Two second novels
Down the Rabbit Hole Anthony Paul (Secker and Warburg £2) Tangier Buzzless Flies John Hopkins (Alison Press £2) There is a thin little voice which pops up in our society like a mouse from its hole to take a nibble at all the good things on offer and leave its little messes behind. It is the high, slightly hysterical voice of the middle-class housewife overheard at a cocktail party proclaiming her human identity: "Kenneth (or Nigel or Rodney) and I often think we will sell everything we have and go to live on an island in the Aegean where Kenneth (or Rodney or Nigel) will paint and I will write."
Of course, one would not want to do anything to discourage Kenneth, Nigel and Rodney from taking their unhappy wives away with them to the Aegean, but it is the second half of the proposal which fills one with dismay. Why on earth do they want to write or paint? Do they buy novels or visit exhibitions? Are they remotely interested in other people's writing or painting? Have they anything they wish to say or to describe? It is one of the great clichés of our time that writing or painting offers refuge from the restraints and indignities of normal employment for all who seek it. People who have never opened a novel or glanced at an exhibition nevertheless feel that writing and painting are the only things worth doing. A corollary, widely accepted in London at least, is that those who do not write or paint are somehow inferior to those who do.
Mr Paul's second novel explores the artistic Wonderland which would appear to play such a large part in the fantasy life of so many wage slaves. His hero, Michael Wills, is a hack colour writer on a magazine called Saturday. He is sent to interview Julia Daintrey, a retired film star who was once described as having "one of 1947's most exciting faces." She is now very rich, having married a soap king who died leaving her free to remarry an unknown film producer, Louie Pringle. She is also an art collector and Wills, having gone through the usual hack journalist's routine of vomiting in the house of the person he has come to interview, is delighted to recognise one of his own still lifes (or still lives) in her collection. He has been a painter, you see, before selling his soul, denying his humanity etc, and becoming a hack journalist.
Mr Pringle offers to become his patron if he will return to painting, and so, on reflection, he walks out on his neurotic, depressed teacher-wife, Celia, and moves into a studio in the Pringle residence, where he rapidly becomes Mrs Pringle's lover and a famous painter. Celia stews in her own juice for a time, going through the depressed housewife on the-verge-of-a-nervous breakdown routine, until she meets a nice young hack journalist from Saturday, a former colleague of Michael's, with whom she settles down happily. Michael concludes that he is a good fellow — "inescapably mediocre, but full of sound qualities "—and returns to his middle-aged mistress after a rather confused adventure in the course of which Mr Pringle and a faded bohemian friend called Mungo let it be thought that Michael has murdered his mistress's husband. As readers we are left in an agony of doubt whether Michael is really being true to himself at last and, if so, to what sort of self it is that he is being true.
Mr Paul examines the proposition that trying to be an artist is the only worthwhile thing in life, sometimes with apparent derision, at other times apparently taking it at its face value. The reader is never quite certain whetNer Mr Paul is trying to be funny or not when he writes of his hero's first abstract composition: Paint, fresh as paint, was once again the paint of childhood. Although he wasn't painting skies and grass, what he squeezed from his tubes was essence of sky, grass-juice, the raw material of light.
It may be, of course, that Mr Paul really believes this to be true; wishes us to think that his hero is indeed a talented painter and this is an important and significant thing. Some readers will be irritated by this ambivalence, but I do not think that on this occasion it matters very much whether the author's intention is primarily satirical or primarily evangelical. What Mr Paul has given us is an extremely accurate and meticulous portrait of a recognisable phenomenon. We can pray at the shrine or we can mock, as we choose.
I would like to think he kept his tongue in his cheek throughout, but I do not feel that he is necessarily any more certain than I am. There are some excellently spiteful descriptions of life with his boring neurotic wife, marred by a moment of reconciliation when she briefly gets well enought to enjoy a few sex clichés with him, leading to an eventual, deliciously withheld, sudden, long, copious extinguishing and extinction . . . raking into life the embers, rousing the phoenix and their limbs, entangled like a confusion of metaphors, stirred afresh.
There are also some excellent, if familiar, minor characters and scenes — the faded bohemian, the Ron Hall-style cocktail party. All in all, a thoroughly typical bright young contemporary English novel which will be enjoyed by those who enjoy reading contemporary English novels but, not, of course, by those who don't. It has faults — too much flashing between Celia and Michael as the writer grows bored with each, too much detailed description of familiar scenes, like having a bath: His pubic hair floated without motion, like a petrified, underwater forest, each hair furred with a line of tiny air bubbles. His still, twin feet met his gaze stolidly. . . . He rested lightly upon three points of himself, the base of his head against the back of the bath, the balls of his feet, the basal cushions of his smooth, white, invisible bottom.
But these faults are almost universal in the modern British novel, and the book is saved by a most refreshing facetiousness which wins it a handsome bronze medal and a certificate of commendation signed by anybody who cares to sign such things. John Hopkins's second attempt must be judged a disappointment as a novel — the story of an American geologist prospecting in the Spanish Sahara burbles and meanders in a pointless and irritating way — but Mr Hopkins describes atmosphere very well and the book is warmly recommended as a travelogue, introducing readers to the general hopelessness of those Europeans who choose to live in the desert.
Joseph Cabell is hired by the Spanish government to find oil in the desert. Instead, he constantly finds water in which the Spaniards are not interested commercially but which would, of course, turn the Sahara into something between the fruit farms of Kent and Hampstead Garden Suburb. In the course of his search he falls in love with Driss, a young Moroccan boy, son of a lighthouse keeper, who dies in the most poignant circumstances of tetanus. His death is vividly described. Heartbroken, Cabell takes Omar, Driss's younger brother, to his bed and also on a melancholy pilgrimage to Driss's grave, which has significantly been buried in shifting sands.
Meanwhile he conducts an intermittent affair with Hamid, a Jewish girl who has had her head shaved to embrace Islam and a Moroccan husband. Ah well, it takes all scrts. His friend Atkinson who may or may not have discovered a mountain in the desert made of solid magnesium ore worth thousands of millions of pounds (I hope Scott Fitzgerald's executors claim breach of copyright), agrees to make exploitation of his find conditional on exploitation of the water resources which Cabell has discovered. So it looks as if between the two of them they will make the desert flower again, until Cabell gets himself into a jolly interesting conversation with Hamid (the hairless, Jewish Muslim) who disapproves of both magnesium and water on con servationist grounds. • Of course, your reviewer was cheering like a lunatic at this stage, but the hero, Cabell, goes off on his ill-conceived search for water, leaving the whole ar gument in the air. Never mind, John Hopkins writes about Morocco and the Spanish Sahara much better than Lawrence Durrell ever wrote about Cyprus, and most people, I suppose, would regard that as high praise.