A Loud Beauty

There is an image, close to the beginning, that serves as this book’s metaphor. Like all good symbols, a thing, singular, concrete, suffused with an atmosphere rich in suggestion, this one has a number of meanings, the most obvious, it is the one emphasised by our too emphatic narrator, hiding another far deeper and mysterious, and quite original: some events do not exist because no-one is quick enough to perceive them. To be prosaic: reality is what’s left behind in shared memories and recorded history; a person only what others know about them. It is why we can say with confidence that incest simply doesn't happen amongst sophisticated intelligent siblings. We state emphatically: Claudia is not the kind of woman who falls in love. So obvious are such statements, and they are well-supported by the facts, that they must be, they are true. Of course Lisa does not have a lover; she is too staid, too mousey for that.

I have a print - you can buy them at the Victoria and Albert Museum - of a photograph of the village street of Thetford, taken in 1868, in which William Smith is not. The street is empty. There is a grocer’s shop and a blacksmith’s and a stationary cart and a great spreading tree, but not a single human figure. In fact William Smith - or someone, or several people, dogs too, geese, a man on a horse - passed beneath the tree, went into the grocer’s shop, loitered for a moment talking to a friend while the photograph was taken but he is invisible, all of them are invisible. The exposure of the photograph - sixty minutes - was so long that William Smith and everyone else passed through it and away leaving no trace. Not even so much of a mark as those primordial worms that passed through the Cambrian mud of northern Scotland and left the empty tube of their passage in the rock.

I like that. I like that very much. A neat image for the relation of man to the physical world. Gone, passed through and away.

The habits of mind slow up the mind, which then works just like this old fashioned camera; too slow to catch the fleeting signs, the give-away phrases, those inexplicable lacunae, the quicksilver reactions which do reveal to the curious eye and the receptive ear the secrets of a character’s life. If only we were quick enough! But no; by the time we have lumbered up the street they’ve raced around the corner. Gone! like a djinn. We know our friends too well. The weight of familiarity and those bags heavy with history slow us up, and no longer do we sprint after every rapscallion.

Laszlo almost divines the truth about Claudia and Gordon; but then he is both an alien - a refugee from the Hungarian Revolution - and a pervert; a double outsider who has no choice but to interrogate the surface features of the society, for lacking the easy satisfactions, the singular privilege of the native, who relying on habit and custom acquires an understanding through osmosis and instinct, he must consider every sign, parse every sentence, forensically analyse all relationships if he is to safely navigate a way through this foreign country.

We are not shocked. Incest fits perfectly with Claudia’s persona. A strong critical intellect that subdues the feelings makes any kind of transgression, but especially that of sex, reasonably straightforward; for the emotional taboos being weak she demolishes the intellectual ones with a conscious ease. We imagine it almost as an experiment. Claudia falling in love is the surprise. Impossible, surely, for one so independent, so sharp, so excessively rational; this penetrating critic and rebellious spirit could never fall into sentimentalism. Losing herself to the emotions! That’s only for dull people; the ugly ones of this world. And sex… It is no trap for such a woman. Purely for recreational purposes. In Cairo Claudia’s one of the lads, taking a break from the fighting - she is a war correspondent - in a city of light relief and gaudy entertainment, where a hotel bedroom is the best place to enjoy oneself; a brief paradise of blissful amnesia, whose explosions of orgiastic delight obliterate Rommel and his desert tanks.

Lying in a hospital bed dying of cancer Claudia once again reads Tom’s diary; a record of his last days just before he died under a German bomb. In between vivid descriptions of tank battles there are references to “C”, their time together, his future hopes for the relationship. Ach! Someone did leave a trace in that Thetford photograph; though only those present would know the details…

Suppose though that William Smith - or whoever did walk down that street that morning - had in his progress moved the cart from point A to point B. What would we see then? A smudge? Two carts? Or suppose he had cut down the tree? Tampering with the physical world is what we do supremely well - in the end, perhaps, we shall achieve it definitely. Finis. And history will indeed come to an end.

