Lancelot, by Walker Percy. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 257 pp. $8.95.
Lancelot employs a striking device. Many a novelist has claimed to be directing his writing at a particular reader, real or imagined; Hawthorne, for example, spoke movingly in his preface to The Marble Faun of the ideal reader for whom he had always written, or his fear that, after his long silence, such a reader no longer existed. But Walker Percy has imagined an ideal listener for his narrative, inserted him in the novel, and allowed him to appear only through the eyes of the narrator. The novel opens — “Come into my cell. Make yourself at home. Take the chair. I’ll sit on the cot.” — and from that time on the listener might frown, grow sad, ask a simple question, but mostly he remains, of his own volition, silent. There is something in what the narrator is saying, or in the nature of their relationship, that compels his listener not to speak.
It is to some extent an awkward technique. One is reminded of old movies and television shows in which the camera was a surrogate character, moving smoothly down the sidewalk and meeting the eyes of passersby, jolting along in a stagecoach, holding a hand in a poker game. The reader himself is drawn into the persona, sees objections in what the narrator says, feels frustrated when the listener will not speak. Yet, as the novel proceeds, we begin to see reasons for his silence.
The two men have a strong connection in the past. Both had been a part of what the narrator, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, refers to as the English gentry of New Orleans, but Lancelot’s family had been poor, fallen gentry, had sent him to the local public schools, while his friend, whom he addresses as Percival (an old boyhood nickname) went north to a private school. Both wound up at the state university. It has been said that a man best discovers himself by seeking out his opposite; Percival had always been lean, melancholy, withdrawn: a wastral, heavy drinker, frequenter of whores, reader of Verlaine, while Lancelot was tall, burly: a football hero, debater, campus personality, eventually a Rhodes Scholar (he did, admittedly, share his friend’s interest in whores), the kind of man, as he himself said, who reaches a prominence in his college career that he never achieves again. Following graduation, the two men drew apart, Lancelot becoming a lawyer, Percival a psychiatrist and then, oddly (part of his role as a member of the English gentry had always been to scorn Catholics), a priest. It is only after Lancelot has been involved in a scandalous crime, has found himself in the Institute for Aberrant Behavior, that they meet again. Percival visits him, as a priest? friend? counselor? We are never sure.
At one point, Lancelot speaks of their namesakes in legend, the only men, he says, who were ever permitted a glimpse of the Holy Grail. Lancelot Lamar was himself named for a famous divine, and Percival, by the very shape of his career — the drunken reader of Verlaine who turned to psychiatry and then the priesthood — is obviously on a spiritual quest. But Lancelot is not interested in a Holy Grail. He is obsessed instead with evil, claims to believe that one can best prove the existence of the Divine by discovering a deed of pure evil (the existence of an evil force implying its opposite), and engages with Percival, in their one-sided dialogue, on a quest for an Unholy Grail. One begins early in the novel, however, to mistrust Lancelot’s philosophical pretensions. “Have you noticed that the narrower the view the more you can see?” he says, speaking of the view from the barred window of his cell, but his view is narrow also in another way. He is not engaged in any abstract philosophical quest. He has a particular evil deed in mind.
He had really begun his quest some time before, on an ordinary day in the middle of his life. He had hardly noticed at that point that his law practice had dwindled until he worked only a few hours a day, that he spent most of the afternoon drinking, listening to hourly newscasts, following without deviation the same routine. His wife had taken up a film career, was working with a crew that was filming a parable of the South at their Belle Isle estate, where Lancelot had grown up. He had hardly noticed how little the vital part of her life was involved with his. It was the kind of day when he relaxed with a Raymond Chandler novel, enjoying the contrast between the seedy Los Angeles of Phillip Marlowe and his own placid existence in the deep South. On such an afternoon, going through some papers, he noticed on a form his daughter’s blood type, and realized he could not have fathered her.
That moment could have been his salvation. It revived him from the torpor into which he had sunk, cut off from his feelings, avoiding thoughts of the gradual impotence that was affecting relations with his wife and everything else in his life. If he had moved to do something constructive then, things might have been different. But he had a compulsion to know, to be certain of what he suspected, to observe the act he had already started to imagine. He embarked on a plot that was to have disastrous consequences.
That had not been the first such turning point in his life. In the Institute for Aberrant Behavior, Lancelot expresses his theory of the history of life between the sexes, that there had at one time been an era of romance, it had been followed by the present age, a period of debauchery, that some vast cataclysm was inevitable, followed by a new simpler existence. Really his theory just reflects his own history. His first marriage had been with a young lady from Virginia. She represented a romantic South. He saw her for the first time one afternoon on the tennis courts, she light and willowy, he standing off shyly in a jacket and tie, watching. They married, settled at his New Orleans estate and raised two children while he involved himself with his law practice. But she died young (the son from that marriage had moved away, joined the counterculture; the daughter was vaguely involved in her stepmother’s film project), setting him adrift.
His second marriage had somewhat a different beginning. Still rather poor, Lancelot had allowed Belle Isle to be visited as a tourist attraction. On the afternoon of a tour, one of the decorative belles had struck up a conversation with him, and they wound up having drinks in the pigeonnier of the mansion. The daughter of a Texas business magnate, Margot was another kind of Southern woman. Almost immediately she had removed her hooped skirt to get more comfortable; she knocked back bourbon from the bottle, stretched out on a spare mattress and invited Lancelot to join her. From that first afternoon, their relationship was joyously sexual, remained so through the early years of their marriage. In addition to her passion for sex, she had a passion for restoration, made Lancelot and Belle Isle over into an image of what she wanted them to be. When the restoration was complete, though, her interest waned. She moved on to her film career, he to his afternoons of bourbon and the hourly news report.
The reader comes to understand Lancelot’s past only gradually. As a narrator he is whimsical, shuttles back and forth between the present and past, intrudes with long passages of theorizing. In the next room at the Institute is a girl who had been traumatized in an assault by a gang of toughs, and now will speak to no one. For Lancelot she is the woman of the new age, who has survived the cataclysm of the second stage and is ready to move on to a simpler existence. By the very brutality and degradation that she has endured, she has achieved a kind of innocence. In the new age, there will be none of our present confusion about sexual morality. Women will be ladies or they will be whores; men will be gentlemen or they will be scoundrels: everyone will know where he stands. Lancelot’s ideas on sex are simplistic and suspect. They noticeably disturb even his generally silent listener. Obviously they have their source in an experience in his past. Haltingly, as Percival prods him, he moves to describe the event that led to his incarceration.
Uniting the disparate elements of the old South, Lancelot had set out with the help of a brilliant young black from the estate, an M.I.T. undergraduate, to discover the truth about Margot. Lancelot observed the film company unseen, noticed his wife’s manner with various of the men. Pretending to check up on his daughter, he sent Elgin, the black, to observe the film crew at the Holiday Inn where they worked on the rushes. His suspicions confirmed, Lancelot moved them back to Belle Isle, had Elgin set up an elaborate system of cameras to observe the goings-on in the mansion. With his need to know, actually to see the event he suspected, Lancelot discovered a truth far worse than anything he had imagined. Single-handedly he set out to bring about the cataclysm that he believed should follow.
With his tendency toward digression, Lancelot can be a tiresome narrator, but in the final major scene of the novel Percy unleashes his remarkable descriptive and dramatic powers, and draws by far his most effective scene. Ironically, after the film company has gone to untold trouble to simulate a hurricane, a devastating storm approaches just as they are finishing, and the novel’s major scene takes place in the midst of it. On that last night at Belle Isle, Lancelot is under the influence of drugs that one of the film stars has given him, and his memories of the night are unreliable, at times obviously hallucinatory, but they are vivid, striking, and, in light of the characters involved, profoundly true.
As the story draws to a close, the listener, Percival, almost opens up. He had been disturbed at various of Lancelot’s revelations, particularly at his simplistic ethics, his involving Elgin in his plot, but, like a good psychiatrist, like a priest hearing a confession, he remains silent. On the last couple of pages, Percy does allow him to speak, but his responses are flat, neutral, even in his enigmatic final word in the book.
Very well. I’ve finished. Is there anything you wish to tell me before I leave?
Yet perhaps Percival’s responses reveal what Percy has been doing all along. Percival was an ideal listener, probably the only man who could have drawn from Lancelot the complete narrative that he has told. But it has not been his job to judge, to pronounce on Lancelot a verdict of innocent or guilty, sane or mad. When the novel is finished, Lancelot has told all of his story that he has to tell. Percival cannot interpret it for us. It is up to the reader to render the verdict.