Eva Figes Peter Ackroyd - Essay

Peter Ackroyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The day I spent reading Eva Figes's Days] passed extremely slowly. But this was probably in unconscious sympathy with the heroine of the novel, who spends what little life she has in the private ward of a large hospital. Her meanderings, which set the pace let alone the content of the narrative, are couched in Beckett's perpetual present—deriving as they do from the I of a needle: "I merely think this. In actual fact I can only conjecture about what lies beyond the walls of this room. And in the last analysis it does not matter. I no longer allow it to concern me." Luckily for her, but not for us as she roams over her attenuated past like a fly over cold soup….

It is only, of course, in the ruined choirs of Romanticism that a monologue can be found appealing. This happy fallacy has never stirred my particular stumps and a stream-of-consciousness retains its interest only for a very short time. It is also the case that a frayed or neurotic vision is that much less interesting than an average or healthy one. This offends against the canons of the School of Suicide and Worldly Despair, but it agrees with those of good taste. The masks and reminiscences of a "knot of nerve-ends," as the heroine engagingly calls herself, are not likely to amuse or convince unless they connect with something other than themselves. This is rarely the case in Days….

I do not mean to be entirely condemnatory; the writing is always lyrical and often perceptive. The sadness of growth and age are lovingly detailed, and there is something to be said for a novel in which loneliness and dereliction, the perpetual favourites of the novelist, can be depicted without any overt commentary. The focus of Days is strong but narrow, and Miss Figes has wrapped her subject within a cocoon of false self-consciousness. I often find myself wishing for those days when the novel offered a rhetoric of moral community, carrying everywhere with it relationship and love. Nowadays we have to be grateful if characters so much as talk to one another.

Peter Ackroyd, "Salad Days," in The Spectator, Vol. 232, No. 7594, January 12, 1974, p. 43.∗