Monday, 2 January 2017

A Bad Trip

Beware of friends. Especially when they talk about novels. A friend calls this one a dream. And so we read the book as if in reverie; nodding off now and then we enhance the effect, an oil donkey over a well of words.

Are we right to do so? For sure there are plenty of dreamlike elements here; the writer a poet transforming the banalities of life into pointillistic images, so vivid that they may indeed have been conceived in sleep. In this extraordinary extract, excised from one amazing scene, reality losing itself amongst the miraculous imagery then fades away, to be absorbed completely inside the artist’s imagination.

And then there were three separate holes in the steam clouds and in one he saw the stooping figure of the man with the beret; in another he saw Thick scratching his chin; and in the last, the nearest, the broad tall body of Larry fully dressed, and his dark-blue suit was a mass of porous serge wrinkled and wet as a blotter. The cloth hung down with steam. The shirt, at collar, cuffs, and across the chest, was transparent as a woman’s damp chemise and the chest was steel. He carried a useless handkerchief and the red was quickly fading from his tie, dripping down over the silken steel. Thick was wearing a little black hat that dripped from the brim, and Sparrow’s battle trousers were heavy with water of the Baths.

Banks squatted suddenly, then spoke: “What are you after now? Three beggars, isn’t it?”

Without answering or looking down at him the men began to fade. Not gone suddenly behind the vapor’s thick intrusion, but merely becoming pale as shred by shred the whiteness accumulated in the holes where they stood. A sleeve, a hand, the tall man’s torso, a pair of wet shoes - these disappeared until nothing was left of the trio which, out of sight, continued then the business of hunting despite the steam.

My friend exaggerates. Though these images are designed, like the stanzas of a poem, the bars of a prison cell, to contain life the poet finds that his characters long to escape from his virtuoso prose: always they must go back to the well-known facts of a realist novel, the little flat in Dreary Station; the chipped china cups, a ceramic kettle, a pound of loose leaf tea. The crime noir plot is designed to stop such a flight. But even it cannot resist the pull of banality. Two innocents ostensibly on the run from a bunch of gangsters Michael and Margaret are actually struggling to escape from a dream landscape, fortressed by vivid and unusual imagery; Max Ernst’s Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale coming immediately to mind. Can they outrun the author’s sentences, their richness, their bizarrerie? The answer, we fear, is no. We think of tourists in a Gothic church ending their tour in the crypt; the sexton forgetting to check the vaults locks the door, leaving them to a long lonely discombobulating night… Michael and Margaret have stepped into a weird reality - an England where English is spoken as a foreign language - and are overwhelmed by its strangeness; all control lost as their world becomes unfamiliar and violent.

This dream has gone wrong. How it started we don’t really know; although the opening pages give just enough facts for a speculation. Since the war and the death of his mother William Hencher has led a peripatetic life; just like his mum, who something of a nomad moved frequently between boarding houses until she dies one night in the Blitz. Poor, she may have been a prostitute; at the very least, she did occasional tricks when money was really tight. Now, years later, Hencher returns to this fateful boarding house, where he stays, befriending the new landlords, Mr and Mrs Banks. He gets close to Michael - they share an interest in the races - and persuades him to join in a plot to steal a racing horse; although he wouldn’t, we guess, have been so direct: the whole thing made to sound vaguely legal, not really criminal; more literary fiction than Dashiell Hammett. Corrupted a little - he gambles, we think - sentiment for a new friend, plus the dream of wealth and of the escape that wealth brings, all push Michael into joining the scheme. This is a mistake. It is a dangerous game to play with a person who despite his outward respectability is, we suspect, on the fringes of the underworld; Hencher is his mother’s son, the dark side of any dream.