A fallen tree or a cart moved between two sides of the street? By bringing the diary to the hospital Claudia suggests that Tom has made a permanent mark in her consciousness; thus confirming our suspicions that her post-war career was a compensatory passion, an ardent engagement in public events filling up that bombed out crater where once her emotions had their home. But these are intensely private feelings, whose convoluted effects are largely unknowable, even to herself; for there was no plan, no Edgar Allan Poe plot, to hide her emotions in plain sight. It is Claudia’s nature to run into the limelight; the best place to exhibit the zing and dogmatic power of her intellect; for Claudia has to perform, she must turn everything in big and bright ideas, whose boldness captivates the audience. She is an actress whose roles are concepts. This performance is real, it is not a fake.1 Reality has many different layers. And each layer is right, on its own terms. It is no falsehood to believe in the public act of this brilliant woman, it is just… That there are so many other performances to see; and some are surprisingly intimate; though you won’t find these in the press room or on the television screen; nor even in her flat.

What about the others, Claudia’s intimates? Will they recognise the signs of that tree, those smudges left by six years of war… Typically Claudia doesn't explore the photographic results of Thetford man - halfway through this thought she jumps up onto a higher abstract level, to muse about the biggest of all human questions. It is the cleverness of a kangaroo: Communism boing! Evolution boing! boing! History boing! boing! boing! Never will Claudia’s mind stroll slowly and sedately around an old familiar place, and explore its deepest recesses. Boring! So off she skips to the next field, to the next concept, waiting like a sculpture.

These others? Surely the diary’s presence will alert them to Tom’s importance; its significance recognised they will read it more closely, translating out its true meaning they will see…

At the last Claudia cannot give up those Cairo days: I am more than a beautiful and intelligent woman; I did love, once. How shocking! For decades this brilliant woman has hidden a war wound. The novel reveals her injury, and is a death-bed confession; though even now, when she is dying, Claudia finds revelation difficult; for so attuned to public performance, is this grand dame of British letters, that she is always in flight with the intellect, forever veering off into generalisation and abstraction. Such histrionics are meant to confuse; they are also a bolt-hole from her deepest emotions, whose secrets are for herself alone.

We do not think the left-behinds will be very perceptive. They will not read Tom’s diary with the requisite inquisitorial skill. Jasper: just another of her flings. Lisa: she was always having affairs. Laszlo: so many men wanted to marry her… Tom’s pages will confirm what they already know. Claudia’s personality, with its surface brilliance, is just too hard for them to penetrate; her character remaining intact even after death. Tom’s diary is less the “tree” than a “cart”; it gives only the vaguest of indications as to the true nature of Claudia’s feelings; they do not record her fragility when he is at the front, he could not know of her despair when waiting for news of his death; while that desperate visit to the local church, where she prayed for his survival, was told to no-one; it is too embarrassing. The cart leaves the faintest of fading traces… This diary records only Tom’s feelings and his thoughts, and it is impossible to say if Claudia felt the same. Nobody saw her change, during those few brief months. The distraught Claudia of the Cairo days has vanished.When in love she was a different woman. Independence. Aloofness. Rationality. All her usual characteristics were thrown away. Hopelessly in love Claudia became a victim of her emotions; helpless, suddenly, she was indentured to circumstance; a slave to her feelings barbarically wild and uncontrollable. No-one knows this, except Claudia and the reader of this novel.To her family and friends and for the general public - she is a popular historian given to large generalisations, that outlet for her strong emotions - she is a loud and argumentative beauty, whose dazzling flirtatiousness and clever rhetoric overawes every interlocutor; they have no choice, they must genuflect to her scintillating looks and surrender to her intellectual confidence. Until now she has dominated every occasion. Only Gordon was her match. 

