7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 13

Drunken Irish soliloquy

Auberon Waugh

Night Edna O'Brien (Weidenfeld and Nicolson £2.00) August 1914 Alexander Solzhenitzyn (Bodley Head £3.00) For my own part, I simply do not believe that even in Ireland it is normal to dig a grave at the funeral, while mourners stand around waiting for it to be dug. Mary Hooligan, a fat Irishwoman approaching middle age, lies on her bed and burbles her life story, in jumbled sequence, with many asides and poetic discussions. One of her earliest recollections — long preceding her mother's death — is that of her mother's funeral, recalled in a strange dithyrambic metre echoing Hopkins and even Eliot's 'A cold coming we had of it.'

A sizeable crowd, all in sable, the mourners. Grievously stung they were by nettles that grew in abundance.

Yet Miss Hooligan confidently asserts that the mourners waited around, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, while the gravediggers set about their work: The clay got richer, redder, the deeper they dug. They were quick with the spade, made darty incisions; and of course, there were fine manifestations of sounds — dribbles, sniffles, tears, gulps all stifled by handkerchief.

It is hard to say exactly why at this moment my willing suspension of disbelief started to subside like a punctured barrage balloon. If she had described the gravedigging as part of some hilarious mix-up, or poetic exaggeration, or even as an anomaly or mild curiosity, I could have read on with keen attention. But quite obviously, Miss Hooligan is not only a liar but a purposeless liar. She is describing events that never occurred, rather than events which have been exaggerated, embroidered or suffered a sex change into something rich and strange.

What we are left with, then, is a long, rambling monologue of the sort I sometimes hear from Irishmen in the Westward Ho! bar at Paddington Station. One listens with only half one's attention, in case something funny or unusual should emerge from the monologue, but the fact that one does not believe a word of it produces in the hearer a readiness to be bored and a certain impatience with what might be called linking sequences. When Miss Hooligan embarks on a stream-ofconsciousness description of her bedroom, for instance, we are liable to switch off and allow our minds to wander away to some Middle-Eastern potentate's abode with Elizabeth Taylor or Princess Anne or whatever.

A feather. It has been irking me for some time, but I have managed to wrench it from the ticking, it is fawn in colour. The feather of whom, of what. I twirl it and it responds. I

blow on it and it responds. Nice when something responds.

If I squint in a certain way I can make the wallpaper sag. so that it is swinging back and forth with the sway of a cradle. Then I open my eyes and see it, stark. Very intrusive.

Yes, yes to be sure. But why should it be allowed to intrude on us? However, when one has said all that, and when one has said that the form of Miss O'Brien's new novel — that of the drunken Irish soliloquy — is about as unappetising a form as it is possible to imagine, one must also admit that within the limitations of the convention she has chosen she has produced as funny and as unusual a book as I have read for a long time. For those who are prepared to overlook the stagnant stretches of garrulous incomprehensibility, there are moments of supreme • comic achievement and pathos which are as good as anything she has ever written. If only she would recognise that her genius — and I put it no lower than that — is primarily a comic one,. and if only she could accept that in human affairs nothing really worthwhile will ever be achieved without hard work — for a novelist this means organisation and reason — she would be as good a writer as any alive today.

Miss Hooligan's adventures _include an erotic interlude with some burglar, an affair with a mad millionaire, comic episodes as a painter's model and as an Irish Tourist Board Go-Go girl in New York, an affair with a Finn and a marriage of sorts to a doctor. Probably the best parts, it is true, are contained in indelicate asides, as when she reflects on how much male seed has been spilled throughout her career:

Lately I'm thinking if I'd kept some of these emissions instead of squandering them so, that if I'd put them in a little jar or a test tube, I could have done a little experimentation, dabbled in the mysteries of botany. No knowing what might have emerged, a plant, gestation, half thing, a creature . . . I would have given it names, mused over names, the way expectant parents do, consulted a book. I forsook all that domestic bliss, spurned it.

Or her observations in a café:

The condiments I already had, and a bulbous container for tomato ketchup with a green fibrous nozzle, a likeness to the sprigs of a fresh tomato, God help -us.

God help us indeed. IfI have been stinting of praise for a book which kept me in stitches of laughter for a good half of it, this is only because of -a feeling that with a little more effort it could have been a masterpiece.

The problem of whether or not to describe it as a masterpiece seems to overshadow all judgment of Solzhenitsyn's latest novel which I have finally finished. Nothing happened in the final forty-odd chapters to alter my opinion that the author is engaged in an agonising one-man search for the truth of what went wrong to bring his beloved country to its present abject state. The book becomes, in effect, a fictionalised military history and suffers from the inherent disadvantages that few novel reviewers are really very much interested in military history while military historians are irritated by speculative human interpretation served up as fact. Reviewers have therefore tended to concentrate on whether it can truly be described as great, like War and Peace. Even Richard Holmes, in his expert and lucidly written review in the Times, seemed to worry about this.

Perhaps Solzhenitsyn is a special subject and should not be given to novel reviewers, but surely it is a mistake to think it part of a contemporary reviewer's job to decide whether a book is ' great ' or even 'important.' For my part, I very much doubt whether War and Peace could accurately be described as either of these things if it came out today, simply because novels no -longer make the sort of impact in our society which justifies such language. In Russia, where they might make that sort of impact, they are forbidden, of course. As for 'importance,' the extent to which they influence subsequent writers must be pronounced. upon by Cyril Connollys yet unborn.

Raymond Williams in his review for the Guardian, pointed out something which I had missed last time round, when I suggested that Solzhenitsyn would do better if he came to Europe and preached to our own ' progressive ' thinkers about the reality of the socialist experiment in Russia. Solzhenitsyn's main message is not addressed to mankind but to his fellow Russians, as I suggested, and his motive, as Professor Williams correctly says, is a single-minded and obsessive love of his country.