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Entries in McGrath (6)


The Grotesque

About seventy-two years ago Europe reached what may be called its nadir but which, in reality, was a lack of faith in itself. The reasons for such disappointment are obvious and need not concern us; what should gain our attention, however, is how art reacted to proclamations of the death of human feeling. If you bother to read this poet you may understand the fears that hastened his end, although for his defamation of the German language we will never forgive him. Other writers, who shall be thankful for anonymity on these pages, produced opportunistic treatises on mankind and its failings. And a certain segment, centered in France and headed by this writer, decided a return to the most basic of literary plots was the thrust that might restore our faith in art's grandeur (that they termed their movement the "new novel" is not devoid of irony). What is the most basic of literary plots? The mystery, of course. And how are we to take mysteries if not as a guilty pleasure? As perfectly serious works of art, that's how. In this setting, albeit written with forty years of wise hindsight, emerges this superb novel.     

Our year in 1949, our narrator is the fiendish Sir Hugo Coal, and our location is Coal's ancestral home, Crook Manor. Coal is a simple snob, an aspiring scientist, and an unabashed alcoholic. Although the family motto may be nil desperandum, Coal twists all his perceptions to do just that, boasting and fretting to no end about his career, his household, and his sanity. How does he find the time to unearth such concerns? Owing to a hideous accident, Sir Hugo has for some months now been vegetating and motionless in a wheelchair, and the accident involves (he assures us) his newly hired butler Fledge. Fledge is targeted early on, not only as the perpetrator of Coal's paraplegia but also as the usurper of his entire existence. Coal's self-imposed task is to compose a memoir on his healthy days as an indictment of his manservant. His first entry into Crook accompanied by his skinny, equally alcoholic wife, and fellow servant sets the tone for the confrontation:

Fledge himself is difficult to describe. Indeterminacy clings to the man like a mist. He has for so long concealed his true feelings that whatever core of real self yet glows within him, it is invisible to the naked eye. He is neat, of course, in fact he is impeccable, as befits a butler. Slim, slightly over medium height, with reddish-brown hair oiled back at a sleek angle from a peak dead in the middle of his forehead, he could be anything; but the presence at his side of Mrs. Fledge Doris situates and defines the man. For Doris is unmistakably a servant. As tall as her husband (and thus a clear head taller than me), thin as a rake, with a sharp, pinched face and black hair scraped back off her forehead and threaded with iron-gray wires, her being is indelibly stamped with the mark of domestic toil. Her nose is prominent and beaky, and her eyes are very dark, iris and pupil both so black they seem fused in a single orb with the merest pinprick of light dead in the center. Those black eyes lend her face a rather opaque, birdlike quality, and though the simplicity of the woman's nature very soon becomes apparent, at first sight she gives the appearance of a large crow, an unblinking alien to human affairs, a corvine transmigrated into woman's form. Only the tip of her nose, enlivened by a network of tiny broken blood vessels, lends color and humanity to her face. And thus they presented themselves, the ghoul and the crow, and then they were over the threshold and under my roof.

Our modern sensibilities dictate that most if not all of a story's loose ends be tied; in other words, we need to know what a work thinks of itself. Something will occur with the Fledges – indeed, in a way, this is the novel's primary event – that is never clarified in full, in as much as clarification could not be derived from languid hinting. Coal thinks the taciturn butler his enemy and is greatly suspicious of the Fledges' having arrived from Africa without any letters of recommendation from their prior employer. An employer who also happened to have been crushed to death by an ox – but here we drift into fruitless speculation.

Apart from whisky, Coal's other abiding interest lies, literally and figuratively, in the bones he keeps in his estate's barn. These compose the reassembled skeleton of a dinosaur that he, an amateur paleontologist, plans on presenting as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. As his ideas, first put forth by this evolutionary theorist (also an autodidact), could not be any more radical given the conservative nature of his field, he foresees the rest of his life – he is no believer in much else – basking in eternal glory:

I paced up and down, reciting my revolutionary thesis on the taxonomic classification of the dinosaur and reveling, I admit, in my imagination, in the storm of applause and controversy I expected to arouse. I expected, frankly, soon to be dominating the discourse of natural history or at least its paleontological strand I, the gentleman naturalist, the amateur!

