A Question of Credibility

BELL, PEARL K.

Writers & Writing A QUESTION OF CREDIBILITY BY PEARL K BELL Though less than half ot 1972 has flowed out to oblivion, I strongly doubt that the year will see a more embarrassingly bad piece of...

...Writers & Writing A QUESTION OF CREDIBILITY BY PEARL K BELL Though less than half ot 1972 has flowed out to oblivion, I strongly doubt that the year will see a more embarrassingly bad piece of fiction by a reputable writer than Muriel Spark's Not to Disturb (Viking, 121 pp , $5 00) Predictably, this novella-length miscarriage of judgment has been assigned by some easily cowed reviewers to that conveniently ambiguous slot called "black comedy", but Not to Disturb is less black than colorless and as funny as a pool ot blood Mrs Spark's irritatingly silly extravaganza,' as she has called it, depends upon the execution of a triple death offstage, in the library of a baronial mansion in Geneva owned by the Baron and Baioness Klopstock (We are nudgingly reminded more than once that the name is a scream ) A former secretary and lover ot the decadent couple, Victor Passerat, has arrived in the evening for a showdown, and the Baron has given strictest orders to the servants that the preordained crime passionnel is not to be disturbed While the bloodbath waits to be carried out by the Baron, who will kill wife, lover, and then himself, the serious comic action of the book is taking place in the servants' parlor Here the Klopstock domestic staff, managedóin the most commercial sense ot the wordóby the impeccably sententious butler, Lister, busies itself through the long night's deathwatch to make the most of the notoriety to come Lister spells it out "Bear m mind that when dealing with the rich, the journalists are mainly interested m backstairs chatter The popular glossy magazines have replaced the servants' ball in modern society Our position of privilege is unparalleled in history The career of domestic service is the thing of the future ' Thus Listei, the pregnant housemaid Heloise, the chef Clovis, the handyman Pablo, and the rest of the kitchen menagerie spend the waiting hours dictating their salacious memoirs into a tape recorder, having arty photographs taken, and polishing the fine print of contracts tor their inside accounts of the garish household As Lister remarks ot the chef "Clovis is busy with his contract He left it rather late I made mine with Stern and Pans-Match over a month ago Now of course there's still the movie deal to consider " Through the appropriately stormy night, shutters pound and clatter, the Baron's lunatic brother howls from the attic, and an odd couple is killed by a bolt of lightning In ironic counterpoint to their eccentric black mass, the domestic conspiratois rehearse for the morning's celebrity by mouthing solemnly preposterous apothegms In the by now tiresome mannerism of "absurdist" comedy, Lister is addicted to the meretricious profundity ot classy paradox "How like the death wish is to the lite-urge 1 How urgently does an overwhelming obsession with life lead to suicide And Heloise chimes in with her gnomic echo "Lister never disparates, he symmetrises " Pablo, an amateur acrobat wobbling on a veibal tightrope, adds his metaphysical malapropism "Lister's got equibalance and what's more, he pertains ' What Mrs Spark seems to have in mind in this baffling fiasco is both an icy parable of contemporary life (servants are inevitably more powerful than their masters, for they alone are attuned to the predatory absolutes of reality) and a self-consciously wicked parody of such dissimilar literary cliches as Gothic melodrama, Ivy Compton-Burnett's poisonous domesticity, Wode-house's Jeeves, Beckett's dissociated despair But a mishmash ot satiric targets merely spoils a writer's aim Unsure ot what she means to hit first and hardest, Mrs Spark ends up misfiring altogether, her comic inventions pathetically wide of the mark Page after page is filled with the familiar catatonic exchange ot wacky nonsequiturs, piegnant with meaning, so dear to Pinter óbut the meaning ot Not to Disturb is stillborn A very different kind of uncertainty of purpose mars Summer Solstice, an ambitious new English novel by Elizabeth North (Knopf, 211 pp...
