Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Viaduct by David Wheldon

There was a brief moment in the early 1980s where strange, short minimal novels, often set in abstract or non-realistic worlds, were being published, partly as the influence of Ballard and Carter seeped into the works of the next generation of writers, and partly, I think, through a sense of longing for a more European cultural scene. Britain, with its rhetoric of stability against any kind of political revolution, is not an obvious place for the stateless work of art, yet our writers - perhaps knowingly hemmed in by our island state, have often dreamt of an elsewhere, or another time - whether a "Flatland", a "News from Nowhere" or the future found through "The Time Machine." Of course, it was also a way of coming to terms with the trauma of the post-war, where, it might be said, we had survivor's guilt. The British response to the Second World War was so often a humorous one, think "Dad's Army". Writers of a more serious inclination were likely to see Europe through a narrow lens, and in the distance, and there books reflected this displacement.

Alongside "Riddley Walker", "The White Hotel", "Utz" and"The Cement Garden", we should perhaps include the debut novel by David Wheldon, "The Viaduct." Wheldon is still writing (a recent story in Confingo for instance), and I only came across his name through recommendations from David Rose and Nicholas Royle. At the Old Pier Bookshop in Morecambe yesterday I came across his debut "The Viaduct" on the way home and read it in a single sitting.

The viaduct remains long after the railway has gone, yet it towers above the anonymous city. A man is walking his dog along the viaduct when another man approaches him and asks what time the train goes and where from. The man tells him the railway was closed a long time before, but of course the vast viaduct still dominates the skyline. The man (later known as "A") has been a political prisoner, but these earlier scene settings - we see the police  visiting his ex-partner in the hope that she is hiding him and they can recapture him for another trial - are merely a prelude. For once he is seen, the man gets chased along the viaduct and only escapes by getting rid of his backpack which contains his seditious manuscript.

He comes into contact with two travellers who tell him he is safe now - that the people in the city will never cross over a certain barbed wire border. We later discover that the ownership of the railway line has been handed over to the various towns and villages it passes through. He joins these two travellers, again unnamed, one is a simple man and a thief who only speaks in sentences he has learnt from others, whilst the other is an outcast for a different reason - he has epileptic fits which change his personality - and he prefers to walk the railway than risk the embarassment of where he came from. This motley crew then starts walking the railway line. There is much talk of where they are going, where the terminus might be. "A" as we now call him is curious about the new life but soon becomes a traveller like the rest. It is summer so they do not need to go into the towns along the route, but in the winter they often do for food. Similarly, life on the rail is harsh and many travellers die.

In many ways the tale is a picaresque fable - with the nature of the world as unknown to us as it is to A. The travellers and the town dwellers are two different tribes, keeping a distance from each other - but occasionally interacting. Some of those interactions have led to suspicion - but mostly it is because those on the rail have reasons to be there, whilst those who are settled fear the travellers - don't really know where they are going or why. This otherworldliness is written in a simple, straightforward prose, which makes the reader empathise with A and the other travellers, at the same time, the characters are philosophical ones, questioning the unknown world they are walking through. All have things to hide, are unreliable tellers of their own tales.  It is the people in the cities and towns who seem oppressed and provincial and somehow threatening.

The book is a short one - and at some point tragedy intervenes meaning that A has to leave his fellow travellers, but like any good picaresque, he picks up others along the way. Yet he is more troubled than the others about his destination. The railroad he is on seems endless, some people have even been born on the track and not known any other life. By the time the truth becomes known, there is an inevitability to it.

It's pointless to ask for an understanding of what Wheldon's world is meant to be - dream world, allegory, future dystopia or Dantesque purgatory - for it exists in a very European tradition of the un-place. Moreover, its strength is something that is beyond the Ballardian trope of imagining a world reduced to a tower block, a traffic island, but something more fundamental. We don't know (like A is Josef K) what he actually did or why, and this is no longer relevant; similarly the railway is surely an allegorical device, like the river Styx might have been for an earlier generation. "Older" travellers remember the railway when it existed, but its almost as if it never did except as a way to delineate the landscape. As the numbers of travellers grow I'm reminded of Magnus Mill's later philosophical book "Three to See the King" or even the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - where individuals are compelled to seek a particular place or way of life.

In some ways the book is unreviewable, despite brilliant notices from William Trevor and Graham Greene on the cover. But despite a few occasional moments that perhaps date it (women are referred to disparagingly by the authorities, like in a seventies sitcom; and in fact women are hardly present at all in the novel), it seems ridiculous that it has entirely disappeared. It's a small masterpiece, particularly for a debut novel, that even half a lifetime after it was written still resonates strongly - the sort of short book that stays with you. As a devotee of early 1980s Picadors often with European authors, it fits snugly into that tradition (though it was published by the Bodley Head and Penguin). In 1983 of course, something else happened in the British book trade. Granta published its special edition about the "20 novelists under 40" and the publicity circus around that could well have drowned out any author not amongst the 20. More than that, it ushered in an age of realisms, satirical, dirty and realism, as well as Booker-friendly historical novels. Like post-punk, a genre that sold very little and was a little too cold and unshouty for mainstream exceptance, this sort of brittle fable has never been well looked on by the publishing mainstream with its desire for TV adaptions and beach reading. That said, it's well worth seeking  out.

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