Haunting the accelerating pace of the years throughout the last century the words of L.P. Hartley’s narrator echo a deepening sense of loss: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. Of course they always did but the speed of change seems to have made that world of Edwardian England another country entirely.
Looking back at an early holiday in North Tyne during the middle of that twentieth century Peter Robinson remembers ‘fishing lines / tautening under a vanished horizon’ and recognises that ‘Nothing recompenses for the love withdrawn – ’. It is almost as if in this early poem, ‘Under their feet’, one can hear Arnold’s measure as he listens to the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of a sea which retreats ‘to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world’. We walk with the past below our feet and discover monuments piercing the soil telling us how, in Charles Olson’s words, the ‘dead prey upon us’. The American poet cries out his urge to ‘disentangle the nets of being!’ and another early Robinson poem, ‘A short history’, introduces us to those trammels of the past as with a painterly eye we are presented with ‘first light / through gripping ivy’, ‘leaf shadow, / telephone wires on the ceiling’, ‘meshed stained-glass’ and ‘woven emblems’. Now in this powerful novel of reconstruction as dawn lightens on the road, where the two protagonists of September in the Rain have arrived in Como after getting a lift from an Agip petrol station bar, ‘Distances stood out pellucid and near’: the past nightmare is returning into clear focus with the ‘barred and meshed windows’ of a ‘dusty-grey frontage’ which houses la Questura, the police-station.
In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (1981) Frederic Jameson suggested that story-telling is the quintessential form in which reality presents itself to the human mind. Four years later Oliver Sacks wrote about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and asserted that
‘We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities…for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative.’
And so, some forty-one years after a traumatic experience of sexual violation in a car during a wet night in Northern Italy, a violation committed by a man armed with a pistol, Peter Robinson’s inner narrative surfaces in this stunningly moving novel, September in the Rain. The long-reaching effects of the incident ensured that the narrator’s ‘one summer of half-innocent youthful confidence had gone for ever’ and as he confesses to us ‘There are things you can’t come back from, however much you may wish you could, or even pretend you have’.
The novel opens with a dramatic and highly visual effect which brings to mind the opening paragraph of that Black Mountaineer Michael Rumaker’s Exit 3:
‘The yellow breakdown truck pulls off and halts outside an Agip petrol station bar. Pushing the stiffly sprung door, the driver throws back his blue anorak hood and shakes off the worst of the rain. Behind him come the two of us, bedraggled from the storm, wet through, with limp hair and blank faces, eyes blinking in the neon as if startled out of a troubled night’s sleep.’
There is an immediacy, a palpability, to this first paragraph; it is as if one of the shades from Dante’s Inferno is piercing their changeless existence to loom out at us ‘as if we’re already dead, come back to haunt the scenes of our last moments like a pair of unappeasable revenants’. That echo of Dante’s infernal world continues later in the novel when the narrator talks to his sister:
‘Our talking over everything and everyone began to go round and round in circles, and our conspiracy of two turned in upon itself.’
Dante is by no means the only literary figure woven into the fabric of this artful tale and the narrator can reveal a distance between himself and the outrage committed so long ago by recognising the power of his own reading and thinking. The scene of rape in the car is contextualised by a reference to Ovid and the witness to the crime sees that ‘you would not die, not for now anyway, nor, for that matter, be changed into a nightingale’. The entangling self-knowledge which is one of the major themes of this disturbing narrative leads the narrator to recognise his own attempts at artistic and cultural distance. As his girlfriend shuts her eyes on the train-ride which will be taking them back to some kind of normality he is attempting to read Florentine Painters of the Renaissance
‘…my eyes enlarged behind the thick lenses, reading page after page, retaining nothing at all, yet seeming entirely lost to you in art’.
The writer’s awareness of the gap between emotional commitment to an individual and the larger world of cultural heritage which stretches back for thousands of years is caught for the reader in the paradox of the two choices at the New Wing at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases. The left doorway announces HEALING above the door whilst the right has RESEARCH: ‘I find myself wondering how I might even try and attempt the impossible—and go in through both doors at once’. September in the Rain is moving evidence of that attempt.
And as I Return to Charles Olson’s ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’ the poet recognises that ‘Purity // is only an instant of being, the trammels // recur’ and the reference in Robinson’s novel to ‘reddish smears from the wet clay earth’ (sharp perception of those moments of early horror) are hauntingly glimpsed towards the end of the novel as the narrator’s ‘envious eyes’ were ‘deflected to the red clay tiling of the kitchen floor, where tiny flecks of onionskin lay preserved in its more remote corners’.
Ian Brinton, 29th August 2016