That the beast in question has been christened Phlegmosaurus carbonensis is all you need to know. Alas, his expected watershed panel discussion in London is only attended by four people including his elder daughter and grandson. This predictable pratfall acts as the clothesline for sidelights and anecdotes about fornicating Fledge and dipsomaniac Doris, including a wet dream that arouses long lost lusts in the lord of the manor, who has not slept in the same manor wing as the lady for almost twenty-five years. Yet plump and quite unstately Lady Harriet has a daughter of eighteen, Cleo, whom Coal proudly identifies as a "true Coal" – which means that she might be well-nigh deranged. There is also the small matter of Cleo's impecunious fiancé Sidney, who goes wandering off towards the moor one dark and stormy night – never, of course, to return.

It is perhaps ironic that the real restorer of the bird-dinosaur link died of dementia since Sir Hugo, deemed "ontologically dead" by the majority of London neurologists, betrays hints of incipient, well, something or other. What could be troubling Hugo? His African adventures with a very shady fellow named George who just so happens to resemble a soldier of fortune? The prods and pokes of Sidney's surprisingly old mother who does not believe that his disappearance will yield good tidings? Perhaps the best summation of Coal's conscience is a dreadful shock he incurs on the moor:

So one afternoon I set off with a flask of whisky and a stout stick, and after tramping down a soggy cart track between thick growths of birch and alder I found myself beneath a vast gray sky with miles of flat, boggy fen before me and a lake in the distance .... It was when I had settled myself on a hummock of dry bracken close to the edge of the lake, and was casting my eye idly over the gray, wind-furrowed water, that I noticed a bulky horned object half-submerged in a bed of reeds close by. I splashed forward through the shallows to investigate, and discovered to my astonishment that it was a dead cow. I poked at it with my walking stick, then with the crook of my stick I hooked its horn and dragged it further into the shallows, and as I did so I caused the head to rise and water poured from its empty eye sockets as through from a fountain. Then the great body began to turn, began to go belly-up, and suddenly a foul, nauseating stench was released into the air and a pike, a big one, four feet long, slid out of the cow's belly and gazed at me for an instant, its gills quietly lapping, before gliding away into the depths of the lake. 

There is always such a scene in McGrath, and the scene invariably suggests that evil's undercurrent enjoys a whirlpool's endless reflections. Doris has some affinities with that old dinosaur that bears Coal's name – as does, in a way, the lanky and rapturous Fledge – although no one could possibly believe Coal's theories about their dispositions. And after all, isn't the test of a scientist whether he has any followers?         


Port Mungo

Many years ago in a graduate school far, far away, a visiting professor with decidedly limited English inflicted upon his first class's sensibilities a simple dichotomy: all novels are either historical or psychological. The manner in which he gurgled these words (I shall not reveal his provenance for any sum) as well as the hesitance he displayed in convincing us of this brilliant theory remain with me as an example of many things, one of which is that simple thoughts bereft of any subtlety or qualification often smack the nail into the board with astounding accuracy. In other words, a work of art may draw its power from within or without. You know all too well about the latter: the torrid wartime romance, with fates cloven as the battlefield expands and misunderstandings multiplied in the face of increasing danger, as all the while death and history conspire to keep two sweet lovers apart. With very, very few exceptions, most works tailored on this pattern are of a very thin and flimsy fabric. The protagonists love like any other couple loves, but we are supposed to find them infinitely more tragic because they may be killed at any moment and because history, that sentinel of sorrow, will hurt them as it has hurt billions of others. Yet the saddest events in one's life are always personal, always unshared, always unimportant to anyone except the sufferer. And private tragedies inform and steer every line of this novel.

Our narrator will be revealed slowly; that is to say, we know her as Gin Rathbone, a solitary Englishwoman and long-time New Yorker now in her seventies, but her motives for composition remain obscure. We also know before we are even informed that Gin is the type of person born to refract, not to shine. At first she may be seeking to vindicate her beloved brother Jack ("the most remarkable event of my life has been Jack himself"), now dead and forgotten by the artistic world whose adulation he once sought. A later reason develops somewhere towards the middle of the story, and we sense it is a mere contrivance for the sake of padded plot, a peccadillo but not a rarity in serious literature. Still, without this odd shunting the engine of our narrative remains decidedly cold. Cold until we find a young and unsung Jack Rathbone enamored with a mildly older woman by the name of Vera Savage. 

