“There Were Still Shipwrecks”: Alison Moore’s “The Lighthouse”

20121014-185940.jpgI attended the Cheltenham Literary Festival’s annual Booker event yesterday lunchtime, attended by four of the six shortlisted authors, minus Hilary Mantel and Will Self. In the way of these sessions, opening to questions felt less useful than letting the authors keep talking: at one point, for example, Alison Moore was asked why she had chosen ‘Futh’ as the name of her protagonist in The Lighthouse, since it is a proper noun almost entirely without resonance. This, Moore was forced to answer, is precisely, er, the point. Futh is meant to elicit the same response in the reader as he does in his wife-to-be when they first meet again a decade or so after attending the same school: “I don’t remember you.” [pg. 52]

The question was doubly elementary because the novel is so open about Futh’s essential emptiness. On a German walking holiday following the breakdown of his marriage, Futh’s recollections churn around the things said about him first by his distant, philandering father and then his frustrated, disappointed spouse, Angela. “He was introspective, insufficiently aware, Angela often said, of other people and how they might see things.” [pg. 41] Moore can’t be more explicit than this, and if The Lighthouse has a principal weakness it is this reliance on a certain heaviness of interpretation.

Futh’s work is in manufacturing scents – including, for example, instant “coffee whose volatile aromas have been lost and then replaced during the manufacturing process; coffee to which the smell of coffee has been added” [pg. 159]. The Lighthouse makes great play of this idea of artificial recreations – for instance, Futh’s father spends the similar German walking holiday on which he took his young son, reminiscences of which pepper the novel, bringing women back to their shared hotel room as substitutes for the wife who has left him out of simple boredom. Likewise, the lighthouse of the title is in fact a novelty bottle of perfume which ends up in the hands of the landlady of Futh’s hotel, herself in the midst of a loveless marriage, and “is empty, the scent missing” [pg. 37].

On the other hand, Moore’s prose – as opposed to her treatment of theme – is as light and free-flowing as any writing on this year’s shortlist. Here she is conjuring a childhood picnic enjoyed by Futh and his parents:

Despite the incredible heat, up on the cliffs there was a breeze and one could burn unexpectedly. They had eaten a picnic. His mother had made sandwiches and he and his father had shared a savoury pasty in a paper bag. His father had opened a bottle of Pomagne but no one else wanted any. There were oranges but only his mother had bothered with one. Afterwards, she lay on her back on the grass and closed her eyes. Her port-wine stain was visible beneath the strap of her bikini top. She smelt of sun cream. [pg. 55]

There’s a lot happening in this little paragraph, but it goes down as easily as the Pomagne. It’s a pregnant-but-precise style which gives Moore the space to achieve something many of her rivals for the gong are also seeking to accomplish: The Lighthouse is essentially a novel about things withheld, about things unseen, and it weaves delicately through a series of misconceptions and misunderstandings with real economy. Witness, for instance, the delicious episode in which Futh is taken back home by a man he has only just met on a ferry, to meet a sceptical mother and entirely miss the significance of the tensions his presence has provoked. “My wife and I have just separated,” he prates. “And we didn’t have children. […] I keep stick insects. […] I wanted a dog.” [pg. 29] Carl absents himself and his mother suggests Futh leave.

This insensibility to the complicated lives of others – indeed, the complexities of his own – leads directly to a series of errors which further destabilise the marriage of his hosts. Ester and Bernard, the proprietors of the Hellhaus hotel (it translates as ‘bright house’, apparently), are trapped in a dead-end marriage – he fails to notice her, and she cheats on him. Even their memories of meeting differ: “She could have sworn that it happened for both of them at that same moment. When, much later, he said that it had not happened for him until after that, it was like having heard a fire engine or an ambulance going by as he stood there on the doorstep, and Bernard claiming to have heard it perhaps hours later when he and she and everyone else were outside on the patio.” [pg. 65] The economy with which Moore depicts the little ways we each misapprehend the other, her manner of capturing the explosions of “a moment, in which nothing was said and no one moved” [pg. 147], puts Levy’s clumsy efforts, and even Self’s over-stylised supposition that only high modernism can achieve the effect of separate lives, to simple shame.

Still, Futh’s habitual inertia tells a tad against the novel: “At the age of twelve, he wanted to go to New York as soon as he was old enough. In his twenties, when he could have travelled anywhere he wanted, he visited many cities and countries but he did not go to New York.” [pg. 78] It’s difficult to spend a whole book aching simply to shake a character into what are fairly modest actions. Futh, like his mother before him, “often fantasised about running away” [pg. 119], but is paralysed by an unspoken fear of the consequences (indeed, his unhappy holiday is proof enough that Futh is best advised to stay at home). Ester and Bernard, who do not begin the novel as a focal point but come to colonise alternating chapters with their own story, feel more dynamic presences – but orbit around Futh’s own non-narrative in a manner which keeps this first novel safely under control.

“Some people do not like the smell of camphor; for others it is addictive,” Moore writes. “It is used, amongst other things, as a moth repellent and as an aphrodisiac.” [pg. 130] That smells and items and relationships can mean different things to different people is not news – and perhaps the modesty of this novel’s aims are one reason it achieves them with so much more clarity than many of the other novels on the shortlist. In many ways, in fact, it reminds one most of The Sense of an Ending, and modest-but-perfectly-turned did Julian Barnes no harm at all.

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