Friday, December 16, 2011

The Body, by William Sansom

I stumbled across this novel in Anthony Burgess' list of his 99 most admired novels. I'd never before heard of William Sansom (English novelist, 1912-1976), and when I Googled it, I found a few synopses that described it as a brilliant if uncomfortable novel of obsessive jealousy. Thank you, Anthony Burgess! Without your recommendation, I'd probably never have spotted this little gem of a book.

Henry Bishop is puttering about in his garden, minding his own business, as a suburban Londoner in the 1950s was wont to do on a weekend. Through the leaves of a shrub, however, he spots a large-boned, ginger-haired man with an almost menacing mustache entering his yard from the one next-door. To compound this trespass, the man appears to pause and leer up at Henry's wife through the foggy bathroom window. The intruder is Charley Diver, a boisterous, extroverted new tenant in the boarding house next-door, and he's popped over to borrow a screwdriver. Madge, fully dressed after her bath, appears to find Mr. Diver's effusive good nature charming. Henry is appalled and begins his trip into his private, self-fueled hell.

Sansom excels at minutely detailed descriptions of settings, both internal and external. Henry reflects on this first incident -- he is not incapable of introspection, but he is clearly thrown off balance by the passions it aroused.
I think I am at most times a quiet man—indeed usually I am sure I would have been levelheaded enough to dismiss objectively the whole episode as a contemptible small impertinence. But that afternoon for some reason I was flustered by a confusion beyond my control. A sudden onrush of strong emotions; self-pity, envy, guilt and common anger rose at this affront. Pity for myself, for being excluded from what concerned Madge, from what was rightfully mine; envy, I am sure, of this mustached intruder's virile appearance; guilt that I had failed to assert myself and attack him; anger at such a successful breaching of dignity and position. And I remember one other curious feeling—I had no thought of sympathy for Madge, no sympathy for her privacy outraged: instead, surprisingly, I assumed her collaboration. Yet never before in our twenty years of marriage can I remember seriously distrusting her.
We readers don't know whether or not Madge is having a dalliance with Charley Diver, but it seems unlikely. Henry is steadily convincing himself that she is. He pauses periodically to question his reasoning, but then reassures himself that his suspicions are justified. It's an uncomfortable spot for a middle-aged London barber, all rather undignified stuff, really.
Yet that is perhaps a little strong—it suggests the anger of an obsessed introvert always indulging in pains and ills of his own exaggeration. I do not think—even after all that has since passed —that I am that. In fact I would say the opposite—a man of very small passion. Ordinary, from ordinary middle-class beginnings, and if at all extraordinary then in the mildest and safest way—I am what is called a little 'old-fashioned.'
He fantasises several times about confronting his nemesis, issuing ominous warnings, good-natured lectures and statesman-like oratories, but none of these ever makes its way outside his own head.

I'll have to speak to the fellow—tell him who's who. Politely, as man to man. Or ... with dignity, cold dignity. Before dinner? Take him aside afterwards? One could begin casually, hands in pockets. 'Er—Diver, a little matter I've been wanting to have a chat about.' And then something impersonal, said gravely, with at the end a sudden cock of the eyes straight at him, 'My wife and I have been married now for twenty years. A fine woman, Mrs. Bishop. Popular with everybody—and respected. Good company, good fun. But what I will say is, she knows where to draw the line. Never exceeds herself like some: never a word out of place. No man respects her more than I—no woman respects her more than she respects herself.'
But then, is Diver his nemesis? Isn't Madge equally culpable? It does, after all, seem to Henry that they're both involved in this duplicity. Everything -- even the most banal contact between them -- convinces Henry further.
Madge rang out a sudden peal of high laughter— I could not help staring at her, it came so suddenly. It was as if a row of metal bells, verdigrised but game, had suddenly become galvanized behind her nose. And in the same moment she tossed her head back, pointed a shoulder at Diver, and set her mouth wide in a great frozen smile that exposed every tooth. All she said was:       —Good _evening__, Mr. Diver.

As we follow Henry, listening to his increasingly fraught reasoning, we observe his perception growing more distorted, almost as if he were drunk. He is of course highly attuned to Madge and Diver, but the rest of the world also begins to warp through his stressed lens.

My eyes selected from the general view isolated objects which stood out and addressed me with unusual significance. Thus I saw instantly that along this particular terrace cats sat at the open summer windows, many cats. They sat quietly musing the evening air, each a separate heraldic figure—separate, but so many that they seemed to sit in silent colloquy. So many cats I had never seen before. And as I looked up at all those windows, there sprang out distinctly from the fa├žades those pipes again, gutter pipes and drainpipes winding fantastically over the otherwise ordered house fronts of gray plaster: many had been picked out in bright paint, others darker took on a depth of shadow cast by the lowering evening sun.
Like Josephine Hart's novel, Damage, The Body gives us an ordinary man caught completely off-guard by an overpowering emotion. Both seem like swimmers caught in a rip-tide. They understand the perilous situation they're in, but they also see the futility of trying to swim against it. Getting to shore by trying to reason with their passions is unlikely to succeed. We read these two novels and feel relieved that we're not their protagonists, but then we perceive that we might well be, at any moment.

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