10 OCTOBER 1970, Page 23


Girls and boys


Hind's Kidnap Joseph McElroy (Blond 50s) The Rape of Tamar Dan Jacobson (Weiden, feld and Nicolson 30s) Godded and Codded Julia O'Faolain (Faber 35s) A Start in Life Alan Siffitoe (W. H. Allen 36s) It is said that Tolstoy as an old man once startled someone who was praising him for having written War and Peace and Anna Karenina by saying with disgust: 'Compli- menting me on those books is like compli- menting Edison on how well he dances the mazurka.' Although Tolstoy was quite wrong from our point of view to dismiss his two most successful novels so contemptu- ously, from his own point of view (at that time and place in his development) he un- doubtedly had excellent reasons for doing so. How is one to judge a work of art? By the author's achievement in terms of his own intentions or by the reader's response? Most novels adhere to a conventional pattern which can be assessed by a com- bination of both. It is only very occasion- ally that a novel appears which, is unusual enough to make us wonder by what stand- ards (or by whose standards) to judge it.

Hind's Kidnap by Joseph McElroy is just such a novel. It concerns a young man who has become obsessed with the unsolved kid- napping of a boy several years earlier. The case has long since been closed: the boy's parents are both dead, the boy himself and his kidnappers will by this time have grown older. The young man sets out to investigate it nevertheless on the strength of a number of highly ambiguous clues and chance en- counters in his daily life. The manner of the book is strongly reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Mr McElroy's intention is more serious than conspiracy-hunting, however: his kidnap- ping is used as the vehicle for the hero's quest for his own identity and an examina- tion of his way of relating to other people. How far does the author succeed in his intention? It should be made clear that Mr McElroy is extremely difficult to read. He makes almost no concessions to the reader, frequently launches into discussions of char- acters as yet unfamiliar, loads his sentences With diversions and densely parenthetic off- shoots, discusses abstruse and academic matters in an august manner worthy of Nabokov at his most impenetrable (this book also resembles Ada in many ways) and never for a moment calls off his pursuit of the theme to give the reader a chance to relax and get things sorted out. On the other hand, he writes with a control of his material Which makes all these objections seem petty. He combines an acute intelligence with great learning (the discussion of language and meaning provides a powerful thematic undercurrent to the novel). He is often very funny, both in a Nabokovian sort of way playing with words (for example, he has a garage called 'Lubri-city') and also in a more normal descriptive way (he is particularly entertaining when describing his hero's land- lord who is, no doubt symbolically, an under- taker, and the recipient of professional junk mail . . . San-O-Spray nips "post-mortem" odours' etc.). His observation of the physical details of life is sharp. He evokes characters with ease. The relaxed tone which he has selected for his book never falters. The result is a novel which is in many ways an unusual and distinguished work of imagination. At the same time, while reading it, one con- stantly has the feeling that the author is more interested in communicating with himself than with his reader, in solving, like Nabokov and Pynchon, his own elaborate and graceful puzzles.

Dan Jacobson's latest novel The Rape of Tamar by way of contrast is written with a blessed clarity and combines an unusual setting, the court of King David at Jerusa- lem, with a more conventional approach to its characters (who include Absalom and, with a walk-on part, Solomon). Once again Nabokov is brought to mind but this time it is the earlier Nabokov who is more inter- ested in the behaviour of people than in conundrums. What is at issue is the incestu- ous rape of King David's favourite daughter, Tamar, by his eldest son Amnon, supervised by a devious and malicious hanger-on of the court called Yonadab. The motivation of the various characters is skilfully portrayed and the Biblical setting is supplied with economy which, for some reason, makes it more convincing than lavish productions ever turn out to be. The story takes a little time to get under way but Mr Jacobson's slightly mannered style provides it with an agreeable flavour once it does so. This would be just the novel for a boring train journey and deserves a greater success than, things being what they are, it is likely to enjoy.

There is also a lot to be recommended in Julia O'Faolain's first novel Godded and Codded which concerns the misadventures of that most vulnerable of creatures: the Irish girl abroad. This time the girl is middle- class and a graduate. Abroad is Paris and she is there on a scholarship looking with- out much conviction for a suitable thesis subject. What she finds instead is an Arab lover, an elderly Italian count as first- reserve lover, and an eccentric Irish painter who is too uncouth to make it but comes in handy to help with an abortion, as well as to provide a drunken lecture scene of Ginger Man-like proportions. Miss O'Faolain knows her Paris: the Moroccan house at the Cite Universitaire where her heroine is deflowered is certainly the best place for boy and girl students to bed down together at student prices undisturbed by sterile au- thority. However, the best part of the novel is that which describes the girl returning home to spend airistmas with her parents in Dublin. The mixture of complacency, chauvinism and insecurity with which the Irish greet those of their compatriots who have lived abroad is beautifully conveyed. Don't we seem a stick-in-the-mud lot to you here?' demands a seedy Irish suitor with whom she finds herself going to mass on Christmas morning. As a whole the novel tends to be somewhat uneven but it suffers from no shortage of talent or vitality.

The same, unfortunately, could not be said for Alan Si'Moe's latest work A Start in Life; vitality is just what is missing. The idea of writing a modern picaresque novel is a good one and his picaro starts off with the right credentials of bastardy, amorality, and an eye for the women, but his adven- tures turn out to be only spasmodically interesting. On his travels he picks up a number of assorted people, mainly rogues, but as the book proceeds the author's inven- tion begins to flag and they become steadily less convincing as characters. Even a suc- cessful novelist called Gilbert Blasking (a nod towards Gil Bias?) fails to come to life. Perhaps, if one thinks of the strict moral code in the background of Lazardlo de Tormes or Moll Flanders, the trouble is that the picaro himself is no longer at home in our lax and unmoral times. Certainly theft and skiving seem now too commonplace to make a book by themselves.