The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Transatlantic Blues by Wilfred Sheed. Dutton, 312 pp. $9.95.
In Wilfred Sheed’s sixth novel, People Will Always Be Kind, is a disarming sentence: “If you are the least bit observant, you will have noticed by now that I am not.” The narrator is speaking for himself at that point, but he might well have been speaking for the novelist. He is right. Sheed’s novels as one reads them seem to be rendering a complete world; it is striking, leafing back through, to notice how little detail from the outside world there actually is. The vision he presents is complete, but it is the complete and idiosyncratic world that exists inside a man’s skull. One moves through his narratives on the heels of a slick, sardonic sensibility, typically modern, that intellectualizes, verbalizes, everything, until it exists at one remove, mocking, ironic, more observing life than experiencing it. Though the situations and characters change, one finds the same sensibility in all the novels, and also in Sheed’s remarkable essays and reviews (some of which have been collected in a volume entitled The Morning After). He is as accomplished a critic as he is a novelist, somehow managing to be aloof and urbane without being so at the expense of the artist. A sharp, difficult reviewer, he knows how to praise. His novels are often wildly funny, with a kind of humor that is even more striking on a second reading, once it has had time to sink in. He is not the life of the party, but the enormously funny little man off in the corner whom only a few people know about. Admirers of Sheed — among whom I count myself — are perhaps first attracted by that witty idiosyncratic voice.
Yet it seems one can trace, over the course of his now substantial career, a certain ambivalence in his own attitude toward that voice. For one thing, the protagonist often directs his most piercing barbs against himself, in a wit-at-his-own-expense that comes precariously close to self-hatred. Even more suggestive is the fact that often his characters are aware of distinctive voices of their own, related to their vocation, that they have grown somehow weary of hearing. The Hack deals with an intelligent and deeply religious man who freelances for low-brow Catholic magazines until he becomes a spiritual hack, reduced to the banal level at which he is forced to write. Office Politics concerns a little magazine devoted for years to high intellectual standards but reduced eventually to parodying itself. Max Jamison is a serious drama critic who is trying to mold his talents to the dictates of a slick news magazine. Something in this succession of novels troubles me, as if Sheed is puzzling over some problem in regard to his own talent and never getting beyond it: he is frozen in the stance of mockery and bitterness that can produce a novel for him. It is as if (I say as if; I don’t want to believe it) he has some dislike for his own wonderful, witty voice. So many of his characters employ words as their medium, are successful in their careers, yet have grown eventually weary of their talent and feel somewhat at sea.
In Transatlantic Blues, Sheed has settled on another career that is most problematic in this struggle between an intelligent man and his compromising vocation. Monty (formerly Pendrid) Chatworth is a television personality. The novel is vague about his actual job. He seems to be a kind of freelance newscaster, interviewer, who specializes in documentaries and exposes. He has a reputation as a humanitarian, employing his vocation for higher purposes. He is known also for his literacy, intelligence, is considered a bright spot in a bleak medium. As he narrates his story, he is at the height of his success, the recipient of awards, subject of numerous magazine profiles.
Yet privately he scorns himself and his entire career. He claims that his humanitarian impulses have been motivated strictly by cash. He disdains the awards he receives, though admitting to an enormous need for recognition and acclaim. He believes that his intelligence is only relative to the obvious idiocy around him. A solitary man, he occupies a world of bleak hotel rooms and transatlantic flights. He feels a compulsive need to shame and embarrass himself, as if to counteract his fame. A Catholic of sorts, he spends the early pages of the novel seeking out a confessor, settling finally on a Sony portable tape recorder. It is that confession that, in his narrative, we are privileged to hear.
It would seem that Sheed’s major theme is obvious: the way in which men of vocation are forced in the modern world to shape their talents to degraded forms. Pulp Catholic magazines, struggling little magazines, slick news magazines, television: all his characters are caught in the same bind, and in distorting their talents they distort themselves. But Sheed does not use Translatlantic Blues to criticize the broadcasting industry. That would be too easy, and has been done too often. Instead, fascinatingly, he focuses on what it is in Monty Chatworth that has driven him into such a medium.