Vera, like Jack, belongs to that generation of souls that does not evince any tenderness towards its predecessors yet is consumed by an urge to ponder its own profundity. In short, the embodiment of the smug, ignorant modern artist. And while her portrait will be edited throughout the novel, stopping like some anti-Vera Expo at every stall of her defamation, her initial appearance is damning enough:

Jack liked the look of her at once, this was clear, and for this reason: she dressed like a prostitute. She stood there at the podium, a loud, bosomy woman in a tight dress and pancake make-up, one hand cocked akimbo on her hip and the other flapping the air as she spoke to us with a kind of hoarse nervous bravado, and I remember thinking her opinionated and not very clean, nor entirely sober. Her hair was the color of coal, her lips were scarlet and she had lost a tooth, whose absence lent her a distinctly menacing aspect when she grinned. What was it she talked about? Much of it I have forgotten; but I know she told us how pointless it was to attend art school, which raised a cheer, and then she spoke about inspiration, and how travel, drink, the colour black, bodies of water − passion − these were the sorts of things that inspired her. 

It is of no small coincidence that I too have been inspired by precisely these "sorts of things," as they remain key components of any Romantic's toolkit − but I digress. The description goes on to quote Vera, who seems so opposite to the plain, emotionless Gin as can only happen in fiction, that "a real artist would sooner let her children starve than work at anything but her art." As Port Mungo arrives at an explanation of its title, a dingy Central American backwater that inspires Jack to form the single-student school of "tropicalism" or "malarial," we begin to understand the basic dichotomy: we all have creative desires, but for the vast majority of us these will be quenched in the production of smaller beings who will become the vessels of our hopes. For someone who thinks himself able to add to the pantheon of great art, however, children seem too common, too unruly, and too unpredictable to appeal to his one-tracked mind.   

Yet this is precisely what a "real artist" would never do. A "real artist" may and should shirk a mindless job, the material pleasures of expensive food and clothing and luxury items, and the conformist ideas that proclaim that life is to be lived for the sake of instant gratification. Why? Because real art predicates only two things: beauty and pity. And to us there is nothing more beautiful and vulnerable than a child, any child, but especially one that owes its existence to our own seed. A child is the greatest work of art we can produce, because man is superior to his doodles, his tracts, and his tunes, and herein lies the tragedy of all artists. They cannot better nature in its mountains and canyons, even if perhaps that was never quite their ambition; yet a true artist gains his foothold when he realizes that a child's hair is more valuable than any book ever written, and the ripping squeal of a newborn baby more marvelous than any aria or sonnet. Such is, in essence, the main theme of Port Mungo, which has many dirty ideas and many dirty ways to imply those ideas without making them explicit. We get Vera's negligence of the couple's two daughters, Peg and Anna, both of whom will be separated from their parents, one for good and one across an ocean; Gerald, the eldest, most successful, and most genteel of the three Rathbone siblings, who steps in and makes a very important decision; Antonella, an Italian model for some of Jack's finer work; Johnny Hague, another white resident of the Mungo, Vera's sporadic lover, and, in a strange way, Jack's alter ego; and Eduardo, a sexually ambiguous and manipulative sculptor whose stealth somehow reminds us of our narrator. The action moves from England to New York and the Port with the retrospective sweep of a long-stifled confession. The only question will be the crime, and about that we are obliged to keep comfortably mum.    

McGrath's style is spiteful, gloomy, and fantastically crisp; it also harbors an insatiable curiosity for the reasons of the human soul, which are infinite. He lingers on the dark psychology that is never insinuated, however hard he may try, in Banville's mannerist fables, and such attention to our ticking impulses makes some of the revolting subject matter that inhabits his dark halls all the more amazing to visualize. I shall never forgive McGrath for a short story (also featuring the name Mungo) he once wrote about a priest in a style so magnificent that the abomination of its contents would convince even the staunchest non-believer of its infernal origins. But we can overlook the monotony of Port Mungo's alleged plot − rarely has such a beautiful shawl been wound about such bony shoulders − and revel in the polish and texture of this wretched little realm. I suppose it is amusing that the names Gin and Jack echo the alcoholism rampant throughout the novel, and that Vera is supposed to furnish the savage truth, the comeuppance. In this last respect, as opposed to many other facets of her chosen exile, she does not fail. In vino veritas, indeed.   


