Unperturbed by the repercussions of his reactionary tastes, Wilson has written a novel that is almost a work of Christian apologetics, although it is anything but didactic.
Scandal takes its subject from the sex scandals that still manage to out rage and fascinate the English. Derek Blore—his name conveys his character—is a party hack with a good chance to become Prime Minister. His exotic sexual tastes precipitate a scandal when a prostitute, inappropriately named Bernadette, becomes the pawn of blackmailers and, eventually, the KGB. The affair might not have reached the public, however, but for the curious indiscretion of Blore’s wife Priscilla, an aristocratic beauty who entered the marriage out of a desire “to be kind to Mr. Blore.” Wilson conjures up a picture of the peculiarly passionless nature of contemporary England. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say a society in which passion is misdirected. The private sins committed under the cover of dark include the violent and deadly, but more often they are petty, furtive.
Some of the wives queuing in front of Derek Blore for an underground ticket were not going to tell their husbands with whom they had eaten luncheon . . . The secretary just in front of Derek had stolen her copy of the evening newspaper while the vendor was serving someone else. The chemistry graduate just in front of her, now working for a bank, did not know that he had syphilis and was going home to make love to his wife. He had resolved not to commit adultery again.
In the midst of this, Derek’s masochistic sessions with Bernadette are pathetic, but they are hardly sensational.
It is the very incommensurability of these vices with their national consequences that points to a society with out moral boundaries. The story’s climax takes place at the Blares’ parish church, where a medieval pageant is being held to celebrate the church’s thousand-year history. Priscilla has dressed Derek, incongruously, in a clumsy Viking outfit, complete with a horned helmet. Though he is indeed the oafish pagan, crowned with cuckold’s horns, the reader suspects that so long as there are Priscillas to be kind to men like Derek, the scandals will continue to attract the attention of a deca dent world.
Something has also gone rotten in David Lodge’s Small World, but here the decay concerns the “global community” of literary criticism. After a strained attempt at being wise and witty about the post-conciliar Catholic Church in Souls and Bodies, Lodge has returned to the safer and more rambunctious academic comedy of his Changing Places. The protagonists of that latter novel, Morris Zapp of Euphoric State in America and Philip Swallow of England’s Rummidge University, are back in Small World, but they join a large cast of characters, all of whom jet from one literary conference to another in search of sex, professional advancement, and, occasionally, understanding.
This is territory well-known to Lodge, who is a leading critic in his own right. With typically English caution, Lodge has devoted considerable effort to sorting through the myriad schools of abstruse literary theory which in recent years have threatened to make the critical community a Babel of incoherent and incompatible sects.
Only a writer with Lodge’s intellectual detachment could have written Small World. The subtitle, “An Academic Romance,” indicates the form he has given his tale: we are to expect knights errant on quest, exquisite yet unobtainable damsels, a series of chance meetings, foundling twins, mistaken identities, and—a neat, if not totally unexpected, resolution of the story’s numerous puzzles. While most of the knight-critics are hoping to attain the UNESCO Chair of Literary Studies, with a stipend of $100,000 and absolutely no duties, Persse McGarrigle, the Irish innocent, is after the more concrete pleasure of winning the hand of Angelica Pabst, a graduate student as brilliant as she is beautiful. And around the world they go: Jerusalem, Vienna, New York, Lausanne, Seoul. Small World is a tour de force of comic invention for which the reader is willing to forgive many of Lodge’s flat jokes and stale gags.
In writing a romance, Lodge is having fun at the expense of the heavy handed structuralists and their ilk, who have covered so much paper with their lucubrations about the means of production and the angst-ridden artist. Art, Lodge is saying, is perennially elusive and enthralls us in spite of our efforts to extract laws and meanings. And yet, the conclusion of Small World and the novel’s aftertaste are oddly unsatisfying. Lodge’s conviction that truth is beyond our grasp and art beyond the reach of critics is all very well, but what if the stakes are higher than a professorship?
Muriel Spark, at the outset of her career seemed to many literary observers to be the heir apparent to Evelyn Waugh. A convert to the Roman Catholic Church, Spark explained that the Church enabled her to see life whole “rather than as a series of dis connected happenings,” and that it provided a controlling principle for her fiction, “a norm from which one can depart.” Like Waugh, Spark cultivated a detachment of tone, a spare style, and a flinty satiric edge. Her first novels even carried the imprimatur of Waugh’s energetic approbation.
If her subsequent fictional output appears to fall short of that early promise, it may stem from a misguided attempt to force her into a mold. Spark has always stood at a distance from literary models and trends; while other novelists became Angry Young Men or found sexual liberation or tinkered with narrative technique, Spark continued to produce her elegant and sardonic satires. Her constant theme has been the frenzy with which secular society has indulged itself in various brands of sham spirituality.
But Spark’s critique of secularism has not led her to offer any sentimental or easy answers to life’s ills. Indeed, as her latest novel reminds us, The Only Problem worth contemplating is why a good God should have allowed suffering and evil to exist. As with several of her recent volumes, The Only Problem is a pruned-back novel so terse and suggestive (in 177 pages) as to be more of a long story. Harvey Gotham is a wealthy misanthrope who has with drawn from the world to write a study of the Book of Job. He has left his beautiful, vivacious wife, partly be cause she has condemned Western society in the absolutist terms of Marxism. In his solitude, Harvey learns that she is accused of taking part in armed robbery and murder. The novel chronicles his attempts to come to terms with this truth.
The Only Problem, witH its loaded themes of suffering and terrorism, raises perhaps more expectation than it can Satisfy in so brief a treatment. Terrorism, like suicide, is a complete negation, but Spark’s tale really deals with Harvey’s own isolation, his refusal to confront reality and take up his responsibilities. Still, her story is a reminder that “the only problem” needs not so much to be studied as to be lived through.
[Scandal, Or Priscilla’s Kindness, by A.N. Wilson; New York: Viking Press]
[Small World: An Academic Romance, by David Lodge; New York: Macmillan]
[The Only Problem, by Muriel Spark; New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons]