Drive la France: a taxi driver in Paris in 1929. Photo: Getty
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Home and away: The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey and Other People’s Countries by Patrick McGuinness

Two new novels, about a Romanian in Paris in the 1920s and a Belgian living near the French border respectively, are examinations of nationality and identity.

The Prince’s Boy
Paul Bailey
Bloomsbury, 160pp, £16.99

Other People’s Countries: a Journey into Memory
Patrick McGuinness
Jonathan Cape, 208pp, £14.99

In his recent memoir about Paris, Inside a Pearl, Edmund White recalls that a meeting he organised between the francophile English novelist Julian Barnes and the anglophile French novelist Marc Cholodenko turned out to be “stiff” because neither had any interest in the other’s country except as a source of “counter-examples” with which to mock compatriots. Cholodenko hasn’t been published in Britain but readers of Barnes’s work will be familiar with his manner of invoking the French – “The English don’t have cousins the way they do”, etc – and a variation of the strategy can be recognised in Evelyn Waugh’s use of Africans and Martin Amis’s use of Americans. It’s a kind of chauvinism that feigns engagement.

When the novelist Paul Bailey first visited Romania, at the end of the Ceausescu years, he went as a former south London grammar school boy and a novelist in a consciously English tradition. It has taken him a while to engage with the country on its own terms. In Kitty and Virgil (1998), the Romanian character was seen from the perspective of an Englishwoman. In Uncle Rudolf (2002), Romanian experience was recalled by a naturalised Englishman.

Bailey’s new novel, The Prince’s Boy, presents a rich man’s son named Dinu, who travels from Gara de Nord in Bucharest to the Gare du Nord in Paris in 1927 with a view to becoming a poet or novelist. Instead, partly thanks to his reading of Proust, he becomes an academic. More significantly, he meets a fellow Romanian, Razvan, a well-known prostitute and an alleged acquaintance of Proust, with whom he falls in love. The mood of Dinu’s reminiscences, composed in the late 1960s, is one of rapture shot through with loss, the latter emotion becoming stronger when the story reaches the 1930s and Dinu’s homeland starts to display its “talent for farcical brutality”.

To discover in the final pages that Dinu, “Romanian by birth, French by choice”, ended up as an accidental Englishman is a source less of disappointment than relief. It explains, if belatedly, the fussiness of the book’s prose: “green in the ways of the flesh”, “inspirational aspirations”, “What in God’s holy name was happening to me?”, “our mutual hunger once assuaged”. And it confirms Bailey’s reluctance to coddle the reader with an Anglocentric viewpoint.

When Julian Barnes wrote a story about a Romanian in exile, “One of a Kind”, he chose as his narrator an English novelist full of Barnesian glibness (“I always had this theory about Romania. Well, not a proper theory: more an observation, I suppose”). That Dinu eventually settles in England does little to diminish the thoroughness with which Bailey executes his central task – to evoke what it would be like not for an Englishman to be a Romanian, or for someone with the author’s English cast of mind to have been born in Romania, but for a Romanian to be a Romanian. If there is a limit to what Bailey achieves here, it has less to do with sympathy of imagination than exuberance of invention. Devoted Bailey readers, on finishing this slight successor to the slight Chapman’s Odyssey (2011), may find themselves yearning for his old untamed energy, the force behind earlier exercises in male befuddlement such as Gabriel’s Lament (1986).

Patrick McGuinness, an academic and poet and the author of a novel about the end of the Ceausescu regime, The Last Hundred Days, has also attempted a sort of Proust-in-miniature in Other People’s Countries. It’s a memoir in vignettes – part essay, part poetry, part prose poetry – concerned with Bouillon, a Belgian municipality near the French border where his mother’s family lived and where he partly grew up. McGuinness emerges as an insider with distance, able to note Bouillon’s “eccentricity and exoticism” while still considering it his home. Recalling how he used to think “Evenbrussels” was a place, because his awestruck relatives would refer to “Mêmebruxelles” (as in, “Lucie’s dresses are worn in Arlon, Namur and even Brussels”), he appears affectionate rather than condescending.