Blood Disease

I suppose one would have to be intrigued by an inn called the Blue Bat, for reasons that should be obvious, even if the story is set in 1934 England. What was happening in 1934 England, you might ask? For one thing, the British Empire, whose zenith was the first half of the nineteenth century, was nearing its demise. The colonies, protectorates (a comically poor choice of words), and other dependencies which had lived only for the glory of a cold and distant isle, had begun their unshackling; a monarch unlikely to distinguish a Ghanaian from a Jamaican was relieved by a local leader who could sort whole cities by tribe; and the ways of the West, the onus of the paleface invader, were shed in order to embrace what had always been the way there, in those specific corners of the world whose peoples had survived, "utterly at peace with the forest that sustained and sheltered them." We note that "forest" could be replaced by "mountain," "river," "village," or simply "lifestyle" and yield the selfsame conclusion. Which is a fine way of explaining the perplexity of a man known widely and appropriately as Congo Bill.

Our tale begins and ends among bloodsuckers – perhaps that already gives away too much – as well as with British anthropologist William Clack-Herman. Professor Clack-Herman, henceforth Congo Clac–, I mean Congo Bill, has the misfortune of enduring a mosquito's lust and the attendant frailties. After a great ordeal of a 'cure,' Congo Bill returns to the Empire's home base "haggard and thin," and, although still young, now availing himself of a walking stick. He is met by his shocked wife Virginia, "a tall, spirited woman with a rich laugh and scarlet-painted fingernails," and his son Frank, nine years old and, regarding otherwise shocking phenomena, restrained and skeptical beyond his years. Almost immediately, fickle chance lures them to the Bat, which merits its own interlude:

It was a warm day, and in the sunshine of the late afternoon the cornfields of Berkshire rippled about them like a golden sea; and then, just as Virginia began to wonder where they would break the journey, from out of this sea heaved a big inn, Tudor in construction, with steeply gabled roofs and black beams crisscrossed on the white-plastered walls beneath the eaves. This was the Blue Bat; since destroyed by fire, in the early Thirties it boasted good beds, a fine kitchen, and an extensive cellar.

A very extensive cellar, I may add – but we are getting ahead of ourselves. The only other tenants at the Bat turn out to be Ronald Dexter, "a gentleman of independent means who had never had to work a day in his life," and Dexter's butler, a wizened, God-fearing man by the name of Clutch. Clutch will both live up and down to his name during the course of our tale, but that is to be expected of English elderly butlers who "have seen many strange things" in their "long lives":

Clutch was running a small silver crucifix with great care along the seams of his garments. A curious-looking man, Clutch, he had a remarkable head, disproportionately large for his body and completely hairless. The skull was a perfect dome, and the tight-stretched skin of it an almost translucent shade of yellowy-brown finely engraved with subcutaneous blue-black veins. The overall impression he gave was of a monstrous fetus, or else some type of prehistoric man, a Neanderthal perhaps, in whom the millennia had deposited deep strains of racial wisdom – though he wore, of course, the tailcoat and gray pin-striped trousers of his profession.    

Dexter sighs at Clutch's superstitions  but then again, the young spend an inordinate amount of time sighing at the old. So when we also learn that Ronald Dexter and Virginia Clack-Herman have long since been acquainted thanks to, of course, "consanguinity," or a "rather tenuous blood relationship," we understand malarial Congo Bill will now be set aside, at least for a wild night or two, while the kissing cousins consolidate their very mutual interests. What we do not understand is why the local patrons of the Bat, "farm laborers ... fat, sallow people, many with a yellowish tinge to their pallor" set the crucifix-toting Clutch at ill ease.

Once upon a time tales like these were termed, appropriately enough, "penny bloods," although their dry style was miles away from McGrath's lucid streams. His unusual literary debut possesses a ghoulish magnificence well superior to the subject matter, some of which is vowed to such perversity as to be better left forgotten. That is not to say, however, that there is no pathos in the plight of the Clack-Hermans, who are at one point associated, perhaps unfairly, with "members of the upper classes" (the double-barrelled surname might have had something to do with it) and then with "the fall of the Roman Empire." The narrative overcomes one of the worst opening lines you will ever read, as well as the thin pun on what courses through those same upper class members' veins, to provide the reader with a most harrowing experience, even when young Frank unravels his own macabre thread. Congo Bill could not, you see, completely forsake his beloved Africa and the utopia of the pygmies who saved his soon-to-be miserable life. As a token of that continent's unique fauna, Congo Bill imports (how this would be allowed now with quarantines is not ours to imagine) a colobus monkey in a cage that will become its coffin. The monkey is intended for Frank but will, in many ways, come to embody the anthropologist who thought that an endangered primate would thrive in England just as it had lived out its peaceful existence under its birth trees. Frank befriends the daughter of the inn's proprietor, a widower and another one of those sallow, wheezing beasts with beady stares, and the children get along nicely if in the way that children neglected in equal measure always seem to hit it off. Should it then strike us as coincidence that the taxonomic name for this monkey is colobus satanas? Let's just say that once you've seen the cellar, you may wonder about the beds and kitchen. 



The history of mental illness is curiously coterminous with the history of psychology, a fact which proponents of such therapy claim is a testament to its importance. Without belaboring the matter, I will say that retroactive imputations of mental illness to famous figures in history is not so much outlandish as proof that this type of approach engenders silly speculation befitting computerized minds. There are some prominent movements afoot that revile psychiatry, and the more one knows of the subject the more one is inclined to heed such warnings. Ultimately, we will have to understand that a small segment of our population – much smaller than pharmaceutical companies and their agents would care to admit – is truly ill and in need of medication and perhaps occasional inspection. The rest of us can jolly well fix our own problems, which brings us to this delightfully gloomy novel.

Our narrator is Peter Cleave, a senior psychiatrist at an asylum redolent of Victorian Gothic and situated in the British countryside. The year is 1959, a watershed for English mental institutions by virtue, we are told, of the passing of the Mental Health Act. The intergalactic weapon known as Google informs me that this piece of legislation trumped the "1890 Lunacy Act" (surely a glorious feat) and more or less provided a legal framework to detain mental patients in appropriate institutions against their will. This stipulation will become important on more than on one occasion in Asylum, but let us briefly step through the brambles of the plot. A new deputy superintendent, Max Raphael, his voluptuous wife Stella, and their plump, generally ignored ten-year-old son, Charlie, have been getting accustomed to life in this dreary if lush pocket of existence. Cleave is skeptical about this arrangement from the very beginning:   

Stella .... was the daughter of a diplomat who had been disgraced in a scandal years before. Both her parents were dead now. She was barely out of her teens when she married Max. He was a reserved, rather melancholy man, a competent administrator but weak; and he lacked imagination. It was obvious to me the first time I met them that he wasn't the type to satisfy a woman like Stella. They were living in London when he applied for the position of deputy superintendent. He came down for an interview, impressed the board and, more important, impressed the superintendent, Jack Straffen. Against my advice Jack offered him the job and a few weeks later the Raphaels arrived at the hospital. 

With this unsubtle introduction, it is clear that we will soon encounter someone who is Stella's match, and probably also Max's opposite. This task falls to Edgar Stark, a large, muscular psychopath who fancies himself to be a bit of a sculptor (what he did to his wife, a disgusting crime that landed him in lockdown, will tell you all you need to know about his artistic capacity). In any case, Stark is certainly attractive in a brawny, Lord Byron sort of way, and Stella has been "more or less celibate" for the last several years. How does a "cultured, beautiful woman," who also appears to be a fine cook and homemaker, end up so neglected that she confesses her feelings at a dinner party? It is one of the odd conceits of the novel that Max's lack of imagination is blamed; in fact, this lynchpin is so dubious as to cast enormous shadows on all that is to come. To wit, if you have a wealth of ambition and a dearth of sensuality, why would you ever marry a beautiful woman whose curves gain her the nickname from one of the characters of "Rubens"? Not only is her ability to play hostess untested and unlikely, but a buxom bombshell will raise more than eyebrows regarding Max's maturity. And when Stella willingly allows Edgar's advances to conquer her whole, the novel skids down some rather implausible slopes.

Yet this is again to the credit of McGrath, who excels when he writes about his native England, but is far less successful with his American-based works (despite that he has long been a New World resident). Stella and Edgar fornicate, spend hours thinking themselves unwatched amid the sprawling hospital gardens – or, I should say, Stella alone believes this nonsense – and enjoy probing each other's physical and emotional limits. Then one fine day, Edgar has the impudence to seduce her on her own bed then make off with some of Max's clothes. Escape from an asylum, observes the usually purblind Max, requires two things: clothes and money. How nice of Stella then, when Edgar asked a week or so before, to have "given him everything she had in her purse." Edgar, to no one's surprise except Stella's, absconds to London where the second act begins, with Stella joining her lover and the latter's henchman Nick in an urban warehouse loft she will come to fear. Here we get scenes as plebeian as the raw and unfinished surroundings, and it is also here that Stella tries to refashion Edgar – who has hitherto come off as merely an unctuous, self-serving beast, at least to us – into the lover she really craves, not unlike Edgar's desire to sculpt her head:

She knew the thread was unbroken; even in his worst fits of aggressive jealousy she felt him straining for her, she felt the passion, only it was confused and misdirected, it was as though it had been shunted off down some passage from which it emerged monstrous and unrecognizable. This was his illness. And she said that it was during the two days she spent with Nick that she attempted what she called her heart's prompting: she tried for the first time, not intellectually but emotionally, to separate the man from his illness, and yes, she could do it. Oh, it was easy, she was more than equal to the task: she imagined him clutching his head as the storm raged in his poor benighted mind, but the storm wasn't him! The storm would pass, he would recover, he would be himself again. But for his sake she must avoid him while he was mad; later she would go back to him.

