26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 44

The consequences of a stroll

Anita Brookner

Just occasionally I want to read a novel in which the tone is measured and courte- ous, the protagonists equally so, the story well researched and believable, the eccen- tricities of childhood rarely labelled 'dys- functional', and world history tactfully introduced into a love story in which there is no naming of parts. In this novel a tender scrutiny will be applied to the matters in which the hero and heroine are involved a novel, in short, in which the reader is per- suaded rather than compelled, which leaves one both thoughtful and admiring, and in which there will be few obvious pegs on which to hang hysterical hyperbole. Such novels are rare, yet such a novel is Kitty and Virgil, one so modest that one can only hope that it reaches a readership which may be withdrawing confidence in the novel in general, so obvious are the machi- nations of publishers and their marketing departments. Paul Bailey's novel, his eighth, is one of the quiet delights of the literary rentree.

Kitty is an indexer, a divorced woman liv- ing in London. Virgil is a Romanian exile who now works variously as a hospital porter and a park attendant. They meet when Kitty is taking a stroll in Green Park and recognises a face which she first saw bending over her hospital bed ten months earlier. She reminds him of this = in her drugged state she was transfixed by his gleaming communist steel tooth — and he writes down her name and address on a discarded chocolate wrapper. She does not expect to see him again, but he turns up at her house on the following day and they become lovers. All she knows about him is that he has an aversion to meat. Later she learns that he is a poet, and later still that he is a hero of an unconventional kind, having swum across the Danube in his flight to freedom. He is unfailingly polite, but he is not quite grounded: he lives in a variety of rooms, always moving on before there is a danger of his becoming attached to one place rather than another. His home now is Kitty, for all the rest have gone.

As lovers do, they exchange stories of their earlier lives. His is shot with myth, with the fables his mother used to tell him, while his father strutted and urged him to be a man, to abjure all fantasies and folk- lore. The only deity in his homeland was Ceausescu, with his stunts, his food taster, his dog paraded through the respectful streets in a limousine, his abysmal igno- rance, his megalomania, and his decoration from England's Queen. Kitty is more fortu- nate, although her family is not entirely conventional. She has a twin, Daisy, who may be mad, a father who is said to be a philanderer and who now lives,in childish contentment with a manservant poached from a ducal household, and a thother who makes an annual trip to the Sudan for a meeting with an Egyptian boyfriend. Kitty too is imperturbable; she too offers nothing but good manners. They are a restful and respectable pair.

Naturally the novel is about Romania, and Paul Bailey has been extremely thor- ough here, even learning Romanian in order to translate the legends and stories which Virgil's mother used to tell him. Yet the strange and misleading Latinity of many Romanian words and place names fades as that other reality, the impenetra- ble foreignness of the language, is per- ceived on the page. There may be a poetic tradition in Romania; it is pertinent to remember that Ovid was exiled to Con- stantia. The novel is structured so as to include both the Ceausescu regime and its collapse. Virgil regrets that the Conducator and his lady were shot. They should have been made to live, he reflects, simply in order to test the limits of their vainglorious stupidity.

Paul Bailey, the lugubrious Dickens fan, is present in one or two diversions which are peihaps a little too long, but which serve to mystify Virgil, unused as he is to English humour. Kitty's father, Felix, is one, a high-spirited but fatally unamusing survivor of marital discord. Freda Whiteside, opera singer turned land- lady, is another. They are permitted their entrances and exits. More interestingly, characters who barely make an impression and have no part to play in the story are given a voice, so that by the end we know the whole set-up. The conclusion may just be glimpsed, but there is another surprise in store. This is a novel of exile, of displacement, in which various homelands are adumbrated. They too must be relinquished. Yet this is not entirely a tragedy; no points are made, let alone scored. Kitty and Virgil remain in character, stoical to the end. That is the book's extremely dignified message, and it does not go unremarked. A success.