Book Review of The Caves of Alienation by Stuart Evans
The function of a canon is to exclude. The non-canonical, however interesting, is dispatched upon a slow trudge towards oblivion. The Library of Wales is therefore to be congratulated on re-issuing this book in an attempt to bring it, with others, back into the mainstream of public awareness.
My first reaction to The Caves of Alienation was envy: not so much for its literary merit – though the skills displayed are considerable – as for the challenge of its theme and the bravery with which this is tackled.
At its core is the question of how we can know another human being, in this case one Michael Caradock, himself an essayist and writer of fiction. In a critical biography, published shortly after Caradock’s death, the problem of his representation is subdivided thus:
The Man may be drawn in bold outline, with confident strokes; the Writer emerges from a subtle complexity of shape and colour like the central idea of a cubist conception; but the Enigma is a vague sketch: miasmal, wraithlike, shadowplay of cloud and sunlight in a strange and ancient woodland.
This, like almost any statement we might cull from the book, is both true and not quite true.
Our sources of knowledge about Caradock are several. Firstly there are various published studies, including one by a social psychologist couched in a heady professional jargon (concocted, I suspect, for the nonce by Evans) and, most prominently, an ‘official’ biography – authorised, that is, not by Caradock but by his estate.
Secondly there are many reminiscences by his friends, teachers, lovers and so forth, all of these being presented as quotations either from the official biography or from a radio or a TV programme: presented, that is, as refracted through other media, with all the implications of selectivity which may cloud our minds, rather than as being made available ‘directly’; and it is for us to decide whether we think this makes a difference.
Thirdly there are extensive quotations from Caradock’s own novels and non-fiction works, these being used largely as a reservoir of potential data about his life or at least his attitudes. The bare facts, it has to be said, are not disputed: the affluence of his origins, his upbringing by an uncle and aunt in a village where their wealth makes him an outsider, scholarship to Oxford, military service in the Navy, literary success, eventual return to Wales.
But the reasons for his crucial decisions, the deeper nature of his character, whether or not he actually hated humanity in general or the village of his childhood in particular – all these are and remain matters of contestation throughout the narrative.
Duncan Bush, in his foreword to this edition, comments on the difficulty of our judging how good a writer Michael Caradock really was. For my own part, I frequently caught myself wishing I could read one or other of his (presumably non-existent) novels in its entirety. But this raises a curious question as to the appropriateness of any critical response to what is after all not simply a fiction but a fictitious fiction.
What has the appearance of an excerpt submitted for our appraisal is in fact almost the opposite: a piece of prose manufactured by the author (I mean Stuart Evans) in pursuance of his story-telling. Still, for all the varied implications wished upon these texts by other interested parties, there is information to be had here.
We see Caradock’s subject-matter evolving from youthful village romances to portentous metaphysical musings upon power and corruption, the style describing in the process a trajectory as from, one could say, the limpid observation of Kate Roberts to a prose dense as uranium and reminiscent of Julien Gracq.
When it comes to the essays, which we might reasonably expect to embody the unadulterated, first-person address of the central protagonist, another shade of uncertainty creeps in. The extended observations upon Camus or Eliot, for example, register in their moral earnestness as the direct address not so much of Caradock as of Evans: as interludes for authorial reflection, possibly lifted straight from his notebooks.
This suspicion conforms with a general tendency of the novel to turn in upon itself, to the point where the writer risks becoming implicated, entrained, in its subject’s unknownness. Even ‘The Caves of Alienation’ bears closer resemblance to the pompous titles attributed to Caradock – ‘The Promethead’, ‘A Coriolan Overture’, ‘Carcases of Tall Ships’ – than to those of Evans’s other publications – Meritocrats, Temporary Hearths, Seasonal Tribal Feasts… Once we start seeing things this way, it is hard to stop.
Thus the foreword by Bush, who seems not absolutely sure he likes what he has undertaken to introduce, begins to fall into place among the many witnesses expressing reservations about Caradock; and I am left feeling, more than is usually the case, that in reviewing this book I am contributing to it, adding one more tottering storey to its edifice of doubt.
One wonders, too, whether it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that anyone with the surname Evans could hardly name a character Caradock without making the connection with another significant writer, Caradoc Evans, who came in for a good deal of stick for writing embittered stories about his own home village.
But to come down to earth: there is one strand in this narrative which I have not yet mentioned – indeed, the book begins with it – and that is a sequence of segments in the first person, present tense, which are alone in having no attribution to source and being printed in italics.
These, we feel sure from the start, must be the thoughts of Caradock: perhaps his ghost, perhaps a flashback to an episode in his life (in which case which?), but at all events a direct access to his subjectivity.
Well, in a sense they are; but not in any sense that would negate the thesis of the novel, because the language used in these segments verges upon the incoherent: a stream of pre-consciousness, a luckless spillage of words grasping for meaning as a drowning man will gasp for breath.
Yet what lies between the pre-verbal and the artefact? Anything? To know a person before he has translated himself into speech is no more definitive than to know him through the refracted testimony of witnesses, friendly or hostile or undecided.
The power of this teasing negative is echoed elsewhere, when we are apprised of one of Caradock’s long-term lovers only to be told by the biographer that she has refused ever to be interviewed about him.
