Bruce Stewart, unpubl. review of Robert McLiam Wilson, Manfred’s Pain (1991)

Details: written in 1995; unpublished. Note: robert McLiam Wilson was writer in residence at the University of Ulster (Coleraine) at that date.

‘Manfred had wanted to die for a long time.’ He has begun to have excruciating pain in his abdomen, and it’s going to kill him more secretly than medicine or suicide. Raised a Jew in London, he has been to war and seen man’s inhumanity to man; in his marriage he destroyed the thing he loves, beating his beautiful wife Emma; now he embraces his coming agony as the proper sum of his experience. His neighbours are the awful Webb, a brutish Cockney who abuses women, and Garth, a good-natured black hospital orderly. With these he forms tentative relationships emblematical of his predicament as a guilty but intelligent and compassionate man. He sees Emma once a month, meeting at an appointed park bench, but may not look at her directly. She is the hidden heart of the novel, an emblem of its theme of suffering, have survived a concentration camp as a girl. Thus the shame of political and domestic violence, and the pain of living with it remorsefully fuels the novel.

Courageously, it presents an extraordinary description of how the man embarks on, and persists in wife-beating, against the background of his jealous apprehension that she has been abused by captors in the concentration camp. Sections dealing with his current life - or death - alternate with chapters reconstructing his earlier experience of family life, war, and the economic activities of his rapacious friend and employer, the slum landlord Tapper (or Tapperstein - as he choses to be called). The narrative is conducted in a sort of brittle prose-poetry which deals with physical and moral perception in phrases formed as chunks of mordant wit. At times it has the glitter of the ventriloquist sophisms beloved of the American detective-novel readers and sports writers: Ivy Legue populism - a decidedly spivvish literary aesthetic. Yet McLiam Wilson writes easily and well in a highly polished manner of his own, an educated demotic that reaches into the higher strata of the classical vocabulary for resources while constantly engaging with the rhythms of pub banter. All this is for a purpose: in order to illustrate the sentiments of pain, loss and sheer deprivation in the streets of an increasingly penurious and jaded industrial society with high bourgeois democratic traditions in decline (the new you-never-had-it-so-bad middle class having lost the management of the increasingly barbarous non-worker). Here is, consciously and craftily, a study of post-war Britain from then till now, with its de-mob suits and abandoned utopian promises giving way to the lager-swilling tabloid me-ism of telly-culture trash. For this decline and fall the war is an apt metaphor, if not an explanation: ‘Berlin had been murdered and buried by war, but London limped on, wounded but hardy.’ It never really died, but it never really recovered either.

You could not call this a historical novel, yet McLiam Wilson is not afraid to take on material before his time - we all inherit the black-and-white memory-banks of modern history. Nevertheless, this is taking a risk; the event is so long past that writing about it is more a matter of attitude that description (a dynamic that haunts the whole novel in interesting ways.) It is also, perhaps primarily, a matter of style, like all of McLiam Wilson’s strikingly chameleon achievement. As a style, his new manner categorically fails him only twice: once when an erection is said to be ‘as hard as algebra’, and another time, when it remains implacably and brokenly patrician (the style, not the erection): ‘Manfred watched as he scurried across the street, almost being run over by a draper’s van.’ For the rest the intelligence of the prose is captivating, as well as the latent assurance of his judgements on the Britain of the novel. Early morning hours in London are perhaps those about which McLiam Wilson writes best in all his books - and it is becoming significant of this writer than his characters are insomniac:

Dawn. London was rufous and deplorable. The sun rubbed the streets into the warmthless tinge of shaving rash nd Manfred’s thoughts turned to all the headaches he had ever had. London seemed sorry but without good excuse.

Without so much as a brick in it, this is utterly resonant of the air of mediocre debauch and matutinal remorse which hangs round formerly-respectable parts of London from Islington where the novel is closely set, to outright seedy areas like Finsbury where I myself learned urban loneliness, poverty, and the quest for intimacy with perfect strangers.

