books Where the Bodies Are Buried
Adam Rivett on Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘In the Garden of the Fugitives’
While reading fiction as little more than smuggled autobiography is an inherently crass and undergraduate approach to literary criticism, I’d nonetheless like to start that way. I have, after all, something close to the author’s permission. Pondering the lacerations of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in these pages only a few years ago, Ceridwen Dovey, in an essay titled “The Pencil and the Damage Done”, wrote: I kept being distracted by my own horror at what Knausgaard was doing, slashing away at his world, and by the overwhelming feeling that it would cost him too much as a human being. I googled his wife, his uncle, his mother, even his children, fixating on the walking wounded surrounding the living author. Upon reading Dovey’s new novel, In the Garden of the Fugitives (Hamish Hamilton; $32.99), I, too, googled, and under the “Early Years and Education” subheading of her Wikipedia page found a life story remarkably similar to that of the novel’s central character, Vita. The childhood in South Africa and Australia, the schooling at Harvard, the early career in filmmaking. All there, all echoing unignorably. The living author was insisting upon conflation with a fictional creation.
“A confessional style of filmmaking was ascendant. It was the dawn of the age of baring it all. I liked my classmates’ work but I felt an ethical obligation to leave myself out of my films.” So observes Vita, early in the novel. A similar autobiographical reticence marks Dovey’s early work – a remove perhaps more common in an earlier era, but striking in our confessional present. Her first novel, Blood Kin, is a carefully calibrated and almost abstract political thriller, stripped of any specifics of character or nation, leaving only brutal gestures of power and desire. Her second book, the acclaimed story collection Only the Animals, is stranger still – a series of monologues delivered by creatures as varied as the camel and the parrot, some belonging to famous literary figures, all caught up in scenes of crisis and war. The books – particularly Animals – are vividly conceived and executed pieces of writing, but also at times feel like the work of a brilliant student still finding their own voice. Fugitives marks a legitimate advance on Dovey’s earlier work – not only is it a voice found but it is all voice: recollection, confession, monologue. The novel’s structure is simple. Reviving a friendship long considered over, Royce, an elderly American benefactor, contacts Vita, a one-time recipient of his largesse. Royce has recently been diagnosed with a disease whose specifics he withholds (“I stew in sickness, and in my own nostalgia”), and his proposal, such as it is, seems straightforward: confession leading to catharsis, for a readership of one. For Royce the arrangement involves recounting memories of his unrequited love for Kitty, another recipient of his financial and emotional support. For Vita, whose memories are more varied, it draws out something approximating a coming-of-age story: a stalled filmmaking career in the United States, poor treatment by several men, and, eventually, a return to South Africa. Vita at one point talks of their “parallel narrative tracks”, which aptly describes this new relationship. While the novel apes the epistolary form, these are modern people, modern talkers – their words address a void, and themselves, as much as any potential listener. Confession, finally, is its own comfort. While the occasional response mentions an issue raised in the previous missive, both correspondents for the most part tell their own tale with little consideration of providing good company. Royce’s tale is a forlorn one: dominated by his pursuit of Kitty to Pompeii on a research project as her friend and assistant. (The novel takes its title from an archaeological site.) His story, like any story of unrequited love, ultimately becomes the property of another. Yet beyond his personal agonies lies the city itself, a seemingly inexhaustible metaphor for mourning and loss. Indelicate tools destroy ancient paintings, while all around them sit or stand preserved bodies, sadly unaware that what were once everyday gestures have become their final form. “Little did they know,” Royce ponders, beholding homes frozen in fashions outdated even then, “that this minor failure of taste or economy would be documented forever.” The tone of these pages is distinct: erudite, quietly chauvinistic (Royce is an old-fashioned “appreciator” of women) and occasionally self-conscious. Vita’s half of the book feels more plainly and forcefully stated – ruthlessly interrogative, but significantly more clear-sighted. Yet there is misery there too, something unshakeable that tracks her from awkward college years to the marketplace of professional filmmaking: “I was overtaken then by a foreboding that I was on the wrong path, in life and in art. What if my own earnestness were a cover for something else, something left unexamined, something putrid?” Earlier in the novel, her college film submission about a South African wine farm is criticised for its inability to “focus on humans”. In the novel’s second half it’s that South Africa she returns to, where she confronts the exact nature of that thing “left unexamined”. “I’m sick of whites making films about the suffering of blacks,” a Nigerian festival organiser tells her. “I want to see whites deal with their own shit instead of trying to claim a moral free pass because they’re so fucking interested in other people’s suffering.”