War creates new personalities. Laszlo is a case to consider. The father lost to the Russian invasion, his son is forced into exile, where he refashions himself as a Englishman; first as dandy and bohemian, later as artist and catamite. After the transformation Laszlo is no longer an Hungarian; although he never becomes wholly English, remaining forever the outsider - he is the unsuccessful artist, the performer who can’t quite turn an act into the real thing. War forces us into new roles. War breaks habits. War makes us all febrile. War forces Claudia to think intensely about herself and her surroundings, which are changing every day; each week a familiar street turns into a foreign country. Nothing is stable, nowhere is quite safe. In wartime adolescence returns; we see its fever everywhere, amongst young adults, in the middle-aged, and even around the odd OAP.In Cairo, Claudia is a new woman: a journalist living on terms of equality with the men. Albeit she doesn't share all the privileges of her male colleagues, thus she only gets close to the action once. And although she shags whom she likes she nevertheless remains distinctly a woman (acting like a man only highlights her queenly nature). In all areas of this life she is thus marked off as special. This seems only a minor annoyance, while there are many compensations: her beauty and her intelligence are a source of both attraction and power - no man has such influence on his own sex. She likes this place! adolescently alive, and free. But her position is curious, and it does have consequences. The more she acts like a man the greater her womanhood is emphasised. Here is the danger. When disaster falls, when love explodes on a hotel bed, her female qualities, now very close to the surface, come to the fore, troubling her equanimity. No matter. Love is fun! Until the Luftwaffe flies over a desert camp… It is the enforced separation from Tom that now exacerbates her womanly status - a male journalist would have jeeped it to the front - while the agony of waiting without news - is he dead? missing? could he be alive? - intensifies a very different set of emotions; Claudia becomes passive and dependent, and is needy for salvation; it is why she turns to fate and superstition; thus that hapless visit to the church, a hopeless attempt to impose an order on her chaotic feelings; for reason, with all its masculine overtones, has been smashed to pieces and is useless. Little surprise then that she filled the ears of her post-war audience with bombastic rhetoric, whose artefacts litter this novel. Claudia is hiding from her own frailty, a sudden appalling collapse that left the ruins of a helpless femininity.

Cairo gives Claudia the gift of liberty. There, she breaks free from the constraints of her sex and destroys all the moral taboos without suffering any of the usual social disgraces. She is too beautiful, too clever, too superior to be ridiculed or ostracised; no one calls a queen a slut. Claudia is just one of the boys! This is freedom. And risk. And also danger. The emotions, already heightened by the proximity of death, this fear and relief, that tension and its release of a nervous system played like an accordion by the war’s rhythm, are fluid and unstable, they are flowing free of the mind’s control. It is exhilarating. Claudia feels alive! and enjoys an enormous licence. All restraints disappearing and…and…she falls in love. It is a bomb blast. A devastating tragedy. Love blows her independence to pieces, and suddenly she is sharing a common fate with another person. Claudia is at God’s mercy.

Tom dies in camp during a rest break. There is irony here, and also a larger truth, which this novel powerfully depicts: for Tom and Claudia the agony of war is not the actual conflict but the feelings it releases in those days of thrilling freedom at HQ, when, with the emotions firing all over the place, they abandon themselves to the senses.Claudia’s self-control is blown apart by the ecstatic joys of love, which she could procure only through the limitless freedoms of war; for a sophisticated consciousness, ever alert to the faux pas, has always protected her against indiscretion and fragility; we think of an aristocratic daughter taught by a puritanical governess. War blows all this away. Blasted by passion, the walls of reason fall down to expose an embarrassing mess of fear, weakness and an utter spiritual degradation - she believes in magic, for God’s sake! Freedom always collects its debts.

After the war Claudia grows a new persona; one more public, rhetorical, distant. It is a conscious disguise, and a bandage to hide the scars of love. Lying on her death bed, too weak to apply new dressings, the scar tissue is at last revealed; traces of Cairo popping out between the grand intellectual ideas; those post-war favourites, History, Democracy and Revolution are especially popular. Yes. This is a world that only exists in Capital Letters. Claudia is clever, but she is no thinker. Her concepts therefore have little independent life; projections of her own powerful personality they become repositories for excessively strong and unpasteurised feelings that have nowhere else to go - no man and no war can replace Tom and the Cairo days. A love affair that ends before the passion ceases is a devastating earthquake. After the wreckage of her entire landscape Claudia cannot again risk the destruction of her rebuilt palace and its exquisite gardens. The feelings to never run free again.

We need an image to capture Claudia, one suitable for the period. We call in an architect. I need your… Oh certainly, when do you want… Well, in the next few days would be ideal… He laughs. But his design, when it comes, and it arrives on time, is exactly what we desire. It is a late-modernist flat block, a large concrete rectangle, a sort of bunker cut into a Georgian terrace to remind us of the Blitz; although now, during the last years of the twentieth century, its striking but harsh beauty is in decay.