Elsewhere in the novel when he speaks disparagingly of his character Webb - who could have strayed out of Amis’s London Fields - one see the sociological intelligence unveiled by any pretence of fiction-writing: ’The man was part of the great mindless underclass of England, the most witless and depressing proletariat in Europe. There was a limit to Manfred’s fellow feeling.’ Robert is very knowing about wealth and poverty, people’s drivenness and desires, the stains on individual conscience, and the indelible disgrace that affects the public conscience in this century, and such sentences show him capable of cool disparagement (either of the working class or its historical masters, or of both). This is straight satire. Yet, because of the ‘living-towards-death’ dimension of the plot and its dealings with the apocalyptic record of th Jewish holocaust, it has a chiliastic flavour also. Sensibly, it views such horrors through the wrong end of a telescope - though more properly a kaleidoscope, given the shifting permutations of cruelty, humiliation, and shame which make up the factors in its physical and emotional equation.

Such an equation must of course be susceptible of a solution - especially in a novella - and thus, when Manfred lies in his death agony pathetically entwined with the drunken Webb on the pavement, what he sees and transmits to the reader is a kind of light to the gentiles: ‘Unafraid now, he was delivered. Near the exit he saw her true soul, the soul that God would love for eternity.’ This, of course, is a sort of beatific vision, sketchily theological in iconographic outline. The dominant motif of the novel further argues that this outline is that of a naked woman, looking at the hero without reproach for his male prurience, his male crimes. (Whether England, epitomised by the ancient name of Emma - from ermine - is being personified in its inward sanctity is a less certain matter.) But such a trope is not without its problems. The chief of these is the novel’s insistence that the wife-beater is also an example of common decency, and also, in his ultimate fidelity to the idea of human loving, a kind of saint sub specie temporis nostri - even, perhaps, a new Leopold Bloom, being Jewish and uxorious. This is a major contradiction; and as it unfolds thematically in the novel, an intimate air of remorse and reparation begins to gather, until the epilogue (‘Emma still lives .. My heart fills at the sight of her .. my pain .. Manfred’s pain’) finally confirms the sense that an apologia of some kind is here in progress. This element of sua persona, coming through from the author, makes it a more brave and a more tender book but not necessarily a better one. I happen to love it word by word, but that does not prevent me suspecting that this is Wilson’s equivalent of MacGahern’s Pornographer - a plunge into personal experience of bad faith in order to address the record of his own (not identical or really very wicked) interpersonal malfeasance.

Wilson he has shown in another short writing that he understands the horrible connection between violence and sexuality in the circus of Irish gladiatorial politics. In his first novel Ripley Bogle and in his documentary Dispossessed, he has worked his way beneath the carapace of social indifference which covers over the innumerable tragedies in the cityscapes of Britain during these times of latter-day depression under the iniquitous government of the English Conservative & Unionist party. These books represent a personal odyssey comparable with Orwell’s Down and Out. Wilson has also shown, in Ripley Bogle, that disgrace is the prelude to grace in a disgraceful society - a doctrine that Francis Stuart practised in a more hieratic mode. All this was done in the spirit of the Outsider - in the term popularised by another Wilson - but without reliance on the sustaining vanity of class, creed or generation which mark out the independency of beat and hippy from conventional mores as a form of self-congratulation as well as a corrective to communal dullness and corporate stupidity.

Robert McLiam Wilson is from Northern Ireland and hence brought up in British Ireland before being translated to metropolitan Britain. More than the bilingual tautology of his name - McLiam Wilson, after all, says the same thing in Irish and in English - these biographical facts actually defines the autobiographial purview of his earlier novel Ripley Bogle. Here he successfully claims Europe as his social and cultural province. The question raised by violence against Jews and blacks, violence against wives, violence against self and others which permeates this novel is the same that George Steiner and Primo Levi have raised in another context: whether civility and self-respect can subsist after that the great genocide of 1939-45, and also the recurrent, almost daily holocausts of the modern world in Northern Ireland no less than in the Horn of Africa. In answer to all of this Manfred’s Pain answers yes -yes, there is forgivenness. But there is also a price to pay - too high for all but martyrs. For a novelist whose first award-winning book was so brilliantly cynical and systematically facetious, it is extraordinary how close this come to a quasi-religious profession of faith in human nature.

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