Monday, February 10, 2014

Harvest by Jim Crace

I have always rated Jim Crace, though looking back I realise this is only the third or fourth of his books I've read - funny how you sometimes neglect even the writers who impress you. I was surprised when I heard that "Harvest" was likely to be his last book - I hadn't quite realised he was the generation of Barnes and Amis.

Like so many of his novels "Harvest" takes place in a confined ecosystem. Crace's stock-in-trade is the circusmscribed world that though familiar is also, in his always elegant prose, somehow cut-off. Therefore "Continent" was an unnamed land; his masterpiece "Arcadia" was a generic city; and his Jesus novel "Quarantine" saw him spend forty days in the wilderness. In "Harvest" the "action" takes place in an unnamed hamlet in a past England, waiting for enclosure. There's little clue as to when or where it takes place - and I'd hazard a guess at the 12th century, in the old Wessex - but it could equally be pre-Norman, or even much later (when the Enclosures acts finally cut off the remaining common land.) I say 12th century Wessex as it was only in Wessex and Mercia where the pre-feudal commons systems survives the Norman invasion. The enclosure of the land is not so much a "modernisation" as the usurpation of English land rights - "the commons" - by others. (If its as late as the "enclosures" then it feels somehow anachronistic - as there's not even a church here; surely not possible much after the 12th century?)

The novel is the first person story as told by Walter Thirsk. He's an incomer into the unnamed Hamlet, and arrived with the incumbent master, who was the most benign of fiefs, until his own wife's death - heirless - meant that the land's title reverted elsewhere. Thirsk has had a similar bereavement. He came to the settlement, married, and then worked the land - yet he is still an incomer - and worse, as a widower who has not then taken another wife (though he has a woman whose bed he shares), is viewed with some suspicion. Yet that suspicion is based as much on family ties - or lack of - as anything real. For the Hamlet is home to several families whose blood ties are clannish. Yet despite this they rub along together, for the feudal system sees them working together on the common land for the common good, farming their own strips, but working together to bring in the harvest. It was a way of life that in this aspect remained unchanged even as recently as the 1970s when my grandparents brought in the hay, with the help of the other locals.

Yet things are about to change in the unchanging landscape in which Walter lives his melancholy widowhood. First there are newcomers, who, by common practice, have a right to be there, through their setting up of a dwelling and lighting of a fire. These newcomers: an older man, a younger man, and a mysteriously alluring slight young woman, have chosen a bad time to arrive. Just as the harvest has been brought in - if they become part of the settlement will they want part of the bounty that they did nothing to collect? Yet such questions go unanswered. Some of the master's birds have been taken, and it is the newcomers who are blamed. The two men are taken and put in the stocks for a week, a punishment less than would be warranted for such theft, but more than is required, given that in all probability they are innocent. This year's harvest celebration is haunted by this unspoken guilt. The woman, unnamed, transfixes the men of the settlement - and perhaps the women also.

But it is not these interlopers who are the biggest difficulty. A man, nicknamed "Quill" (in this book everyone has a common name, before their real one), is taking stock of the land. At first we think he's a Domesday assessor but he seems to be working on another errand. The master's rights on the land are limited - there is a new lord, who arrives later in the week, his plans are to replace the open crop lands with enclosed pastures for sheep whose wool can be sold at market. What we are seeing here is the change in English life from a subsistence economy to a rentier one. Instead of a small plot of land, governed by historic right, and kept alive by the mutual agreement of the master and his "tenants", these rights are to be overtaken by the land rights of distant capital owners. Coming out as it has in the midst of this coalition government, one can't help but see "Harvest" as an allegory, of what happens when men are stripped of the right to work for their own well-being, in the name of a rapacious capitalism. For these farmers, think zero hour contracts.

In Crace's enclosed society, the changes that happen this week are as fast as the events that overtake the community in "Straw Dogs", where a newcomer tips the balance. This is in someways a more benign world - it has survived without expectation from the outside world, but when the villagers rise up in anger at the way they are being treated, they know as well that they have no "rights" on their side - that the absent law will come at them in full force.

The first half of the novel has its faults. Not least that the events that happen seem forced in some way. Thirsk is part of the problem. He is a romantic narrator, but not necessarily an accurate one. Yet he's also distant - a Jamesian hero in a Meville-ish world. When the newcomers arrive he hears only of the woman second hand. He's absent from most of the actions in the novel, piecing them together through hearsay. Although this serves a purpose it also creates a certain lifelessness - after all this small hamlet is hardly large enough to sustain secrets, never mind indifference. In the second half of the book, as events unfold as small cataclysms that one by one change everything, you begin to understand why he's got this role. He has to be outside in order not to be caught up in it all. He can be friend to the master, concerned for the women, in love with the mysterious outsider, considerate to her pilloried husband... all seeing, but also strangely distanced from them all. In a different space and time, his knowledge could have been used to mitigate disaster - yet he's powerless to do so; seeing one thing lead to an inevitable other.

At the end he's a last remainder of what has happened: the only witness. Yet, this too has its faults. For we are none the wiser about what really has gone on. His inferences are suspect; his confidantes fled. The allegory has taken over in some ways - and the "real" people of the Hamlet dissipated to the winds. How can it have happened so quickly? It almost feels like the witchcraft that is hinted at. Here, Crace's tendency to set his books in an unspecific place comes undone a little. There are two many unanswered questions. How come this Hamlet never quite gets a church? Where are the passing tinkers and showmen that country folk are used to entertaining as they pass by? How come the village's history can be undone so quickly, so carelessly? It is an allegorical transformation and as such works up to a point. Crace's lyricism is careful but admirable. Yet it takes the action of the novel's second half to really take off. At first we are annoyed by the stubborness of the picture not to come into focus. Our unreliable narrator fails to see his world clearly enough; too much is inference or conjecture.

Worst of all, and the thing that stops the novel from succeeding fully, even on its own terms, is the figure of the unknown woman. Not once in the book does the narrator have a genuine moment with her. She is from afar, referred to as tiny, young, witchlike, yet impossible to know, given that the one time the village meets her  - he is not there. He therefore conjectures what she is like; imagines that she has been discovered and bedded by any one of the village's men or the ominously strange "Quill." It is this lack of a genuine encounter which stops the novel from coming alive. How can we care about characters that are invisible? Its as if the woman and her family are merely a plot point that, though central to the telling, are actually not that important - as outsiders to the village, they are the spark, not the fire.

Like Barnes in "Sense of an Ending" or Ishiguro in "Never Let Me Go", Crace' skills as a novelist ensure that we are kept waiting on the denouement, yet like those books, the characterisation and the back story seem more suited to a long story than a novel. In a fable, its not necessary to know who, where and when these people are, in a novel, I think it is. At times "Harvest" has a quiet power, and its beyond eloquent in its central concern - this destruction of a way of life - but I'm not sure it manages entirely to ensnare the reader. We are left, like Walter Thirsk, an outsider, and our time spent here has left us with little more than when we arrived.

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