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

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder