In the afterword to his four-story collection Different Seasons, Stephen King describes the heart-sinking moment when you realise that what you’ve written is a novella. He compares the form to “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic” where no one in their right mind would want to end up. Fiction between 20,000 and 40,000 words long does seem to be the least appetising prospect of all for publishers. That’s a pity, of course. Give me great bantamweight work any day – think of Heart of Darkness, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Animal Farm – with its extraordinary power-to-size ratio, rather than the grandiose bloat of an interminable saga.
James Lasdun’s new book is actually two novellas, Feathered Glory and Afternoon of a Faun, and the headline act is clearly the second tale. Of the two novellas, Feathered Glory and Afternoon of a Faun, in James Lasdun’s new book, the headline act is clearly the second. Both explore uncomfortable corners of the male psyche with eerie clarity, but Afternoon of a Faun goes darker and further, with a timely and irresistibly unpleasant story that is sure to provoke passionate discussion.
The plot centres on Marco Rosedale, a middle-aged, British-born New Yorker, with a media career of some distinction, who learns that he has been accused of sexual assault by an ex-girlfriend, Julia Gault, a former television journalist. The story unfolds during the 2016 US presidential campaign, just as the growing rumble of sexual assault allegations against a number of powerful men is beginning to coalesce into the #MeToo movement. It is narrated by Marco’s friend, another Englishman living in New York, a writer who is never named but bears a strong resemblance to Lasdun himself – at least, to the Lasdun the reader encounters in Give Me Everything You Have (2013), his searing non-fiction account of being stalked by an ex-student he calls Nasreen.
That too is a book about men and women behaving badly, the reliability of memory, shame, trauma and sexual politics. In it, Lasdun reflects on Nasreen’s rage and the agonised question of his responsibility for it. But whereas Nasreen’s assault on Lasdun’s peace of mind seems wholly unjustified, Afternoon of a Faun takes us into much more unsettling territory. The major subject here is the enormity of rape and the enormity of being wrongly accused of rape.
The narrator, by instinct and affiliation, is on the side of his friend. He has been somewhat dazzled by Marco ever since they attended the same London school. They share a background and even the same wayward teeth – “little crooked monuments to 1970s English dentistry”. Both men are struggling to keep pace with changing social mores. At the very moment the narrator is congratulating himself for remembering the name of one of the minor characters, she is transitioned from Erin to Eric and is thenceforth referred to by the male pronoun.
But the narrator has links to Julia as well, who he knew in his boyhood and found intriguing enough to shape a novel around. Enmeshed in the unfolding story as Marco’s confidant, he is torn between his allegiance to his friend and his desire for the truth. Marco claims the alleged rape – said to have taken place thirty years earlier during a journalistic assignment to Ulster – was a consensual encounter and dismisses the accuser’s motives as mercenary. But when Julia refuses to back down, Marco mobilises his status and contacts to silence her. This stirs a sense of injustice in the narrator, who is constantly oscillating between the terrible fear that his friend might be guilty and the worry that he is being insufficiently supportive. “Had I internalized the campus outlook, I wondered, with its endless tedious refinements of anxiety over power and privilege?” This anxious back and forth is the rhythm of the book: each time we feel that we can definitively decide where to put our sympathies, the story jostles and unbalances us with new insights.
In an age of loud invective and binary solutions, there is something wonderful about Lasdun’s scrupulous recording of doubts and uncertainty. I like his unapologetic literariness and the unexpected way his books draw strength from artefacts of high culture. In Give Me Everything You Have, the Middle English poem “Gawain and the Green Knight” became a tool for thinking about the obligations of male decency. In a similar way, the Mallarmé poem from which Lasdun borrows the title of the novella is used to evokes contradictory facets of male sexuality.
He tells us, almost at the outset, that he feels some final truth should be achievable. Reality “was something that existed outside the human mind, and independently of it … not a prize awarded to whoever fought hardest and dirtiest”. It’s some achievement that by the end of the story, you feel he has stayed true to this, but also true to the novelistic task of representing the characters in all their complexity.
The first tale is lighter and slighter. Feathered Glory is about Richard, the head teacher of a private elementary school in upstate New York, whose notion of himself as happily married is disturbed by the contagious recklessness of an old friend. Memories of a former lover are stirred up and Richard begins entertaining the possibility of an infidelity – in fact, that’s putting it a bit strongly. Richard’s so tentative about acknowledging the pull of his libido that his projected deception of his wife includes a sizable dose of self-deception. “It was necessary, for the sake of his conscience, to stave off any suspicion of premeditation.” Like Afternoon of a Faun, Feathered Glory feels fresh, is free of contrivance and takes unexpected turns. In its deep, patient inspection of the protagonist’s state of mind it resembles a psychoanalytic case history.
There are clear commonalities between the two stories – a quartet of central characters destabilised by a figure from the past, an avian motif, a strait-laced man enthralled by the behaviour of a more impulsive friend. “I was just trying to make a complicated story simple!” complains Richard, in Feathered Glory, when he is caught in the act of a lie. In fact, this specious act of self-justification could serve as the ironic epigraph to both tales. Feathered Glory offers quieter pleasures; it’s Afternoon of a Faun that lingers after you have closed the book with a vividness that testifies to the compact virtues of the novella.
• Marcel Theroux’s The Secret Books is published by Faber. Victory by James Lasdun is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
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