Barry Unsworth is a type of a novelist that, while uncommon in the United
States, has persisted in Britain: conservative in regard to narrative
strategies, stylistically neutral, given to deliberate and often inspired
craftsmanship. Each of his baker's dozen novels has been something different;
he has moved through a broad range of subject, locality, and technique.
Sugar and Rum (1990) is a wonderfully comic look at the Thatcher
years through the eyes of an aged, failing novelist who spends his days
criticizing others' manuscripts for hire and his nights wandering city
streets addressing derelicts and searching for "a thread, a pattern
of meaning." Sacred Hunger (1992), which deals with the slave
trade, won the Booker Prize. Morality Play (1995), set in fourteenth-century
Britain, follows an itinerant troupe of players during the plague years
who, coming into a town and learning of a recent murder, decide to reenact
it as a play.
The Partnership, now published in the United States for the
first time, was Unsworth's first novel, originally brought out in 1966.
It opens at a cottage in a Cornish village, where Ronald Foley and Michael
Moss live and pursue their business of producing ashtrays with pixies
for the tourist trade. Theirs is a reserved, stiff, very male relationship,
with little said and few, if any, emotions displayed. Moss, a man whose
chief talent is "a capacity to lift and heave, impose his will on inert
things," is repressed on every front. From time to time "flushes" overtake
and render him momentarily helpless. He goes for long, sensuous rambles
into the woods, often while remembering his childhood friend Lumley:
Moss stood among the trees looking up through the gushes of blossom
at the pale blue sky…. The hills around spluttered with the
invalid cries of sheep. Out at sea and invisible the bell-buoy recorded
the swell. Quite close, hidden among the leaves, a bird that he could
not identify began to sing; the sweet, intensely inhuman phrases trickled
through the foliage like something shed or spilt which could never
be gathered again.
As for Foley, "impregnability was the nearest he ever came to happiness….
For him life was something one more or less painfully, using whatever
materials were to hand, wrought; a laborious, unending process of construction,
harassed by a diversity of saboteurs." With no true intrinsic shape,
Foley molds himself moment to moment to correspond with what people
seem to expect of him. "He tried briefly to picture himself behaving
naturally, but could not manage it." His courtship of Gwendoline is
a case in point. Everything about it is artificial, overplanned, overthought,
nothing about it felt, true emotion—for which Foley lacks the
That courtship changes everything, and begins to undermine the construct
of Foley's life. Things long unsaid and unacknowledged spring up like
vines in the still room Foley and Moss have created for themselves.
When things get bad, Foley muses, you find somebody to look after you
a bit, and he has latched onto Moss, used him, just as he did the wealthy,
homely widow he'd recently fled, on account of "the terrible toil of
climbing night after night on to Mrs. Burroughs in her bedroom, full
of brass objects, in Maida Vale." Moss has much to offer: labor, devotion,
the money needed to start up the business. While Moss takes care of
cooking and household chores, Foley passes his leisure time looking
over the scrapbook of his days as a low-end model and caring for the
casts of classical cherubs that he believes, transformed to lamps, will
deliver him from manufacturer of tourist ashtrays to wealthy tradesman:
He went over to one corner of the room and took up his long-shanked,
specially devised cherub-brush which always rested against the wall
there. Much thought had gone into this brush. It had a cane handle
several feet long and a tuft of pigeon feathers at the end….
Wielding the brush firmly yet delicately he skirmished among his creatures,
dislodging the dust from their dimples and orifices. His face grew
absorbed and his tongue protruded slightly. The touch of the feather
set many of the cherubs in motion and Foley, pausing among them with
the long brush held aloft, his face raised reverently, resembled a
figure in some disordered Assumption.
But with Gwendoline's intrusion, the routines that have served so credibly
to hold everything in place begin to falter. Threatened, Moss feels
the gentleman's agreement between him and Foley slipping, seeming "to
presage the abandonment of all forms and ceremonies whatever." The knots
are undone, the rope frays, the braiding whirls away into separate fibers,
lashing all. If The Partnership shows its age—this insular
life surely a thing of the past, the novel's treatment of homosexuality
archly dated, and the whole thing oddly claustrophobic—it is also
immensely readable, the first novel of an important writer and a fine
meditation on relationships formed in silence and of misapprehensions:
nests woven from the straw of separate lives that will never be spun
to gold, never hold against the wind.
Brad Leithauser has written four collections of poetry, a book of literary
essays, Penchants and Places, and four previous novels, Equal
Distance, Hence, Seaward and The Friends of Freeland.
His prose, like his poetry, is quietly accomplished (he writes, for
instance, in metrical forms) and given to celebration of quotidian life.
He manages again and again to validate our small lives, to draw out
the sadness, sorrow, joy, and wisdom so often held in: to make it visible.
Opening on the obituary of Wesley Cross Sultan, salesman, philanderer,
and unexceptional man, Leithauser's new book poses, from the outset,
the following question: are all novels at heart biography? "There are
at least a dozen errors here," our narrator, Luke Planter, says upon
reading the obituary. Planter, the reader will find, has good reason
to care about the errors, and from this initial question, for the reader,
like those pop-up constructions in children's books, springs a cascade
of questions: Is comprehensive, even accurate, portraiture possible?
Is the pattern of a man's life readable? Is there some continuum implicit
in the arc and fall of motive, choice, self-interrogation, self-justification?
Is there a truth to that life? Or is truth forever multiple and
malleable: foaled out of Chance by Interpretation?
A Few Corrections is in many ways a book of questions.
At least a dozen errors. And what may come across in summary as over-intellectualized,
even as postmodern game-playing, in fact fronts a remarkably traditional
novel. Luke Planter embarks upon an investigation to discover the life
behind that bare scatter of words, taking to the road, to rural France,
Miami Beach, Restoration, Mich., to interview those in whose lives might
be detected the record, the impress, of Wesley Cross Sultan. Wives,
brother, mother, children. A series of soft collisions ensues as the
narrator tracks Sultan's reckless careen through failed businesses,
multiple marriages, and lie upon lie into the terminal stall and long
glide down to his final day at the Silk and Satin Saloon. Itself a kind
of bracket or parenthesis, the narrative winds, dips, and limbos along.
Each chapter begins with corrections to the original obituary, penciled
in as by a copyeditor. Not until well along do we discover the narrator's
identity, though by this time, for all Leithauser's deft sleight of
hand, it's a dull reader who will not have anticipated it. From that
narrator, about the same time, we hear, behind parentheses:
(And this is perhaps the place to acknowledge publicly what these
pages doubtless have already reflected: With each paragraph assembled
here, I'm feeling a stronger impulse to step forward and plant myself
center stage. It's a temptation I mean to resist, largely restricting
myself to those parentheses and brackets so congenial to the mathematical
mind, or at least to the ex-math major—though I do intend, as
a reward for good behavior, to grant myself the last word.)
From another character, meanwhile, comes this ventriloquial statement:
"I suppose that's the question, isn't it? The one each of us ultimately
faces? Whether we're skilled enough interpreters to make even minimal
sense of our lives?"
Make proves the key word here, as in (from the Latin) fictio,
a shaping. For Planter's task, the biographer's task, like the novelist's—what
both must settle for—is finally to construct not an imitation
of the world but an alternate for it.
In his quest, Luke takes on the avatar of the classic detective, remaining
transparent (at least initially), taking in data, and peering closely
at circumstances where, as Gide wrote of the detective form, "the truth
slowly becomes visible through the haze of deception."
"How long can you go on pretending to play Sherlock Holmes when there
isn't any mystery?" the dead man's brother exclaims near the end.
True enough, one by one all the comfortable stories have given way,
pretense and supposition—those bulwarks of the 1950s and '60s
about which Leithauser writes—gone south. Of the man Luke sought
to know, in the end little's to be known and little enough proves worth
knowing. Quite the opposite with those he meets on his quest. Luke's,
and the reader's, is a journey of sudden turns and reversals.
"There isn't a single grave I wouldn't rifle, in my headlong pursuit
of a few corrections," Luke says at the end. We live our lives forward
while trying to understand them backwards. And, finally, interpretation
implies assigning, not divining, meaning. It's not correction in the
sense of emendation or revision that Luke seeks, but correction in the
sense of repair, restoration. Like Wesley Cross Sultan, we find or make
our way to the stories that let us go on. •
James Sallis's latest book is Chester
Himes: A Biography. His new novel, Ghost
of a Flea, will be published this fall.