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The new book by one of England’s finest writers.
By Jo Brans |

Nothing pleases me like a new novel- its shiny jacket, its clean stiff pages, its unmistakable look of promise. When the author is one whose work I have admired in the past, the pleasure mounts. I know I will like it. I intend to, I make a special effort. Sometimes the effort is so great that I may succeed intellectually – understand the book, respect its artistry, appreciate its social significance – while having serious reservations emotionally.

So it is with Margaret Drabble’s eighth novel, The Ice Age (Knopf, $8.95). Drabble, a university-educated Briton with reputation and following, is a social novelist in the tradition of Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark, and behind them, of the greater voices of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Her novels investigate the human relationships that make up the fabric of British society, though several of them, especially The Needle’s Eye and now The Ice Age, seem to point toward spiritual conclusions as well. Her one non-fiction book, Arnold Bennett, is a critical biography of another traditional though somewhat outmoded late-late Victorian social novelist.

Line for line, Margaret Drabble is lyrical, persuasive, smart, incapable of a bad sentence. She is a wonderful writer, but I have to say reluctantly that I don’t think The Ice Age is a wonderful book. Ambitious, yes. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, very. Full of carefully worked out characters and social relevance and great human themes, all that. But as a novel, to my mind, it doesn’t come off, even on a second reading.

Why, I wonder. I believe it is because Margaret Drabble, like, say, Saul Bellow in Mr. Sammler’sPlanet, tries to claim in her conclusion the continued existence of spiritual and human values that the bulk of the novel does not allow. Much has been written about Sammler’s last prayer, but it is the desperate prayer of a failed believer. As is, I think, Margaret Drabble’s conclusion.

Certainly the story of The Ice Age is engrossing and its people are attractive. Basically there are four characters and two love affairs. Anthony Keating, a 38-year-old man with a university background, a BBC executive turned land gambler, is in love with and loved by Alison Murray, an ex-actress, divorcee, and mother of two daughters. Both Anthony and Alison have had bad first marriages, which are lightly but vividly described. In addition, they are individually honorable and lovable people. Anthony’s failures in business cause him to rethink his life before us, a life to which no fault attaches. Alison, with selfless nobility, has given up a more than promising career to care for her afflicted daughter Molly and to raise funds for the care of other cerebral palsy victims. We want them to find happiness together in the centuries-old house Anthony has bought, an obvious metaphor for traditional England, and at first we believe that they will.

The other couple, Len Wincobank, a genius in real estate development, and his secretary and mistress. Maureen Kirby, are lower class, energetic, materialistic, vulgar but appealing. Their characters are not as well realized as Anthony’s and Alison’s; nevertheless, they too seem to deserve and expect happiness.

At the beginning of The Ice Age the lovers are separated. Len is in jail for shady financial transactions and Alison is in Wallacia, a mythical Iron Curtain country where she is trying to rescue her older daughter Jane, also in jail. “Only connect.” as the epigraph reads to E. M. Forster’s 1921 novel Howards End– a book which The Ice Age resembles the-matically – and the problem is solved. “Connect,” as Forster specifies, “the prose in us with the passion,” a connection without which “we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.” Connect, that is to say, Alison’s nurturing spirit with Anthony’s questing, with Len’s dreams of grandeur, with Maureen’s pragmatism and zest for life, connect the middle and proletarian classes in a common enterprise. For the real theme of The Ice Age, as of Howards End, is, as Lionel Trilling once put it, “Who shall inherit England?” – a country too splendid in her heritage to be owned by a single faction.

For Forster in 1921, the connections were still possible; for Drabble they are not. At the conclusion of Howards End, factions are joined and England is strengthened by marriage and children. At the end of The Ice Age, the lovers are still apart- Len in jail and Maureen the mistress of her new boss, Alison back in England with Molly, Anthony in jail in the backwater Balkan country, where he has taken Jane’s place. To an extent, even children here do not connect but separate- Alison’s dedicated care of Molly has emotionally deprived Jane, now an alienated and unreachable teenager, and thus has in the long run caused Anthony’s imprisonment.

