The Pardoner's Tale
“Radix malorum cupiditas est” (“Cupidity is the root of all evil”), the motto of Chaucer’s lecherous Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales, is a moral readily applicable to British writer John Wain’s latest novel, The Pardoner’s Tale, his twelfth to date. In such past works as A Winter in the Hills, Wain has chosen the human heart as his territory and has masterfully charted its longings and frustrations. Generally speaking, Wain’s people are garden-variety English intellectuals forced, in an often wrenching experience, to assess their past lives in order to move forward more gracefully toward death. Their dilemmas, anxieties, dreams, hopes, and fears are universal, eternal constants in human affairs just as some of the situations in which they find themselves are unique to the twentieth century.
More often than not, Wain’s characters are caught unawares by marked shifts in their lives: divorce, the death of those close to them, the breakup of careers, and the discovery of new lovers. Suddenly, what was once familiar becomes notably, uncomfortably unfamiliar—even frightening. Also, like characters in many contemporary novels, they find no certain way, no established plan that can show them the way to personal fulfillment. For them, religion is too abstract and nebulous, sex is at best a temporary release, and alcohol often leads only to hangovers and early death. If they know anything at all, it is that love promises transcendence; in fact, it would seem that love is one of the only things (art being another) that does. Yet love, mysterious in its ways, offers a glimpse of paradise, only to disappear, leaving a bitter view of the world.
Although The Pardoner’s Tale deals with traditional Wain concerns, it marks an artistic departure in that the author uses as his “frame” the device of the novel within a novel: the mirror of nature mirrored.
Giles Hermitage, London writer and man of some means, faces a crisis: His wife of several years, Harriet, has run off to Australia with another man, leaving him to reconstruct somehow his now shattered existence. During his period of spiritual reconstruction, Giles writes a novel—a story, not so strangely, about a middle-aged man named Gus Howkins, a London-based press-clipping office employee, who, having lost his wife, Daphne, to someone who promised her love and emotional security, finds his own magic in the person of Julia Delmore, an actress and a wife on the run.
Although ostensibly fiction, Giles’s novel is nothing less than an exposé of his soul, a charting of depths and nuances of feeling. Gus Howkins is Giles Hermitage, a man lost and desperately in need of something to fix upon and believe in, a man tasting life’s bitterness. When Giles has his character Gus rescue the distraught Julia from certain death by drowning in the North Sea, take her to his rented cottage, and give her tea, sympathy, and love, he is not writing about an actual girl, but a dreamed-of girl—the sort he himself needs to survive Harriet’s loss.
Through an odd turn of events, however, Giles does happen upon a girl, Diana (called “Dinah”) Chichester-Redfern, who strikingly resembles his fictional creation, Julia. He discovers his ideal woman on the day he responds to an unusual request from a reader; namely, that he talk to her regularly before she dies. The dying woman is Dinah’s mother, who has been long estranged from her daughter, both literally and figuratively. The mother, Helen Chichester-Redfern, wants Giles, one of her favorite authors, to make sense of her unhappy life; she feels he has the power to do so since he is a writer and is therefore, in her eyes, nearly divine. Like Giles’s fictional Julia, Dinah is an artist. Moreover, both women seem alternately happy and sad; both have lost in love before; and both often appear poised on the brink of some calamity of spirit. Both are heart-stopping spellbinders, capable of the most subtle enchantments.
What is most fascinating about Wain’s novel is what it tells us about his conception of the artistic process. Essentially, he asserts that while the professional novelist is an artificer who creates characters and plots and settings through the use of his imagination, the stories he creates are never very far from being his own. Thus the novel cannot help being a reaction to the inner emotions...
(The entire section is 1801 words.)