If the charm of McGuinness’s reminiscences helps to ward off self-indulgence, his weakness for theory – his desire to write meta-memoir as well as memoir – undoes much of the good work. Although Other People’s Countries is billed as an extension of the bedtime stories that McGuinness tells his son and daughter, it contains a great deal of intellectual rummaging that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy’s children: “my idea of what the house remembers about itself”, “It seems important to distrust the material, maybe even to make distrust itself the material”, “those three stooges, the past, the present and the future”, “This house of mine, this house of mind”, and so on.

The stooge-like past being so hard to get straight, McGuinness is annoyed that the English language insists on not being good enough, forcing him to wrist-slap widely accepted metaphors. Of “takes place”, he writes, “Place can’t be taken”; “When we say ‘naturalised’,” he points out, “we actually mean ‘denaturalised’.” But McGuinness’s figurative language doesn’t always do what he wants it to, as when he writes that a speeded-up recording of his voice made him sound “like a breathlessly excited Charles Hawtree”, an image that combines a redundant simile, a tautology and a misspelling.

Towards the end, he plays his hand a little too aggressively. After recalling an “old lady” with a “lucky rabbit’s foot dyed in the national tricolour”, he writes, “I couldn’t have put it better myself” – presumptuously alluding to his own powers of eloquence and doing so with a cliché.

Leo Robson is the NS’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Commons confidential: Alastair Campbell's crafty confab

Campbell chats, Labour spats, and the moderate voice in Momentum.

Tony Blair’s hitman Alastair Campbell doesn’t have a good word to say about Jeremy Corbyn, so perhaps that helps to explain his summit with Theresa May’s joint chief of staff Fiona Hill. The former Labour spinner and the powerful consigliera in the current Tory Downing Street regime appeared to get along famously during an hour-long conversation at the Royal Horseguards Hotel, just off Whitehall.

So intense was the encounter – which took place on a Wednesday morning, before Prime Minister’s Questions – that the political pair didn’t allow a bomb scare outside to intrude, moving deeper into the hotel lounge instead to continue the confab. We may only speculate on the precise details of the consultation. And yet, as a snout observed, it isn’t rocket science to appreciate that Hill would value tips from Campbell, while a New Labour zealot plying his trade to high-paying clients through the lobbyists Portland could perhaps benefit by privately mentioning his access to power. My enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Is Ted Heath the next VIP blank to be drawn by police investigations into historic child sex abuse? The Wiltshire plod announced a year ago, with great fanfare outside the deceased PM’s home in Salisbury, that it would pursue allegations against Sailor Ted. Extra officers were assigned and his archive, held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was examined. I hear that the Tory peer David Hunt, the ermined chair of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, recently met the cops. The word is that the Heath inquiry has uncovered nothing damaging and is now going through the motions.

The whisper in Labour circles is that the Momentum chair, Jon Lansman, is emerging as an unlikely voice cautioning against permanent revolution in the party and opposing a formal challenge from within Corbynista ranks to the deputy leader, Tom Watson. His strategy is two steps forward, one step back. Jezza’s vanguard is as disputatious as any other political movement.

The Tribune Group of MPs, relaunching on 2 November in parliament, will be a challenger on the Labour left to the Socialist Campaign Group, which ran Corbyn as its leadership candidate. Will Hutton is to speak at the Commons gathering. How times change. I recall Tony Blair courting “Stakeholder” Hutton before the 1997 election, but then ignoring him in high office. With luck, the Tribunites will be smarter and more honourable.

Politics imitates art when a Plaid Cymru insider calls the nationalists’ leader, Leanne Wood, “our Birgitte Nyborg”, a reference to the fictional prime minister in Borgen. Owain Glyndwr must be turning in his grave, wherever it is.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood