John Fuller's ninth novel is rich in comic phrase-making, with the kinetic subtlety of his finest poems
John Fuller, son of the poet Roy Fuller and Fellow Emeritus of Magdalen College, Oxford, is best known for his 19 collections of poems. But his whimsical “tale”, Flying to Nowhere, won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1983 and The Clock in the Forest is his ninth novel. It is rich in wanly comic or sententious phrase-making, modulating at times into the kinetic subtlety of his finest poems: “A white cat sat on the cushions, bobbing its head in the awkward effort to lick its own chest with downward strokes of the tongue. It paused, knowing it was being looked at, and closed its eyes in an ecstasy of repose and attention.”
The novel’s keynote is struck in its final pages: “In life itself there are no satisfactory denouements. And of course, no plots.” Indeed, though the narrative within the novel’s autobiographical frame is fictional, it also is as devoid of satisfactory denouements as “life itself”. Literal autobiography slides into fiction when the author, invited to his “favourite” literary festival, at King’s Lynn (Fuller spoke on this novel at this year’s festival) encounters a figure from his past, Margaret, daughter of the composer, Maurice Arne. By chance, shorly before, Fuller had come across a CD in a London bookshop, “Post-War Romantics”, which featured Arne together with Alan Rawsthorne and others.
Arne’s entry in Grove, as quoted, accords him a highly plausible place in English music, His second piano concerto (1946), premiered by Curzon and Sargent, features as the soundtrack to the film Missing in Moonlight (1947), in which Patricia Roc plays a WAAF ops-clerk trying to guide home pilot and composer Stewart Granger in his shot-up Spitfire. With playful wit Fuller inserts the invented film at just the right point in these stars’ filmographies, following Love Story (1944) in which Roc played the jealous rival of concert pianist Margaret Lockwood for the love of composer Stewart Granger.
The main narrative is set in 1956, when the 19-year-old “Johnny Fuller”, condemned to National Service before going up to Oxford, is introduced to the Arnes by a family friend. Maurice Arne’s world is exactly evoked through music and film criticism. He takes the young Fuller through one of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues at the piano. “Alberti and a half, wouldn’t you say? It’s like Haydn, for God’s sake! Russian heartache in the manner of Papa Haydn.” Arne is contemptuous of neoclassicism (“blame it on Stravinsky”) and expresses himself freely on Vaughan Williams and William Walton.
His film-making gives occasion for an amusing account of the experimental film world of the time. Arne’s Symphonie Pastorale, shown at the Cheltenham Film Unit, is “little more than a capering accompaniment to a piece of his for solo flute, a young girl appearing from shrubbery or hiding behind leaden urns, with a sad harlequin dogging her”. A Stan Brakhage film, also shown, “barely had human beings in it”. Sidney Peterson’s The Petrified Dog features a girl of about 12, the age of Arne’s daughter, who makes grimaces throughout, a feature which Arne imitates in his own Margaret’s Dream. The protagonist is busily editing his own debut work, “pretty much like Un Chien Andalou but without the violence, often pixillated in the manner of Norman McLaren”.
What readership does Fuller have in mind here? Readers below the age of 70, and many older than that, will surely need footnotes to this satire on the past byways of British culture. But we live in an age when the text-between-covers has lost the closed integrity it used to possess: Google and YouTube supply reader (and author) with hypertexts at the click of a mouse. During the early pages I found myself enjoyably switching from the novel to online biographies of Granger and Roc, clips of Bulganin and Nasser, snippets on the pacamac and coffee bar, and films by Brakhage and Peterson.
The episodes which fill the place of a plot focus on the ingenu protagonist’s hesitant intimations of sex. Is he a virgin? He drolly describes taking out “nervously overdressed” girls who remain “enveloped in their tediousness like a cheap perfume”. There is a threat of real sexual action when Maurice drives past his barracks one night while Fuller is on sentry duty, and, perhaps in deliberate provocation, deposits Magda, the sensual dancer in Symphone Pastorale. “I was conscious of holding her by the waist like a pot of geraniums.” But Maurice’s car reappears and Fuller remains uninitiated: “She had left me the bottle of wine at least. It was two-thirds full. Like the soul of an Englishman.”
After a chapter “Paula’s Bottom and Margaret’s Knees” in which Fuller is fascinated by “the liquid strutting” of the “skirted bottom” of Arne’s aristocratic wife Paula, the novel reaches an anti-climactic climax in the chapter “The Kiss”, in which he strains to recollect a casual but somehow momentous episode. At a party he had seen “a civilian girl” who “might have come in off the street” who, as she passed Maurice, “lifted her lips to his mouth as naturally as she might take a crisp from a passing bowl”. He is shocked by “the insolence of natural appetite, carelessly displayed in public”.
At this point “the clock starts ticking”. This Forest of Arden idyll, which postponed tomorrow (“There are no clocks i’the forest”), is over. The young Fuller visits Oxford and his future beckons. But that is another story. In this novel we return to the author in his mid-seventies in King’s Lynn. He meets Margaret’s husband and she fleetingly returns him to 1956: “So I had been ‘frightfully exciting’, had I?” She shows him her engaging, misspelled script, The Three Stooges at the Dentist, which she had kept from him half a century earlier.
Maurice, at 97, is suffering from dementia. They visit his nursing home, a “carpeted world of beached bodies and missing minds”. But “I was unrecognised. And finally irrelevant.” There is no satisfactory denouement: “The pilot composer didn’t get through. He died. And Stewart Granger died. And of course, Maurice died too, within the year. We all do.”
The Clock in the Forest
By John Fuller
Shoestring Press, 190pp, £10