Auberon Waugh on a new novel
Tolstoy Lives in I2N B9. Eric Geen (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 0.75) Mr Geen's novel arrived with one of the most fulsome recommendations I have ever read from his or any other publisher. This was fortunate really, because it would scarcely have passed the desultory cover inspection which is all that most novels receive from literary editors and buying public alike. However many months or even years of agonised creation have gone into a novel, it will be judged in the first instance by what is written on its cover, and novels which fail to clear this first fence are never given a chance at the second, an idle glance at the first three pages. After its idiotic title we are told this : "Eric Geen, who has the most delicious turn of phrase and a sense of humour all his own, has done an outrageous thing. He has directed a mordant killing blow at all decent, upright, clean-living, progressive, liberal, freethinking, modern bourgeois folk."
It is not hard to see why these words fill one with foreboding and depression.
Everybody knows perfectly well that if decent, upright, clean-living, progressive etc folk exist, they are bound to be figures of fun, or nobody would describe them as such. There can be nothing outrageous about directing a mordant, killing blow against such people. Like skittles, they are only created to be knocked down. Nobody in England imagines that all these adjectives apply to himself : if he sees himself as decent, upright, clean-living and bourgeois, as I do, he will not see himself as progressive, liberal, free-thinking or modern, and vice versa.
The answer to this puzzle is, of course, that many of Mr Geen's jokes are directed against progressives. His publisher, knowing full well the humourless fury of these people when they suspect that sacred matters are being treated with levity, have been at pains to remove the teeth from Mr Geen's bite by inventing a class of person with which nobody could possibly identify. He nervously assumes that we are all of us, basically, on the side of the progressives, but ventures to suppose that a few may be broad-minded enough to laugh at some of the excesses which are permitted under the fair names of progress, enlightenment etc.
If we judge the book as its publishers invite us to judge it then we must decide that it is not quite as good as Peter Simple. If we judge it merely as a zany frolic over the social scene, then something of Mr Geen's quality becomes apparent. He lacks both the self-discipline and the intellectual rigour to be a satirist, nor has he any fixed viewpoint from which things may be judged as ridiculous and contemptible or serious and admirable, or — most essential discrimination of all for the satirist — merely uninteresting. But he has in abundance the spirit of knockabout gaiety which was first popularized in my experience by the Goon Show. Whether it works quite as well in a novel as it does on a radio comedy show is another matter. We shall learn from the number of people who voluntarily choose to read Mr Geen's book. All I can say, as one who was paid to read it, is that there are moments of sublime comedy, even if they are slightly wasted in the inconsequential setting.
The boy Tolstoy, inhabiting a slightly hackneyed futuristic nightmare town called 12N BN9 (identical houses, all amenities planned etc), has a mother who tries to model herself on the national norm and a father whose peculiarity is that he is only four feet high. This depresses the boy, whose anxiety to conform is frustrated by the reluctance of others to be conformed with. He is a mixture of Candida and William of William or More loved than loving by the late Lord
Sudley. Expelled from school when a computer gets his age wrong, he spends his time chasing girls and trying to improve himself. His adventures and those of his father, mother, uncle, aunt, girl-friend, girl
friend's parents and supporting cast of policemen, surgeons, students, welfare workers, cultural advisers, town planners wives etc are too complicated to recount. Like many humorous first novelists, Mr Geen is profligate both with his jokes and his comic characters. 'This would not matter if it did not cause congestion, detracting from the over-all effect, rather than adding to it.
Let us take one character, out of the fish-pond; the Town Planner's Wife. When she is discovered by Tolstoy performing in a strip-tease club, she explains: "I love my husband, but I can't be expected to rot. The theatre is in my blood. I need the feel of the boards under my feet." While Tolstoy stares erotically at her enormous bosom, she acts long passages from Brecht to him, and kisses him gratefully every time he praises her acting.
She would make a wonderful character in any of Anthony Powell's novels. Here, she is thrown away in half a dozen pages. Many of Geen's characters would improve with development: the girl-friend, called Ann, who subordinates everything to her enjoyment: "She knew the only important thing was to enjoy life to the full and it puzzled her that other people didn't. Half the world spent its time worrying about people who were less fortunate than themselves and the other half worried' about people who were more fortunate. Ann couldn't understand why this had to be."
An old woman puts in brief but memorable appearances. Everybody visits her when they want to find someone worse off than themselves.
"I've plenty of visitors," said the Old Woman. "I have three social workers call on me every week, and every day someone brings me a tree meal . ."
"And is it good?" Tolstoy asked.
"No," said the Old Woman, "but I pretend it is. I wouldn't want to upset the enjoyment they get from bringing it to me."
Mr Geen has enormous comic talent. I can think of no particular reason why he should take the trouble to organise it into writing a proper novel like Mr Worlehouse, if he does not want to do so. It would probably make no difference to the sales of his books, and would certainly make no difference to their reception by other critics. It must be a lovely thing to receive a review of unqualified praise in The Spectator, but one can't honestly suppose that is worth all the extra effort to write a proper novel. Mr Geen supplied moments of great enjoyment, and I must thank him for that. If ever he tries to write a novel, he will need a story which people want to follow, characters with whom they become involved, joke situations planned and presented with deliberation like courses at a State Banquet rather than thrown into a pot and scrambled around. Mr Geen has the wit and the will to please. He only lacks firm instructions and a little incentive.