19 APRIL 1963, Page 24

Picaresque and Gawky

Honey for the Bears. By Anthony Burgess. (Heinemann, 18s.) A Summer Bird-Cage. By Margaret Drabble. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 18s.)

PAUL HUSSEY, an English antique dealer, comes to Leningrad with his American wife, Belinda, to flog twenty-dozen `drilon' dresses on the black market on behalf of a friend's widow, whose husband had carried on the same trade before his sudden death. Plunged into a breathless sequence of picaresque perils, Paul returns to England `toothless (partly), penniless (completely), feeling a fool, having slept in the nick for lack of the means to a hotel bed, having previously been bashed, held out of a window by his ankles, proved impotent, interrogated.' He also loses his wife, and the man he smuggles out of the country in her stead, so far from being the politi- cal refugee he takes him to be, is in fact a psychopathic criminal.

Honey for the Bears is the first novel by Anthony Burgess that has come my way—which is like admitting that one saw TWTWTW for the first time last Saturday. In each case, one cannot be sure whether the example is repre- sentative. Mr. Burgess seems to be after the kind of effect Mr. Evelyn Waugh brought off so brilliantly in his early novels, where an anarchis- tic comedy played destructively over the clichés of contemporary thought about education, Africa or journalism. Mr. Burgess has a good

target—the conventional idea of Russia and her sinister threats to the values of Western democracy—and he has the appropriate literary resources: intellectual candour, a sharp eye for incongruity and a gift of comic invention. His seedy and absurd Russia, with its sad, friendly people, always eager for English lessons (Ile called very clearly, "What is right—'in the belly' or 'on the belly'?". ."Both are painful," said Paul'), politely convinced of the decadence of the West (`Men with men and women with women. Of course, you all really wish to die. We are quite different here'), seems, for all its comic simplifications, far more tangible than most serious contemporary accounts, fictional or non- fictional.

Unfortunately Mr. Burgess allows an occa- sional trace of sentiment to seep into a mode which cannot tolerate it. Paul Hussey makes claims on our pity in a way Paul Pennyfeather never did, particularly when his homosexuality is in question, And there is a rather embarrass- ing letter from Belinda about Love which sug- gests that the author hasn't got the courage of his own lack of convictions. Still, this novel is good enough to send me back to the earlier' ones.

The sons and daughters of Holden Caulfield multiply everywhere. One of them is Nicky Hapgood, narrator of Short Pleasures, who logs her career of social, moral and psychological maladjustment from her expensive education to her helpless engagement to tepid college boy, and her final escape via casual promiscuity and an aimless flight from her suffocating home. Like Holden, her most profound relationship has an incestuous quality (it is with her young brother) and like Holden she reminisces in a gawky adolescent prose wrung with pleas for under- standing. Lacking Salinger's talent for getting reverberations out of a limited instrument, Miss Bernays hasn't achieved much more than a truth- ful record of a tiny, discontented mind. But within, its limits it is well done, and the account of American college-girl life has a certain gruesome fascination.

According to the blurb, Miss Drabble got a first in English at Cambridge, 'even though ad- mitting to doing nothing else but act at the ADC and the Arts'; and she's now published her first novel at the age of twenty-four, though admitting to doing nothing else but act for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It all seems very unfair to those who have to work hard for their firsts and on their novels. Actually, Miss Drabble will have to work a bit harder if her native fluency and wit are to produce anything sub- stantial. A Summer Bird-Cage sags rather be- tween the marriage of the narrator's beautiful, enigmatic sister to an odious novelist and the same narrator's belated realisation that her sister married for money, and is really in love with an actor. The novel interestingly betrays (rather than reveals) the inability of the beautiful, clever and successful to contemplate the lives of those who are not beautiful, clever, etc. There is a dim, plain cousin in the book who is treated with alternate loathing and pity, though there is no evidence that she isn't perfectly happy.

I conclude with two historical novels. In fact, there are no such things, of course, for a novelist cannot avoid seeing the past through the lens of the present. The kings and generals of Elephants and Castles, for instance, deploy- ing armies, marriages and alliances in a patient effort to secure the crumbling empire of Alexander, remind one of nothing so much as C. P. Snow's dons and civil servants. They even talk like them: ' "It comes to this—he will be obeyed in the countryside, and the peasants will pay taxes to him. But if he is attacked by a foreign army the soldiers won't die for him." "That's very clear and well-expressed. I am glad to have you on my side." ' The central character is Demetrius, who didn't allow his deification by the Athenians to disturb his political and military realism. There's not a great deal of art about this book, but it is absorbing, informative and thought-provoking.

There is more art in The One True Man— necessarily, since there are few facts behind the hypothesis on which it is based : that the American continent was colonised by Phoenicians 500 years before Christ. Mr. Newton constructs convincingly an integrated picture of the life of a

Punic settlement in Mexico; but his story of an idealist's failure to prevent tragic conflict with the exploited natives is essentially a parable for

our time. Mr. Newton is a gifted writer: his climax depends on some of the corniest ploys in adventure story-writing, yet it generates genuine qualities of excitement, nobility and doom.