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Books: “I Do Not Understand” – CK Stead Reviews Patrick Evans

Patrick Evans’s last novel was about Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame – a clever piece of ventriloquism in which the Sargeson voice and character are accurately caught. This new novel takes the theme, or subject, or obsession, one stage further and beyond ‘the facts’. New Zealand (Canterbury) novelist Raymond Thomas Lawrence has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A Trust of four of his friends/associates has been set up to run his literary estate, protect his copyright, and manage the Residence which is now a museum. The principal among these, Peter Orr, the nephew he adopted as his son, is first narrator of the story, though at intervals it is taken up by Thom Ham, not one of the Trust but an unliterary body-builder engaged in the later part of the great man’s life to work for him, act as chauffeur, and when necessary to man-handle him in and out of bed and the shower. Thom talks his part of the story into a tape recorder.

We begin after Lawrence’s death, but are taken back in time, and this story-telling, tale-shifting, unfolding truths about the writer and his relations with the Trust members, is skilfully managed, so there are constant revelations, with hints of more (and usually worse) to come. Of the Trustees, Peter Orr is (or at first appears to be) reverent about Lawrence’s greatness. Robert Semple, on the other hand, a failed and bitter poet, describes him as ‘a great arsehole’. Marjorie Ursula Swindells, who was his mistress for a time, has published just one novel, Unravel Me, successful because it ‘told all’ about the love affair. She has been unable to find an equal attachment with anyone else, or write another book, and continues ambiguous and confused about Raymond who used to spank her which she disliked herself for liking.

Julian Yuile, the fourth of the quartet, a rather mild-mannered printer of beautiful books, expresses no opinion about Raymond until late in the novel when he hears an account from Peter about how uncle and nephew have interacted, and advises Peter, ‘You need to get away from him.’ He argues that Raymond keeps hold of Peter by seeming to reject him. ‘He’s a fucking monster! He manipulates everyone like that.’

The picture of the great man gradually and remorselessly darkens. Julian discovers evidence that many of the most striking ideas in his work come from the writings or the doings of others. There are even passages he has borrowed and re-written – ‘improved’ often – but not his own. By the time this discovery is made the Nobel Prize has been awarded and great writer has died. To avoid the scandal which would certainly follow revelations of plagiarism, and of misappropriation of the experience of others, Peter and Julian destroy the evidence – a hoard of materials Raymond has kept and from which things have been imported into his own books.

Raymond’s worst manipulation is of Peter. That he has abused him sexually in boyhood is hinted at but never made quite clear; but he has certainly enslaved him emotionally, destroyed his early ambition to be a writer, and left him a poor shadow of a man, fighting to be free of the attachment, but in the end captured by it, loving his role as the heir to greatness:

 I came to understand that if I hadn’t accepted the things he made me do and the things he did to me when I first came into his life, I would never have walked with the gods. We all did, the four who have become the Trust. Look where he took us, I tell them. He took us to Stockholm –

The power of Raymond’s personality, and his ability to control those around him, is exemplified even by the non-literary body-builder Thom. When Thom is being considered for the job Peter objects, ‘But he’s an idiot.’ Raymond’s reply is, ‘I don’t need someone to sit with me under a travelling rug. I want a follower.’ And a follower is what he gets. The ‘idiot’ attests to the power merely of his smile: ‘I’d have followed him into hell. Shit it was powerful. You are mine it was like he said that to me.’

Because of the importance of the Nobel award others than the four are after the great writer’s story. There is an academic, Geneva Trott, who writes one inaccurate and unsatisfactory book about him and is keen to write another – even to become his official biographer. She has tapes, possibly of Raymond talking about himself, and Peter believes she is threatening to use these if she is not given the role she wants. The Trust consider what they should do – should they kill her for example? Two of them steal the tapes but then they are accidentally dropped into a lavatory and spoiled before they can be listened to.

This, and indeed the whole Geneva Trott sub-plot, is not the only episode where Evans seems to go part way down a narrative path and then abandon it in a way that makes it seem pointless. The ‘point’, I suppose, is fun – amusement, comedy – but then the work resounds throughout with a note so dark it makes ‘fun’ seem off-key.

Thom’s recorded narrative is being done for someone else, addressed as ‘Patrick’ (Evans, we are no doubt meant to guess), who also wants to write a book about Raymond Lawrence. This, I suppose, is the novel we are reading.

The darkest parts of the novel relate to Raymond’s fiction, and how he used those about him, particularly Peter, to create it. This is especially so where the subject is North Africa, the Algerian war of independence, and an Arab boy who is both loved, and slowly, sadistically murdered by a narrator who is a figure for Raymond himself. How much of this is based on reality is unclear. I think one is probably meant to conclude very little, despite the fact that Peter Orr seems in the end to believe it all, even that Raymond fought in the Algerian war. But Peter is the one Raymond has ‘mined’ to create his ‘Arab boy’ – used and loved, loved and destroyed.

Raymond is a literary monster of a kind that seems familiar, conventional, suggesting something out of the wardrobe department or dress-up box of John Fowles, or perhaps Iris Murdoch.   When he wins the Nobel he says to his ‘bum-boy’ Peter, ‘I’ve made it. Now watch me I’m going to fuck it up.’   He surprises his retainers by making a good speech in Stockholm, but his next, at home, is a shocker, accompanied by outrages which are never specified. His subsequent novel is also an outrage and produces consternation and disgust.

He is now completely out of control, an embarrassment – and his final act is one of destruction, taking himself along with the school of Creative Writing which has been named to honour him, and seven of its students – not a bad joke in itself, but once again confusing as to the tone of the whole.

The novel ends with a new mystery concerning a child in a wheelchair, and the narrator, Peter Orr, saying, ‘I think I am beginning to understand.’ Perhaps by now impatience had set in and I was reading too fast, because I did not understand at all.

*

So I went back to the end and looked again. The woman, Jennifer, whose child is in the wheelchair refers to Peter Orr as ‘Mr Lawrence’. Well, he is the adopted son of the writer, Raymond Lawrence, but I think she is hinting he is in fact the natural son – something which has been hinted at along the way. And she wants him to see the wheelchair boy’s back. Peter looks and recognises why, without telling us quite what he has seen.

Peter himself suffers from scoliosis, and this has been explained in the course of the novel as caused by the administration of hormones, which Raymond persuaded the young Peter to take to advance puberty; and it is even suggested, once, by Marjorie, that it was caused by a physical attack Raymond made on Peter. Now I think we must be expected to guess that the child in the chair is suffering from the same condition – and that this is because Peter and the child are half-brothers, the mysterious woman, Jennifer, having had a child to Raymond, and Peter’s mother likewise while she was still married to Raymond’s brother.

If that is not the explanation then I am still in the dark. But it is also slightly embarrassing to spell all this out. There is something so dingy about it.

The cover blurb calls the book ‘a hilarious and troubling satire’. It is troubling, but the tone is too uncertain, too various, too all-over-the place to be either comic or, really, satiric.

 

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