In so doing, he concentrates at length, for the bulk of the book, on Chatworth’s childhood and youth. Sheed has dealt elsewhere with childhood (most successfully, perhaps, in Pennsylvania Gothic and The Blacking Factory), and his touch is deft. One is struck immediately at the way in which banal events in one’s life have enormous impact. During World War II, as part of the war effort, the Chatworths moved from their native Britain to America (the reason for the move is never quite clear: the father is involved in some minor espionage work, but he remains throughout a shadowy figure), and little Pendrid, at the age of eight, is uprooted. In Britain he had been a typical child, taken up by the war effort, but in America he is suddenly set adrift, bewildered and repelled by strange customs; he seeks, at the small Catholic school he attends, a role through which he might survive. Nothing is unusual in that: all children settle into social roles. But Pendrid’s case is extreme. He wraps himself in his identity as a Britisher as if to protect himself from all that is strange around him. He becomes a foreigner in the school, and it is that sense of foreignness, taken up at the age of eight, that throughout his life Chatworth can never shake.
Instead he tries to make it work for him. Among the Irish Catholics at the school, he emphasizes an Irish side to his heritage, but the boys are not fooled (“You’re still a limey prick to us.”). He adopts his religion as a role, becomes devoutly Catholic, strict in his observances, shocked at the sexual banter and the mild homosexuality of his schoolmates. Returning to a shabby England after the war, he finds himself suddenly more American than he had realized (perhaps because he is stuck in his habit of foreignness, perhaps in order to distance himself from the worn faded gentility all around him), then, as his sexuality awakens, he goes through a brief British phase, aping the British manner, probing for the secret to British humor. By this time his personality is a hopeless mix. At his small college at Oxford, he adopts a variety of roles, pretending for a time to a more American heritage than he really has. He has abandoned any semblance of truth: he will be whatever works.
Chatworth’s circumstances are obviously peculiar, yet in examining them Sheed is taking up a typically modern problem; our loss of identity through the variety of roles we are forced to assume. Chatworth comes to hate his roles, so divorced are they from what he really is, yet he cannot abandon them because they succeed for him. In his first major love affair, a British woman named Diana sees his personality as a work of art, falls in love with it. Obviously it is of advantage in his television career. In England he is American, in America British; always his air of foreignness stamps him as a hot item. He has a compulsive need for outside approval because he has no sense of self in his work: the world must tell him if he is good or not. At the same time, his need for confession stems from an enormous sense of guilt at his self-betrayal. His career has made him the public’s whore.
Throughout the narrative, Sheed moves with his usual sure hand. His technique of mixing the past and present is never obtrusive. He interweaves his themes — Chatworth’s successive roles, his relationship to his family, his Catholicism — most skillfully, and they all come eventually to seem of a piece. Particularly impressive is his handling of the father-son relationship: Pendrid’s father is distant, more an image than a person, but a maddeningly difficult example for all of that, and his few moments of intimacy with his son — “Be first rate, Pen” — haunt Chatworth all his life. Oddly, the book has a tentatively happy ending; with the surprising entrance of a new character, Chatworth’s confession seems finally to have a purgative effect for him, and he at least thinks he sees a way to regain something of his basic nature. Critics make far too much of the development of novelists — no writer should have to follow the course of someone else’s preconceived plan — but one cannot help remarking that each of Sheed’s novels seems more incisive, skillful, and moving than the last.
In retrospect, Transatlantic Blues seems largely the story of a difficult and unhappy childhood. The circumstances are hardly Dickensian; it is startling and instructive to see how such ordinary events can result in so much unhappiness. Pendrid Chatworth faced his troubles with plenty of British pluck; he kept a stiff upper lip. The image of that brave child bearing up is for me the saddest thing in the book, and one of the saddest things in life. Why did he have to capitulate so, contorting himself until he became what others wanted and expected him to be? Why did he abandon the self he cherished in order to adapt to the difficult circumstances of his life? Why, indeed, do we all?