Thus we learn that, even within the terms of the fiction, there is information, possibly crucial information, which will never be disclosed to us. This, for me at least, is the hard heart of the novel; and it is of little concern whether or not I personally warm to this writer (these writers) with his penchant for emotional abstractions and his often boorish sex.
What then, it may be asked, could supply the motivation for such a work as I am describing here? What holds the reader’s attention? It has to be admitted that there are moments when the to-ing and fro-ing between interpretations of a single character’s life seems to have exhausted its impetus: he was arrogant or he wasn’t; he was a quasi-fascist who despised the working class or he wasn’t and didn’t; he hated life or had a soft spot for it – and so on.
What is surprising is how seldom, in a story of 592 pages, a feeling of ennui threatens to take over as Caradock’s friends and critics continue weaving their own mythologies around him even while accusing him of self-mythologising, trying hopelessly to make a shape of his life, to pigeon-hole him for good and all.
True, there is a chronological progress at work, though at first we hardly notice this, since the extracts from the novels and essays are not used always in sequence but placed where they can have most effect in illustration or seeming refutation of an argument.
In structure, the book hovers between the purposeful and the amorphous. Statements gravitate around certain episodes before fragmenting again into generality. Quotes from the subject’s novels are frequently inserted where they can appear to expand upon what has just been said about their author’s life; and there is a danger that, if we take this at face value, we will be lured into precisely the naive assumptions about autobiographic content which are elsewhere called into doubt.
Conversely, it could be interpreted as illuminating the stances of those who have made the connections – which are in any case likely soon to be undercut. Intermittently we are teased with the question of the status of the italicised segments: whether these may in the end prove a privileged voice announcing some sort of resolution; but this grows increasingly improbable.
Likewise we are given hints throughout that there is to be a murder; but there is no detectable plot development towards this. By and large, I think it is fair to say, we follow this book as if it were reportage, where events justify inclusion simply because they are what happened next. It even closes, cheekily, with an Appendix supplying details of all Caradock’s publications.
Other than synopses of minor prose pieces not previously mentioned, this contains almost no fresh matter, certainly not any revelation of the sort which most authors would consider obligatory if such a device were to be justified.
That we persist in reading is proof enough that we have been seduced into approaching this enterprise in a way quite unusual for a novel. After all, it is one thing to say we read The Caves of Alienation as if it were reportage; the fact remains that we know it is not.
It seems to me that we can explain the compulsion of this work only by invoking a manner of address complementary to the forward progress of a narrative: a development on what might be called the vertical axis: an enrichment of the texture even as the pattern of affirmation and denial appears circuitously to repeat itself.
To have maintained these modalities in balance exhibits great skill: the balance, for example, between our growing familiarity with the subject’s life and a successively renewed ambivalence, the skill to explain things without explaining them away, to peel off further and further layers of implication without ever arriving at a finality.
We are kept wondering whose is the over-arching consciousness here: that of Caradock, of the official biographer, of Stuart Evans? Seen in this light, the cut-and-paste structure is more than an exercise in collage or pastiche. We are, as I have suggested, constantly being tempted into improper responses, such as trying to judge the validity of hostile comments on Caradock’s writings when we know that these are in fact simply components of the portrait we are asked to build of him.
And, no matter how much we learn, there are always some crinkles which will not lie flat. We have already remarked, anent the fictive author’s non-fiction, upon the difficulty of elaborating intellectual positions not one’s own. There are indeed moments when the whole construction seems to risk leakage of its vital energies; but somehow this never happens.
And the multi-layering of the book’s world has interesting, probably unintended, consequences. In a passage from ‘Promethead’, the character Waldeck delivers some horrific descriptions of war. In a normal work of fiction we might approach these with some scepticism, asking ourselves, ‘How does this author know?’ But here, because it is offered only as a ‘fictitious fiction’, our criticism is disarmed and the descriptions paradoxically gain in authority.
The most substantial achievement of the novel’s strategy, finally, is the balance maintained between the detail and the totality. For all its re-iterated denials of any simple identity between an author and his or her creations, even I – who as a fiction writer ought to know better – find myself reading the diversity of Caradock’s characters as reflecting, or as being intended to be seen as reflecting, the diversity of his own.
Here is the core question with which this book wrestles: to what extent is Caradock to be found in his characters and, by extension, Stuart Evans to be found in Caradock, whose life history, in broad outline, he shares? There is no firm answer. The book’s progress is cumulative rather than consecutive – in its narration as in its argument.
Every dip of the ladle thickens the broth. And there are implications here for what we think literature is – how we think it makes ideas or value-systems available to the reader through circumstance, through individual behaviour, through declarative speech.
That is why, having followed the Appendix in its slow fade-to-white, I returned to the start to discover that it was a good deal clearer than first time around, even the italic paragraphs attaining to some coherence, as if one had done a jig-saw initially without knowing what the picture would be; but also that the opening chapter summed up already in miniature everything that was to follow. Yet the illusion of moving closer to Caradock had not weakened. So powerful was this that I was strongly inclined to read the entire opus again.
Publisher: Parthian Books
Publication Date: 01/03/2009
Number of pages: 624
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.