As Cleave duly notes, Stella has learned little from living among psychiatrists. Her few weeks in London are Bohemian in that very banal manner so commonly incident to lesser novels – which seems precisely like what has entrapped Stella. Edgar's "benighted mind" eventually gets the better of him, as it always has, and Stella makes her fallen way back to the familial country home alongside the titular institution.

Although I have not seen all of the doggedly faithful screen adaptation, I will permit myself use of its less complimentary reviews. While the film has been loathed in particular for Stella's abrupt stupidity, the novel's original improbabilities are greatly magnified by the casting choices, especially with this late actress as Stella. Richardson is sadly ten years too old and, unfortunately, not enough of a bimbo to make this work – and herein lies our greatest trouble. Our narrative, while gripping, will evolve in guarded steps; indeed, McGrath has never written more beautifully or more accurately. The premise of its stemming from the pen of an elderly psychiatrist bestows the semblance of an ornate clinical report. What happens to Stella and Charlie and Max in the third act, which begins in some downtrodden Welsh village called Cledwyn Heath, indicates that Edgar is not the only ailing soul among the dramatis personae. Max, as usual, does not quite catch on:

The house seemed too large for them, and they drifted about it like strangers in an empty hotel. Max was unable properly to begin his punitive campaign, perhaps, she thought, because the magnitude of her guilt awed him. That she should still eat, and drink, and move from room to room, burdened as she was with sin, this struck him dumb with amazement and even a sort of admiration. He could not quite believe that she wasn't crawling about on her hands and knees, begging his forgiveness.

Stella does nothing of the kind, and Max keeps her around with the old excuse that a child needs a mother. Now, a child certainly does need a mother, but not one like Stella. Not one who has succumbed to "those large emotions that by their very nature tend to blaze freely and then die, having destroyed everything that fed them." Well, almost everything.


The Angel

We are confined in our flesh only by our thoughts, however persistently morbid those thoughts may become (I, for one, have always been plagued by what this author once termed "the imp of the perverse," an epitaph that will not gain further explanation on these pages).  The drift of our imagination may be denied by those who believe in nothing greater than themselves, but some of us know full well that it is within our imagination not our reason that the truth lies hidden.  Amidst the clouds we gaze upon are the shapes of things that do not make sense except in dreams of another realm, dreams that suggest we inhabit a sliver of the universe reflected in many others.  A somewhat abstract introduction to a fine story in this collection.

Our narrator is Bernard, a younger writer in New York whose future seems neither particularly obscure nor particularly bright.  He has no ostensible family or friends and the structure of his days is embedded in his petty routines.  In this setting a good mind will not despair.  However disheartening such an existence may appear to be, the creative spirit will not languish in self-pity for more than a few moments and instead let the surroundings guide its thoughts.  Such an event is the writer's sudden acquaintance with an elderly dandy called Harry Talboys.  A name that already sounds like a cocktail or the pseudonym of a ne'er-do-well:

A tall, thin figure in a seersucker suit the grubbiness of which, the fraying cuffs, the cigarette burns and faded reddish wine stain on the crotch could not altogether disguise the quality of the fabric and the elegance of the cut.  Very erect, very tall, very slow, on his head a Panama hat; and his face a veritable atlas of human experience, the nose a great hooked bone of a thing projecting like the prow of a ship, and the mouth well, the mouth had foundered somewhat, but the old man animated it with lipstick!  He must have been at least eighty.  His shirt collar was not clean, and he wore a silk tie of some pastel shade pale lilac or mauve, I seem to remember; and in his buttonhole a fresh white lily.

One short phrase in this passage gives away much more than it should, but we can do without belaboring these unfortunate hints.  Harry is for all intents and purposes a perfect literary subject.  He is cultured, old enough to have had a very interesting life, and mindfully rueful about some past mistakes.  When he confesses something we are not so much appalled as curious as to how much was omitted from his sentiments.  For that reason and some others is his narrative about a young man once his age by the name of Anson Havershaw far more provocative than it would first appear.