Knowing how much she feared his dreams: knowing that her own worst dream was one day to find him gone, overdue minute by minute some late afternoon until the inexplicable absence of him became a certainty; knowing that his own worst dream, and best, was of a horse which was itself the flesh of all violent dreams; knowing this dream, that the horse was in their sitting room - he had left the flat door open as if he meant to return in a moment or meant never to return - seeing the room empty except for moonlight bright as day and, in the middle of the floor, the tall upright shape of the horse draped from head to tail in an enormous sheet that falls over the eyes and hangs down stiffly from the silver jaw; knowing the horse on sight and listening while it raises one shadowed hoof to splinter in a single crash one plank of that empty Dreary Station floor; knowing his own impurity and Hencher’s guile; and knowing that Margaret’s hand has nothing in the palm but a short life span (finding one of her hairpins in his pocket that Wednesday dawn when he walked out into the sunlight with nothing cupped in the lip of his knowledge except thoughts of the night and pleasure he was about to find) - knowing all this, she heard in Hencher’s first question the sound of a dirty wind, a secret thought, the sudden crashing in of the plank and the crashing shut of that door.

The language is Delphic but the meaning is clear enough. The pull of a dream is more powerful than simple material existence, the habits of married life; “Margaret’s hand has nothing in the palm but a short life span” suggesting the finite limitations of home as against the boundless desires of the imagination; the forgotten hairpin unable to compete with the “thoughts…of pleasure he was about to find.” Albeit the phrasing is ambiguous. Part of the dream’s attraction is in its destructive power: the rampaging horse exciting Michael, who wants his marriage shaken up (not so his wife, who is terrified of the oncoming wreckage). Here is the risk, excitement and dread of an unknown tomorrow, a wide open future. "The crashing shut of that door” offsets this feeling: once set free into life, once allowed in the house, a dream is here to stay; Michael to be imprisoned inside a fantasy that will hurt not only himself and his wife but also irrevocably ruin his hopes, his fairy tales; a dream materialised wrecking both ordinary existence and the dream itself, now absorbing the world's ugliness. Like fruit left too long in the open air dreams quickly rot when exposed to reality. A dream retaining its purity only if it remains safe within the mind; only if unfulfilled can it proffer endless promises… The “worst dream, and best, was of a horse which was itself the flesh of all violent dreams”. After a brief ecstasy - that moment imagination is transformed into life - the door will be closed forever on future happiness; because the dream soon dies, and cannot be resurrected.

Michael is a dreamer. He is therefore a weak man; easy meat for someone like Hencher who playing on his weaknesses involves him in a plot to put the frighteners on an old aristocratic dame; stealing her prize winning horse to run it in the Golden Bowl (oh dear) under the cover of an innocent name. Our hero is the patsy.

I use the Americanism, because for all its period detail and English atmosphere this novel feels American. The criminals; the femme fatale; the violence, the guns; cumulatively they create the ambience of an American city, one harder, less forgiving than an England where cold calculation, bred of alienation and the indifference it incubates, is softened by a shared history and a feeling for community. In England no one is ever completely alone, even in London. The disconnect between place and tone emphasises the characters’ dislocation, as the simple and safe routines of a settled habitat are suddenly smashed by the intrusion of a very different kind of reality, leaving two ordinary people (Michael and Margaret Banks) to live entirely on their nerves and in their feelings. A motorboat speeds across a silent lake. The birds scream up into the air…

The book begins with bravura descriptions of the Blitz.1 Yet most of the novel is set after 1945. The Blitz ending one kind of life - Hencher’s with his mother’s - another is destroyed when the war finishes. It is a strange truth. The Peace, at least for simple characters like Michael and Margaret Banks, is actually more dangerous than wartime; for the dark forces unleashed during the war are still around, though now hidden behind civilian clothes, easily deceiving the innocent. The burning to death of Mrs Hencher liberated her son, freeing him from the sentimental ties of his society... A submarine approaches a ship, anchored safely in the harbour.

For Margaret, stripped naked, tied up and beaten by thugs, the collapse of her comfortable life is both catastrophe and nightmare; the wreck of her home producing only degradation and despair. Subsumed within the quotidian particularities of familial customs and daily habits - “nothing in the palm but a short life span”-  she cannot relinquish them easily; their loss leaving her bereft. 

Margaret finds an antique dress; she puts it on and tries to escape her prison guards. Unfortunately, it doesn't suit and she is easily spotted by the gang; who return her to the hotel room, where she is beaten for her temerity. Margaret cannot prosper in this environment. A world of dreams ill-fitting clothes that expose her to ridicule and horror.

