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Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo is artful and intelligent – but not wholly successful

Walsh's short stories are elegant, but the closed-off life they portray is an impoverished one for anybody.

“Elegance is a function of failure,” says the narrator of Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo, a collection of short stories all told from the point of view of one character. “There is no need for elegance in success: success itself is enough. But elegance in failure is essential.” Walsh is a sublimely elegant writer. Her interests revolve insistently around failure: failed marriage, unsatisfactory affairs, disappointing parties, travel that ends nowhere. It’s them­atically consistent at least that the collection itself is not wholly a success.

Much of the problem stems from that solitary narrator. It’s a choice that pays tribute to Katherine Mansfield’s first published story collection, In a German Pension (1911), which Walsh wrote about last year in her non-fiction book Hotel – an odd, intriguing work, part analysis of the cultural import and symbolism of the hotel, part memoir of Walsh’s dissolving marriage and fugue into hotel living. But where in Mansfield’s book a single, semi-autobiographical narrator observes multiple guests during her stay at a boarding house, Walsh’s narrator in Vertigo (who sounds strikingly similar to the autobiographical voice of Hotel) travels to multiple locations, yet only fully observes what happens inside her own skin.

Maybe there is something political in this solipsism. In Hotel, Walsh writes that: “Permeability is a feature of abjection. It is the human made serviceable.” It is a commentary on the way hotel staff discreetly tidy the unseemly mess of their guests’ lives into their pockets, but also on gender and women’s bodies: to be able to accommodate the other inside you, via womb and vagina, is to be marked as a member of the inferior sex class, one of the conscripts to the unrewarding seams of domestic work and emotional drudgery.

Walsh is acutely observant of the uneven burdens of household economy. In “Drowning”, the narrator calculates the tax that default caring responsibilities exert on her leisure, mentally addressing her husband: “For you to read your book is not to neglect the children because you know that if you do not pay attention to the children I will [. . .] My choice to read my book necessarily involves the worry of the possibility of neglecting the children.” (She escapes this problem by swimming away from her family, where she can no longer see whether her husband is neglecting or not neglecting their children.)

By refusing to care, Walsh’s narrator refuses the feminine obligation to sympathise. She will not give herself over to other people’s feelings, though she might be covetous of what they have experienced that makes them unlike her. Standing in a Paris department store in the first story, “Fin de Collection”, the narrator stares at her ­fellow shoppers and thinks: “I want to project these women’s looks on to mine and with them all the history that has made these women look like themselves and not like me.” But in the end she buys nothing and leaves, still implacably herself.

Other people are inaccessible regions that can be mapped out using careful reasoning, but never totally comprehended. In “Vagues”, the narrator sits at a beach oyster bar with an anxious man whose main attraction to her is that he could facilitate some retaliatory adultery. She tries to deduce her husband’s moves like a chess player:

As I know my husband is unlikely to tell the truth about whether he sleeps with the woman or not – though he may choose either to tell me that he has, when he has not, or that he has not, when he has – I have taken the precaution of being here in the oyster restaurant with this man who may wish to sleep with me.

The book maintains that flat, precise, repetitious tone throughout. The affectlessness is attractively disarming to start with, then predictable and, by the end, in danger of feeling as tired as the narrator seems to be. At 123 pages, Vertigo does not exceed its welcome, but it does run out of ways to surprise. Where Mansfield’s narrator can extract a library of registers – comic, ironic, tragic – from her fellow guests, Walsh’s has only herself as a resource.

The predominant experience of this collection is not vertigo, but claustrophobia (which is also the title of the most domestic of all the stories here). For a woman to turn away from sympathy is a bold way to refuse the inferiority imposed on her, but the closed-off life is an impoverished one for anybody. Vertigo is artful, intelligent – and elegant above all else.

Vertigo by Joanna Walsh is published by And Other Stories (123pp, £8.99)

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution