21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 14

Faecal felicities

Auberon Waugh

The En l King Michel Tournier (Collins £2.50) am Elijah Thrush James Purdy (Cape £1.50) Goodness knows what Michel Tournier is actually saying throughout the 317 pages of very small print which make up his new novel. If anybody had the patience to distil it, I rather fear he would find something very loonie there, concerned with symbols, the derivation of words and Biblical prophecy. Perhaps he would find something deeply relevant to the present predicament of mankind, but I doubt it. One goes on and on reading for the clarity of the writing (M. Tournier's translator, Barbara Bray, must obviously take some credit for this) and the sheer unexpectedness of what is described. Its form is one of t'he least promising and most familiar, used to ghastly effect by Andrew Sinclair and many others: the hero as prophet, half divine, half mad, seen against the landscape of his times. He enjoys his adventures behind a mystifying veil, so that although his reactions are sometimes incomprehensible, the reader is given to understand that they obey some higher, purer logic which one needs to be fairly exalted and pure to recognise. In this M. Tournier obscurely flatters the readers' intelligence and virtue at the same time — a perfectly proper function for the novel, of course. However, in praising M. Tournier, as one is bound to do, if only for his extraordinary stamina in maintaining such a high level of fantasy for so long, one can also hope that not too many aspiring novelists will be tempted to imitate him. When all is said and done, it Is a rotten way to set about writing a novel.

The first — and, I thought the best — part is called 'The Sinister Writings of Abel Tiffauges,' because the hero, Tiffauges, writes them with his left hand, having injured his other in the garage where he works.. We find him in 1938 at the end of a love affair with a Jewish girl, who has sacked him for sexual incompetence and ejaculatio praecox, reminiscing about his early life at a Jesuit school between reflections about his present predicament:

" You don't give a damn about my pleasure."

And I could not but admit it ... woman is power or potency, man is act. And so man is naturally impotent, naturally out of step with woman's slow, vegetative ripenings . . . unless he meekly submits to her rule and her rhythm and slaves away hammer and tongs to strike a spark of joy but of the dilatory flesh presented to him.

He inherited his ability to write with his left hand, and also his near-blindness and compulsive eating of food, from a boy called Nestor, son of the school janitor, who was suffocated in the school boiler room during a fire. Although Nestor's sexual organs were small and his shape ungainly, he enjoyed enormous prestige and power in the school. What are we to make of all this? Is it symbolic of something and we are dullards to miss the symbolism? Like the magnificent Anthony Burgess, Tournier constantly hints that this is the case, but I suspect he is pulling our legs. All one can say with confidence about his book is that it is stupendously entertaining and ingenious. The first part, which is in diary form, frequently reads as if the great Anthony Burgess himself had taken over Alan Brien's miserable Diary in the Sunday Times and was writing it as a parody: November 10, 1938 . . . the morning's only consolation was of a faecal nature. Unexpectedly and impeccably I produced a magnificent turd so long it had to curve at the ends to fit into the bowl. I contemplated fondly the fine chubby little babe of living clay I'd just brought forth, and my zest for life returned.

In the next part, Tiffauges, now in the third person, is captured and taken to Germany, obscurely rejoicing to leave France. He falls in love with the country, living in great faecal felicity there, and is particularly happy to meet a blind elk. Later be becomes a forester and gamekeeper to Goering, then he manages an educational establishment for Nazi youth. It is a beautifully and vividly written book, a joy to read on nearly every page and I can think of nothing more useful to say about it than that.

James Purdy's novel, by contrast, illustrates exactly those pitfalls which M. Tournier somehow, miraculously seems to avoid. I bore on week after week in The Spectator about the danger of pitching fantasy too high but nobody ever pays a blind bit of notice. Mr Purdy's new novel Is a classic case of an author's aim being higher than his reach.

Albert Peggs, an unfashionably odourless American Negro of beautiful physique, is 'hired as " memoirist " (I think this means a ghost autobiographer) by Millicent de Frayne, a debauched millionairess of some eighty years, in order that he should spy on Elijah Thrush, a ninetyyear-old vaudeville mimer, who is her true love. Elijah has a mute great-grandson of Indian extraction and transcendental beauty called Bird of Heaven with whom he is love, while Albert's particular habit is to be eaten alive by a golden eagle, whom he feeds daily from the region of his navel.

There are a few good comic touches, like the white liberal who enjoys drinking Albert's blood, and the sad moment after Elijah's wedding when he is sacked for sexual incompetence, but I am afraid that before the book is half through one realises that it relies chiefly on a heavy, facetious whimsy. Some people will have the patience to finish it, but I am sorry to say that Mr Purdy abuses their patience, and at the end we see a child hanging upside down with a comic expression on his face, asking to be admired.

Fantasy-writing, if it is to be read, must obey exactly the same laws of dramatic suspense and surprise as ordinary writing; and surprise can only be achieved by the creation of an alternative logic. Mr Purdy's book has no such system; none of the events or characters carries conviction; there is no dramatic suspense nor even the faintest curiosity about what happens next. It is a mess, and should be read by all aspiring novelists as a terrible example.