Michael is different. He is enjoying this revolution to his reality. The wreckage of his home a heady revolt that emboldens him to act out his thoughts, to fulfil his desires, live inside his fantasies - in a night of wild passion he has sex with three women. Free at last! Though he is manipulated by a gang of criminals, who keep him alive only until the horse race ends. Liberty tied to puppet strings.

The Lime Twig is an allegory. Michael and Margaret Banks are symbols for the psychological disarray of Londoners following the Blitz; the criminals the Luftwaffe blowing a married couple’s tiny world to pieces.

For Margaret the coming of the German airforce is a disaster. She is made the helpless victim of circumstance. Nothing can be done. Tied up on a bed she can only lament her sad fate; the one comfort a child in pain who cries out for an adult’s love;2 a fleeting moment of compassion, soon gone.

The bombs bring liberty to Michael. The third woman he screws is Annie; the beautiful neighbour he has always fancied but had been too timid to proposition. Free of all the old routines, and the proprieties they induce, he now lives in a place where everyone acts out desires that are no longer constrained by convention or fear. These people can do anything. And they do! Sybilline an extraordinary woman; a Scheherazade who creates the most wondrous fairy tales…

She had given a single promise and three times already made it good, so now he knew her habits, knew what to expect, the commotion she could cause in bed. And it was a way she had of rising and kicking off the covers with cartwheel liveliness and speed each time she lost a pearl - and she had lost three pearls - and asking him to hunt for it through the twisting and knotting of the sheets. Now the covers were cartwheeling and falling about his shoulders all at once and there was the fourth to find. At the end of the bedstead opposite the pillows she came to rest suddenly cross-legged and laughing, breathing so that could see how far down she took the air.

“Don’t ask me, Mike,” hands above her head, hips wriggling a little at the apex of crossed legs, “I don’t intend to help you….” Then with a catch of sheet she idly daubed herself and laughed some more.

He came up crawling on hands and knees, still lagging after the tremor, the fanciful sex, and began to feel about in the tumult she had made of the sheets, himself not yet recovered from the breath of her own revival, the swiftness with which she turned from deep climactic love to play. As if she always saved one drop unquenched, the drop inside her body or on the tongue that turned her not back to passionate love but away from that and into attitudes of frolic. No moment of idleness or a yawn or slow recovery but each time surprising him by play and acrobatics, her fresh poses making his own dead self fire as if he had never touched her and making her body look tight and childish as if she had never been possessed by him.

In freedom there is an innocence. With illicit sex we have the naivety of unconscious joy. Crime feels good! An act of theft freeing us from the ordinary in life; its guilty conscience, the pressure of conformity, our need to respect the law.3 To be free is to feel the mysteries of existence; every moment different from the one that preceded it; all is exciting flux is exhilarating flow. Sybilline cartwheels through the sheets!

Someone must pay for these ecstatic moments. Margaret is paying with bruises, tears and a humiliating captivity. We foresee a similar fate for Michael, once the race is run. Freedom is expensive. Liberty cannot last forever; indeed, it never lasts long, criminals having a high fatality rate; while their entertainers do not always entertain; even Sybilline can bore her men, a bruise under an eye a sign of the gang leader’s impatience. 

But why, unlike in The Heat of the Day or Caught, is this happening now, after the war? Because Michael and Margaret are ordinary Londoners who were too slow (because too conventional) to take advantage of the Blitz’s freedoms; Mr and Mrs Banks people to whom things are done; they are recipients, they’re not instigators, of pleasure and pain; always they are the last on the scene, when what was once avant-garde is now a mere commonplace - by now everyone is feeling the dislocations of war and peace. These are victims of moral collapse not heroes of amoral adventure.

The ending suggests symbol not actual life. Is Michael feeling remorse? Does he feel a sudden rage against the criminals? Has a sense of justice been recovered? The questions trundle on and on; flat bed trucks travelling through a railway station; we watch them passing by, between the platforms… An intuition, perhaps, that he too will be killed; the best day of his life also his last? Is he seeing symbols everywhere? The policeman who shoots a child: is it Respectability shooting Innocence? Or Authority turned inside out? Is Michael an artist all of a sudden? His impotent response when beaten up by an old man: his yearning for apocalyptic extinction, now that liberty is transformed to chaos, turned into despair? The train disappearing down the track isn't stopping for any answers. 