Two statements in the book set the stage for the failures of connection: “These are terrible times we live in,” and Alison’s plaint, “I can’t split myself in two.” England is in an ice age. Drabble would have us believe, an epoch of increasing glaciation, of infertility, which perhaps began with the overwhelming demands of empire and gradually reached the interior. In view of the recent economic and social difficulties of Britain, this view is tenable, and Margaret Drabble does a good job of showing us the practical manifestations of the freeze through her characters. As mother of Molly, Alison is frozen into her socialistic role; she invests all her energies in the sick and hopeless, and lets the healthy Jane deteriorate. Len, as representative of the spirit of materialistic progress, is frozen into his desire for building “the grand.” As an admirer of American cities like New York and Chicago, his chief concern is, “What would England look like?” He doesn’t have much interest in people. These polar positions are tempered somewhat by Maureen’s good-natured sensuousness and Anthony’s idealism, but neither character suggests a solution to England’s problems. Maureen is too trivial, a triviality imposed on her by her creator, and in Anthony it seems to me that Margaret Drabble cops out. Or perhaps 1 just don’t like the fate she hands him. In jail in Wallacia, away from the confusions of freedom and possessions, in the imposed community and poverty of prison life, Anthony finds God, a god which appears to him not in a human shape, but as a briIliant, ephemeral red bird. It is not a vision which does him, or anyone else, much good.

Nor does Margaret Drabble’s chilling vision in the book benefit us much, so far as I can see. At the very end of The Ice Age, we are told, preachily, that because Alison’s life with Molly “is beyond imagining,” it ’”will not be imagined,” that “Britain will recover, but not Alison Murray.” How are we to understand what Drabble means? With Anthony off finding God with the Communists and Alison at home preoccupied with sickness, with Len in jail and Maureen unfaithful, how is Britain to recover? Saying so doesn’t make it so. Perhaps in Anthony she heralds a return to spirituality, but Anthony himself doubts that his change of heart will last out of prison. Like her characters, Margaret Drabble stands frozen at an impasse; her imagination needs warming. From the greatest Ice Age, the Pleistocene, the progenitors of man emerged. Margaret Drabble fails to imagine the emergence of a new form of life.

The most memorable scene in the book suggests instead closure, mutilation, nihilism, and death. Alison, trying to reach a drugstore in one of Len’s impressive but inhuman city centers, realizes that although she can see the shop, she must c limb a parapet and cross four streams of freeway traffic to reach it. Her companion in this death-defying act is a dog, an Alsatian dog. plodding down the middle of the four-lane road. Its nose was down, it ignored the cars, it walked resolutely on. nose low, tail low, with a plodding, determined, dedicated gait. And she could see that the whole of one side of the dog had been ripped away. She could see its red flesh. Its fur had been scooped and flayed backward; a wad of it hung rumpled. It must, she thought, be dying … Its red flank was the red flank of death …. Where would it go? There was nothing but concrete, as far as the eye could see … no cave, no hole, no retreat, no lair. But it walked as though it had some purpose. It was going somewhere, if only to death. Maybe, thought Alison, it has a sense of some place to which it is walking, and it will walk until it drops and dies. The steppes, the forests, the mountains. On it went, out of her vision ….

As the dog, wounded, self-deceived, and death-driven, passes out of Alison’s vision, so the future of beleaguered England, like the future of Alison herself, defies the author’s imagination.

The man whose money is in part responsible for this sorry state of affairs is Anthony’s old school friend. Giles Peters, whose name interests me. Peter Giles is the character in Thomas More’s Utopia who, as host to a party of travelers, makes the story of Utopia possible. As Giles Peters is a reversal of Peter Giles, so is the England of The Ice Age a reverse Utopia. The essence of Utopia, you will remember, is community; the essence of contemporary England, as Margaret Drabble paints it, is the lack of community. Except for the last-ditch Utopia of Anthony’s Communist prison, her picture is irredeemably bleak.

Nobody ever said that novels have tobe cheerful or have happy endings, andI’m not complaining about the bleakness. My problem with the book, mysense of the author’s betrayal of her ownvision, rests in those three important wordsin the last sentence: “Britain will recover.” Margaret Drabble has given us anunrelenting image of the death of a greatcountry and it is dishonest to that imageto predict recovery. Without some assurance in the novel itself, some justification in her characters for the author’sclaim. “Britain will recover” is emptychauvinism, and we’ve had enough ofthat.

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