The Viaduct

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

In E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman,” the inexplicable occurrences that the characters witness at one point are summarized neatly and explained away: “It’s an allegory,” one of them says. “Yes, that’s it.” Whether or not this explanation really said anything of substance at all, it made all who had seen a perturbing event feel much saner and safer. Hoffmann’s implied warning to his potential commentators was obvious: Allegorize my tales of mystery if you wish, but what provides you solace will not approach any closer to its meaning.

With such an example in mind, it is well not to call anything fictional an “allegory,” yet a process of elimination compels one to assign that label to David Wheldon’s first novel, The Viaduct. This British tale won that country’s Triple First Award; Graham Greene called it “a really remarkable novel,” and William Trevor proclaimed it a “fascinating and original work of art.” (Both are judges on the committee that awarded the Triple First.) One is reluctant to contradict such distinguished testimony; certainly suspect, however, is the judgment of the anonymous Sunday Telegraph reviewer cited on the dust jacket, who claims that The Viaduct is “one of those books that bypass the head and go straight to the raw edge of consciousness.” Rather the reverse, one might say; indeed, this book is an allegory because most of the features associated with the novel—characters with complex identities, a sense of place, a richly articulated plot—are banished from its austere pages. About all that is left finally is the game of figuring out what the “something else” that all the events stand for may be. All that is left, in brief, is allegory.

The hero of the story, whom the narrator calls “A.” and whom one of the characters calls “Alexander” at one juncture, is introduced to the reader upon emerging from a prison term he has served for writing a seditious autobiography. The real protagonist, however, is introduced before the hero himself; it is the viaduct on which he will journey for the rest of the book, until his fateful return to the city he is initially escaping (and a narrow escape it is). Except for a section of the first chapter dealing with official interrogation of the widow with whom the hero stayed while penning his sedition, the remainder of the book recounts episodes that A. falls into along the route of the disused railway atop the viaduct.

There is no dearth of incident, at least of an episodic nature. A man whom A. befriends on the route dies suddenly; in bringing the corpse to the nearest town, A. must undergo questioning from the magistrate, the mayor, and the priest—who are all the same man. An old man who informs A. that “no place is a place to stay” is later found dead as well by A. The reader even begins to sense a community of travelers (fellow travelers?). A. gains more respect once he puts on a discarded suit of clothing and is mistaken for a lawyer; he even encounters a family whose parents were married by an itinerant priest they once met along the railway. There are customs and travelers’ superstitions, counterpointed to the many churches in town (nearly everything in the railway community has its counterpart in the parishes and towns below). Rumor plays as lively a role on the viaduct as it does in the cities: Constant allusion is made to the way it undermines comfortable reality. People’s expressions are usually hard to read along this viaduct, and nobody’s advice is sound; names, of course, only compound the error of believing that flux and uncertainty can be banished, word complacently joined to thing. One of the characters, the “tall man,” is subject to periodic fits; although the neurologist identifies the disorder as “postictal automatism,” still “the naming of it made it no easier.” All clinging to fixed security, even to other people, is undermined: Faith in the perdurability of the viaduct and railway themselves may be the only exemption here. Indeed, security is elusive, as when the tall man pontifically warns A. against the tricksters on the railway who “speak with apparent certainty” and announces: “Always mistrust a man who speaks with certainty on these matters.” What the reader realizes, upon a moment’s reflection, is that obviously the tall man is saying all of this with the firmest, solemnest air of certainty—the latest twist on the old “Cretan liar” paradox.

The most sustaining tension developed within the book’s theme, then, seems to be that between the nomads and the ones with fixed addresses. The travelers inhabit, or rather move through, a constantly changing landscape, where the end is “an unknown thing,” and where the only constant consists of the hills or the distant horizon “both ephemeral and timeless”; hills only dimly espied, of which the tall man says: “It’s the memory of them which counts, and the summation of the things which you have heard.” As the novel proceeds, these hills recede ever further into the veil of rumor and “half-truth” (one of the narrative’s favorite words); all notion of a fixed endpoint is given over. Sooner or later, “travelling has become an end in itself,” as the tall man claims, and “origin or destination no longer have any place.” (One reads “to have a place” in the most literal sense here: Neither origin nor destination can be located, nor do they come to matter.) On the railway, continuity is extremely tenuous, limited to the recurrence of people whom one has previously met. Aside from the sheer act of movement, there are no sustained projects as in the cities. Human relationships, including sexual, are brutally utilitarian, or intense but fleeting. Language itself does not “mean” with the weight that it does in the settlements. The emblem of that is A.’s seditious manuscript, for which he was cruelly punished in a show trial. Despite the fact that A. has sweated blood over its composition and the resultant steep punishment, on the journey, it is merely so much excess...

(The entire section is 2488 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Choice. XXI, December, 1983, p. 576.

Library Journal. CVIII, September 15, 1983, p. 1810.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 12, 1983, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, August 5, 1983, p. 82.

Saturday Review. IX, September, 1983, p. 59.

Times Literary Supplement. April 1, 1983, p. 324.