We can only speculate. We must make up our own fictions. Michael’s life reached a climax on this sex-packed night; the wildest, freest, happiest time imaginable that will never be experienced again. The ecstasy carrying him over to the next day - he is still on a high from sexual excess -  he decides to end it all by making a melodramatic self-sacrifice, which, as a moral byproduct, also foils the gangsters; Michael Banks the avenging angel who dies on leaving the threshold of paradise; extinguishing himself in an infernal happiness, amongst the glories of apocalyptic dreams.4

We go too far. Our imagination in picking our pocket has stolen a cheap truth. The most plausible reason for this self-sacrifice is a simple one: after experiencing the fantasy life (with Sybilline, the widow and Annie) Michael is returning (more accurately: decompressing in)to reality. On entering the racecourse - the core of his dream - he finds that the sights and sounds of ordinary existence are seeping back into his consciousness…

He noticed the pock-faced girl and it was clear she had found her quid: a big man with a sandy bush of moustache and gold links in his cuffs was holding her round the buttocks with one great hand. Another man and woman had their elbows side by side on the rail.

“Look,” said the woman, and he heard no inflection, no rise or fall in her voice, “they’re off.”

Far away, back under clock and pennants, a terrible cheering went up. But it was the woman’s clear statement that made him sick. He pulled his hand away from the radiator cap, set his foot down from the bumper, and tried to get closer to her before the thirteen horses of the field should pass.

“Charlie, you’re going to owe me a tonic,” the woman said.

He heard the sound of hoofs and managed to stumble into the shadow of the pair by the rail. He nodded to the woman and she smiled, spoke again to her husband - “You might as well tear up your ticket!” and he felt the coming breeze, watched a long hair on his sleeve. The moustached man had his back to the race. The girl was trying to see over shoulder but he prevented her. And then the hair was saved between his fingers and he looked up, began to choke.

The blinders, the tongue tied down, the silver neck sawing in stride; the riders coming knee to knee with tangle of sticks and the noise; dust, the dangerous dust, rising high as a tall tree, and pebbles flying out like shots. He put an arm across his face, whispered Margaret, Margaret, and in the vacuum, the sudden silence, heard no hoofs, no roar, but only the thwacking of the crops and the clear voice of Jimmy Needles: “Make way for the Prince of Denmark… out of my path, St. James….”  He knew he must put a stop to it.

There is guilt, for sure. More significant, though, are the banalities that surround the actual running of the race. Michael is feeling sad for Margaret, but his greatest sorrow is the prospect of a normality forcing its way through this holiday crowd; these monotonous titbits of everyday existence now impossible to accept after a dream that has become “flesh”. After the dream the harsh sounds and sleazy sights - that hand on those buttocks - of an importuning reality. His tomorrows to be without hope; his dreams a sad memory, a reminder of life's dullness, the fantasy that failed to last. Michael Banks is fated to live inside his own private austerity. Here is the pain of a mundane existence; the misery of paradise lost; none of which can now be leavened with fairy tale. His future a futile journey; we think of an empty railway track enclosed between two embankments… 

Squeezing between the rails Michael will keep his last night alive, he will make it live forever and ever and ever - in death the dream sleeps on.

(Review: The Lime Twig)

                                        ____________________________ 


1. We should read this novel along with James Hanley’s No Directions, Henry Green’s Caught and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. Despite their violence these novels depict human relations that are softer, more humane.

2.  Contrast Margaret’s pathetic state with the stronger female characters in Elizabeth Bowen, Betty Miller (On the Side of the Angels) and Moira Buffini (Gabriel). Is Hawkes too much the male? Or just too American? Compare Margaret with Sarah Miles in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.

3.  Elizabeth Bowen captures this feeling brilliantly.

4.  Compare with Clem in No Directions. See also my And yet: Petra is at her most beautiful when she collapses…

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