And how precisely does it first appear?  In the guise, as it were, of a normal, homosexual coupling, although one might ask oneself how many public passions of this nature were successfully carried out in New York in 1925.  Havershaw, "he of the milk-white flesh and non-existent navel," becomes Harry's muse in a series of episodes whose contents we perceive emotionally more than in any consistent reality, and Bernard begins to entertain – such is his vocation, as it were – a few rogue ideas.  Harry has his own notion of what his relationship was to the young man "who bore a striking resemblance to himself ... an uncanny physical likeness":

That summer ... Harry often found himself leaving Anson's house in the first light of dawn, still in evening clothes, and slipping into the welcome gloom of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue. 'You wouldn't know it, Bernard,' he said; 'they tore it down in 1947.  A lovely church, Gothic revival; I miss it ... at the early Mass it would be lit only by the dim, blood-red glow from the stained-glass windows, and by a pair of white candles that rose from gilded holders on either side of the altar and threw out a gorgeous, shimmering halo ... The priest I knew well, an ascetic young Jesuit; I remember how his pale face caught the candlelight as he turned to the congregation the whole effect was strangely beautiful, Bernard, if you had seen it you would understand the attraction Catholicism held for so many of us ... it was the emotional appeal, really; disciplined Christianity we found more difficult to embrace.'

Without revealing why such an understanding of standard Christian faith and practice could be so important to Harry, I should confess that without an emotional appeal, religion is no different from any system of beliefs that convinces the holder of its benefits.  Liturgy and Mass may involve rote memorization, but what these rituals truly signify should bring the believer quite often to tears.  Harry does not elaborate on his flirtation with the Catholic system, only suggesting that it fulfilled some of his Romantic criteria and did not wholly dispel the rest.  Alas, Harry's stories become saturated with self-analysis, and Bernard grows increasingly frustrated at his new acquaintance whom he once considered mining for fictional ends.  The dénouement, an inevitability that even Bernard admits, involves more impolitic neighboring although the young writer, at times, does seem justified in his skepticism.  

Blood and Water was McGrath's first work, and while not his best (a scatological preoccupation abounds; one edition even features a ghostly likeness of a once-ballyhooed quack), it tenderizes topics that will be probed at greater depths in his delicious novels.  However one feels about the mentally ill and the delusional, their minds are fabulous sources of creativity.  When reading McGrath it is thus preferable to discount the clinical aspects of his analysis and focus on the imaginative wonderlands that these psyches paint in an eerie vividness reminiscent of a Scottish moor in early autumn.  Harry does not belong on such a moor, and indeed may not quite belong anywhere apart from his quarters in the same building as Bernard where his neighbor repeatedly finds himself ensconced in an uncomfortable seat.  And I haven't even mentioned the intensifying stench.


Dr. Haggard's Disease

What I believe in the morning I doubt at night.  What I'm sure of at night is fantastic in the morning.

                                                                                                                    Edward Haggard

That our emotions and fears are hardly trammeled by our nightmares may seem an obvious point, but at least our nightmares have boundaries.  We all know the sensation of being ensconced in some terrible predicament and then realizing that this situation so differs from the world we know that we cannot be awake (a deceased loved one is alive and kicking; persons of the same age appear twenty years apart; and a job and a country we have never known now constitute our everyday).  Yet another feeling is equally familiar: in the midst of some perfunctory task, we are reminded of something that occurred and yet could not have occurred, and we impute this event to our second existence.  Our second existence comprises a motley collection of thoughts, sentiments and visions – some utterly trivial and peripheral, others clearings in the hedge of our soul's labyrinth – two worlds that bend into one another like a weeping willow and its lake, mirror reflections distorted by the ripples of wind that disturb our serenity.  We are drawn to that willow and that lake like we are drawn to the oxygen they contain, but we sense a strained hum in the clouds that gather upon our approach.  A distant melody that brings us to this fine novel.