All around them sit or stand preserved bodies, sadly unaware that what were once everyday gestures have become their final form.
To say more about where these narrative lines travel and resolve would reveal too much. This is, for two thirds of its length, a gently plotted novel, melancholy in its sensibility and too invested in its characters to hurry them into false encounters, yet in its final third there are revelations and reversals of a considerable nature. What can be said is this: the very act of writing, and of personal accountability, is called into question. Which returns us to what we might call the Knausgaard Google Dilemma. There is a passage from “The Pencil and the Damage Done” that seems so central to this novel’s conception and fundamental oddness it is worth quoting at length: Any dream of an unmediated relationship between writer and reader is bound to fail because realism is no more than a convention that produces the effect of verisimilitude. And the readers who identify so strongly with the protagonists of autobiographical fiction are, no less than readers of fantasy, engaged in a kind of willing suspension of disbelief – deliberately not seeing the writing for what it is. To put it another way, Dovey has called her own bluff. To conflate Vita and the author is simultaneously unavoidable and a massive misunderstanding.
Not enough is said in praise of literature’s cold touch, its quiet devastations, its beautiful nonanswers.
Knausgaard’s work – both in its disdain for overt style and its forthrightness – can make most fiction seem tired, needlessly fussy, mere “invention”; fiction isn’t a thesis statement and novels aren’t manifestos. Yet each novel enacts its own argument about the possibilities of the form, and Fugitives asserts the necessity of its inventions at every turn. We see on every page “the writing for what it is”, first in the self-conscious stiffness of the correspondents building themselves on the page – the formality of the early pages, the occasionally arch romanticism of Royce’s longings – and then later when it becomes clear just what these construction-svia-confession truly mean. The Knausgaardian approach delivers the very catharsis Royce promises in the novel’s opening pages (“purgative, purifying”), while the cumulative effect of Fugitives rejects the promises of the personal form: these words do not exorcise or clarify. No cobwebs are blown away, no sadness expunged. The book, finally, is unresolvable. What can fiction do? It can tease us with the shape of reality. What can fiction deny? That it can ever be fully mistaken for that reality. Fiction has since its windmilltilting inception carried its falsity as regular burden and occasional virtue. In the penultimate chapter of Only the Animals, a dolphin writes to Sylvia Plath about Ted Hughes’ work: “Back then, I had admiringly thought he was trying to understand the human by way of the animal, but now I can see that in fact he wanted to justify the animal in the human.” Replace truth for human and fiction for animal and you have, minus a few ungainly definite articles, Fugitives’ philosophy in a sentence. There is much talk these days about the consolations of literature, of the empathy it engenders in the reader. A smug and banal boosterism colours such a claim. While it is on occasion true, I suspect it’s more often than not a leftish panacea, a necessary lie to justify the exquisite pointlessness of literature under the logic of neoliberalism. Not enough is said in praise of literature’s cold touch, its quiet devastations, its beautiful non-answers. The marketing for Fugitives can optimistically point to its globetrotting, its sexual intrigue, its political currency, yet these are in the end left behind, mere recollections of figures dying or in unshakeable solitude. Dovey is a compelling writer, but a desolate one too – an ineradicable loneliness echoes throughout her work. The words of the abandoned parrot that close her previous book seem as fitting here as they are there: “What choice did she have but to hook my cage to the awning overhead and leave as quietly as she could, before I realised I was alone?”