And Jasper, who has known Claudia now eight months and nine days, struggles furiously with his feelings. She maddens him; she is the most interesting woman he has ever met; he would gladly be without her; he cannot wait to be in bed with her again…

Marvellous, extraordinary, scintillating, beautiful: this woman is overwhelming! We desire her intensely. So captivating, although…do we actually like our Claudia? This is to confuse ourselves with our own question. Stumbling through a lane littered with bad answers we trip over a bag of nonsense, falling into a street nicely clean and tidy… Like! Like is junk. Throw like out of here! This woman is too loud, too assertive, too sharp, too competitive to be an easy companion. Like? Too tepid for such a character. This is someone to love with abandon and then leave, without once turning back, never to be seen again. Would Tom have survived her war? Claudia is adamant: yes, because you only marry people you love, and I loved him. In truth, we will never know. The war was a special time that produced its own strange effects; Claudia’s romance is one of them. Could it really have outlasted the circumstances of its creation? A wild passion is hard to sustain in the suburbs of Leamington Spa; and then, when the passion cools and the intellect reasserts itself… Only Gordon, Laszlo and Jasper (he is Lisa’s father) have personalities the equal of Claudia’s, and all keep their distance. For this amazing creature is protected by electric fences and warning signs - Danger! It Is Not Safe Here. Danger! DANGER!! To be alone, cut off from other people, this is Claudia’s fate. Claudia. Claudia! There is an island. Standing on the beach, with your ankles deep in sand, you are singing your siren song to a passing yacht; your lovely hands cupped into a cone, such a delicate megaphone, you are shouting out the fruitiest of epithets, to which you add satirical wit, a tanned body, Italian beachwear, and your figure full and fit. You are irresistible, you know. The crew is at the rails; there are murmurs of admiration; desire is rapidly rising; and the Captain, drunk on your erotic cocktail, is forgetting himself; he is losing his way, he is heading for the coral reef… You increase the range of innuendo, add volume and variety to the bawdy. Faster! to the Captain we cry. Will our boat make it? You do not care! There is no life without risk, there must be danger, who cares about death… What fun this is! Come on, sailor!

The war changes everything. Claudia moves to the mainland; where she finds excitement, important public work, and an audience before whom she can perform without restraint, without censure. This is happiness. It is liberty. But although these people look the same this is an alien territory; it is wild and vulnerable, with no border fences, no physical boundaries, no sea, to protect the inhabitants from invasion or conquest. So easy to be overwhelmed by those that travel across this land. Claudia is insouciant. She gets too close to her familiars. She loses herself in Tom. It is the climax of her wartime experience; the best of her Cairo days. What ecstatic delight! But when the dawn comes… She opens the curtains and sees…she looks intensely out, she looks and looks, but sees… No! No! Yes. She sees only desert.














_________________________________


1. In the 1960s there was an extremely interesting interview with Agnes Varda and Susan Sontag where the interviewer tries but fails to articulate the curious nature of their recent films. Too imbued with the intellectual clichés of his time - especially the idea of authenticity - he misses his interviewees’ central interest: the character who is a real fake. It is the courtier; the dandy; the flaneur; the self-conscious bohemian; the public figure… Each are playing a role but it is a role that is real; these characters always on a stage; their entire life a performance; the politician acting for the public, the dandy turning their private life into theatre.

There are times we wonder if Erving Goffman wasn’t the éminence grise of the 1960s. Did everybody  who was anyone read The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life?

2. This suggests another way of interpreting the image: the affair could have been a tree - a life long marriage - but was in fact only a cart moved between different sides of the same street.

3. Is the author having a go at history (a little joke, a dig, at her husband)? Like the Greeks does Penelope Lively think that poetry’s truth is superior to history’s?

4. The great poet of adolescence - with its rapidly shifting emotions suffused with melancholy - is Shelley. In many of his poems he stands on the border between two radically opposed feelings - ecstasy and loss - a no man’s land that he is always about to leave, crossing from one feeling to the other; into the death of love or into its first flourishing and consummation. It is this instability that we feel when we read him. An instability that requires the certainty of large abstractions; thus that continual flight into Reason! Liberty! Democracy! Revolution! as if these concepts too won’t share the fate of Ozymandias.

5. Elizabeth Bowen’s In the Heat of the Day explores similar emotional territory. See my Sneaking in…

Comments