We begin on the eve of the Second World War on the seaside villas and villages that surround this body of water, although we will return to London in short order.  It is in London that the eponymous physician, a  callow resident at St. Basil's, one of England's preeminent teaching hospitals, comes to meet an older woman called Fanny Vaughn.  What separates Vaughn from all other women in the world will not be immediately obvious to the reader, nor is it to Haggard himself.  All too often fiction assumes the idealistic shapes of legend, and the flawlessness of the goddesses that haunted the Hellenic mind is imposed upon the earthbound mortals from which we may choose our beloved.  With Fanny Vaughn, however, little advance is made towards her coronation.  She is a simple and bright woman who appeals to a niche within Haggard that the diffident doctor had always hoped would exist:

That night, dear James, your mother took my heart by storm took it without a struggle.  In those first moments I can't have been very articulate, I never am when I'm excited, I tend to become formal, but she understood .... As she leaned over, her gown rippled with reflected light from the chandelier, and what a truly lovely woman she was, I thought already I was fascinated by her, the pale, perfect skin, the slight, slender figure in the shining sheath of satin.  Her dark hair was cut close to the head and gleamed in soft waves in the candlelight.  

Faint light tends to fawn over blemishes, and Haggard spends most of his days before and after Fanny Vaughn in natural dimness.  Yet the more important question is why Haggard is addressing Fanny's son when stories like these, if in second person, are usually made out to the object of their affection.  Unless of course we are dealing with a confession.

The confession reveals nothing unexpected.  Haggard falls in love with the wife of the hospital's chief pathologist (that the latter wastes most of the novel in vain attempts to diagnose his wife's indifference must count as one of its least subtle motifs) and relinquishes the details of their intimacies, albeit with little grunting and moaning, as a diary made out to Fanny's only begotten son.  There are scenes of exquisite tenderness made even sweeter by the fact that Haggard is now a morphine-addicted cripple with little appetite or vim; there are also more than a few observations on the state of his wretched soul.

I understood that our love affair would influence me profoundly define me profoundly for the rest of my life, and this being so, I chose, freely, not to forget.  I would not, I decided, allow the memory to atrophy, to wither and fade, I would keep it fresh, I would nurture it, make of it an object of worship and construct an altar in my heart where I could perform, nightly, my devotions.  I'd realized you see that I was one of those rare men who, having loved, come to understand love as the most significant spiritual activity a man can undertake.  Love, for me, is not ephemeral, it is not a transient emotion, a passing state, a passage or flight into madness or ectasy; I see it, rather, as an exalted or even sacred condition, a condition in which all the highest and best of human faculties are exercised.

Somehow Haggard understands that happiness will inevitably elude those who sit and read poetry on the verandas of their discontent; those quiet minds wait and wait for life to resemble poetry, which it cannot.  True poetry's path must resemble the entrails of life, the pain and redoubtable joy that can only be lived firsthand and relived through the magic of art.  I suppose it would be kind to mention that for much of our story Haggard is indeed depicted as a faithful lover in the spiritual sense.  He loves Fanny for what she is, not what she means to him, which could be a fair definition of genuine affection.  But the errors he commits, and they are numerous, force his delicate, womanly hand into gloves that suit a much bolder personality.  Could anyone truly love a sappy underachiever, if Edward really is cut out to be a physician, which is not the sustained opinion of some of his superiors?  Edward has answers for all these questions, copious answers, but not things he would like to hear repeated.  

Apart from a luxurious yet concise style, McGrath's great asset is his immunity to popular culture.  Never do the banal and easy comforts of lesser writers whisper to Edward, who sits impeached in Elgin, a cliff-bound manor inherited from a recently deceased uncle – the same uncle, mind you, who he had claimed was ill to provide excuses for his adulterous absences.  And when Fanny finally decides to call the whole thing off, he is neither surprised nor hurt.  For him to be surprised, she would have had to leave everything, including her burgeoning pilot of a son, and be with him in a world that was not amicable to betrayal; to hurt him, she would have had to tell him that all this meant nothing.  But she does, in a way, neither.  She pays him a specific compliment whose opposite is implied of her husband, a brutish man who always smells of formalin and chooses to examine cadavers without gloves (The explanation?  They restrain him in his analysis; and after all, he reminds his colleagues, pathology only works upon the failure of organic functions).  Haggard proceeds with the affair knowledgeable of his unrequited devotion, at least outwardly, and then incurs a stab of recognition that will only be hinted at from the following passage:

Do you know the feeling you may not be old enough the ghastly lurch of shock, I mean, that comes when, having thought about a thing for days on end, and then suddenly encountering a point of view in which previously unimaginable categories are employed, all values abruptly shift?

On more than one occasion does Fanny ask Edward to "use his imagination" instead of informing him properly of the minutia that always make adultery a futile romp.  The complications that arise, however, are more than he could have ever imagined.  On second thought, there is little that Edward Haggard's imagination cannot concoct.