...5 95) The narrator, Hannah (Basie) Green, is a sardonic, discontented young housewife and mother of three, straining at the leash ot her marriage to a sluggish, incompetent "scientific" farmer in Dorset On the surface, Basie is a women's-lib case history of fidgety frustration, and indeed Germaine Greer has praised the book extravagantly "The women's movement ought to find some fine realizations of its basic tenets in the confrontations in the book" Unfortunately, these confrontations don't succeed m defining Basie Green's supposedly complex nature, for Miss North never makes dramatically intelligible the kind of person she means her to be At no point has she firmly decided whether Basie is an emasculating, self-cosseting bitch, ready to deceive dull husband and neglect whiny children at the first sign of a seducible man, or a cruelly suppressed and frustrated woman of wit and talent who's never been given a proper chance The novel consists mainly of coolly ironic dialogues between Basie the conscientious wife and mother, moving lethargically through the gray rhvthm of a farm's daily life, and Basie the free-floating creature of spirit within, vexed and contemptuous, defiant and miserable Determined to pluck at something better than her subservient domestic life, she sends off for adult-education catalogues, but there's no monev to pay for the courses In retreat from this withered dream of learning, she embarks on a sly affair with a friend's husband, only to find that her sister is sleeping with him too Since the rural scene and people of Summei Solstice are pro-ected entirely through Basie, the reader needs, but does not get an extremely sharp and exact sense of what she is like in order to judge the worth of her commentary Tn scene after scene Miss North, beginning with bold assurance, soon loses sight of its purpose and ends ud ragged, fuzzy and hmn The turmoil of Basie's sensibility is conveved so haphazardly that one is left with an impressionistic blur rather than a fully realized character Between the stunted woman of promise and the irresponsible wanton, the truth of Basie's temperament and aspirations remains a mystery Nor does she ever become likable or persuasive enough to enlist the reader's sympathetic interest Still there are astute and witty moments throughout Summer Solstice, and it is written with a tart, sharply observant fluency that promises more satisfying work to come c ^^om pared with the Spark and North novels, Penelope Mortimer's The Home (Random House, 258 pp , $5 95) might at first glance seem a conventional and overfamihar portrait of an unhappy woman It is, however, tar and away the best of the three books, and the most powerful work this prolific and intelligent writer has done to date The straightforward but lively realism of its telling is inseparable from its terrifying impact, and the very ordinariness of its characters is made crucial to their overwhelming credibility Though lonely women are a dime a dozen in present-day fiction, Mrs Mortimer's compassionate characterization of Eleanor Strathearn is uniquely memorable After 26 years of marriage and five children, now giown and all but gone, Eleanor has found the unexpected pride to leave her philandering doctor husband, whose current doxy is younger than his daughters, and move to a house of hei own "She had rediscovered energy that she thought had long ago died, at the piospect of living by herself she had felt herself flung helter-skelter into a life of hope and good sense She would make it, alone, untrammeled, a free human being " Of course things don't work out as she anticipates She finds to her horror, once the house is m order, that this brazen act of courage is not enough to secure her confidence or her future Her children's lives are complicated and messy, but they resist her affectionate help Suddenly she discovers how few friends of her own she has, how afraid she is of being alone, how desperately, for all his cruelties and humiliations, she needs her husband "Her rebellious spirit was like the small, steady pilot light of a great furnace which had never, by God or man or circumstance, been tuined on " Yet there is more to The Home than Eleanor's tragic isolation and despair once her illusion of independence is shattered Mrs Mortimer is an impudently funny writer whose comments on human frailty and self-deception can be devastatmgly perceptive Of Eleanor's husband, she writes "It Eleanor had gone to him as a patient, she would have had his infinite concern, since she lived with him as a wife, he depended on her never to let him down, physically or mentally " Of Eleanor's puritan mother "While not exactly believing in God?the prospect was a little ridiculousóshe was devoted to death, regarding it as the cure for all evils, by which she meant life " Mrs Mortimer grasps a central truth about the vulnerability of women that Elizabeth North, in her rather muddled stream-of-consciousness misses entirely What is fundamentally so impressive about The Home is the fact that, alone among these three novelists Penelone Mortimer knows exactly what she feels and thinks, and precisely what she is doing And she has the stylistic versatility to accomplish her task with clarity and powei...

Vol. 55 • May 1972 • No. 9


 
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