Twenty years ago the English poet Basil Bunting ld,10 sw,-2 sk,2 composed a long, difficult but beautiful poem titled "Briggflatts," meditating upon (among other things) man's extraordinary tininess within the long perspectives of space. Parts of it are unforgettable:
Furthest, fairest thing, stars, free of our humbug,
each his own, the longer known, the more alone,
wrapt in emphatic fire roaring out to a black flue . . .
Then is Now. The star you steer by is gone . . .
Fingertips touched and were still
fifty years ago.
Sirius is too young to remember.
The reason for remembering and quoting "Briggflatts" here is that "Light Years," the new novel by Bunting's compatriot Maggie Gee, also happens to be a meditation upon the theme of man's insignificant place in the universe. What is instructive is the difference in the quality of the language (and therefore, of the thought itself), which is apparent only through quotation. Where Bunting is compressed, allusive, lyrical, Maggie Gee is earnestly and numbingly literal in her state of wonder:
"Hard to remember the emptiness, above the bats, the birds, the clouds, above the plane where Lottie flies, immensely lucky on a foam of bubbles.
"Very small and very light.
"One in a billion trillion trillion.
"1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000."
Such illuminating insights, though salutary, become increasingly hilarious with repetition. "Every second, billions of solar neutrinos, tiny particles sent from the sun, shoot towards him, go straight through the planet, straight through Harold, effortlessly on." And there are a lot of them in this busy, hard-working novel, which is neatly divided into 52 chapters (one for each week of the hero and heroine's separation) which are in turn grouped into 12 sections (one for -- you guessed it -- each month), each section beginning and ending with a portentous little prose-poem about various aspects of the solar system. Maggie Gee even meditates about the cold planets in the January and February chapters and the hot planets in the July and August chapters. Unfortunately, it is only too clear that she did not intend "Light Years" to be read as a comic novel.
The pity is that behind the elaborate scaffolding of philosophical pretension, there is quite a solid love story in "Light Years," full of diverting scenes and characters. The hero, Harold Segall, is the least satisfactory, as any character saddled with the following dialogue would be. "Harold's beautiful brown eyes moistened: Harold apologized. 'Sorry, darling . . . You're very wise. I adore you.' " The heroine, Harold's dazzling, peasant-calved, blond, rich wife Lottie, is far more animated and entertaining, if considerably nastier. And this is not even to mention the splendid housekeeper or the crusty old mother-in-law.
The escapades of Harold and Lottie do provide for some lively reading. One late December, overindulged Lottie illegally buys Harold a live Golden Lion tamarin, a tiny, exotic, monkeylike creature, which promptly dies in their utility room. Sick with disgust, Harold walks out on Lottie, beginning a year of separation that will take each of them to Paris and back, introduce Harold to the sea and Lottie to the London Zoo (these are learning experiences), and cause each to cheat on the other in the arms of most improbable lovers.
Actually, the episodes with the lovers are the best parts of the book. Harold seduces a nubile, lower-class young thing, takes her to Paris for a five-week fling and suffers a gradual, terrible disillusionment. "Even an hour of sleep would have helped him, an hour of escape from April. An hour, just an hour on his own." Interestingly, the account of the abortive sojourn in Paris shows what Maggie Gee is really capable of. Here, briefly, there is no trace of farce, just sheer misery, vividly imagined. Lottie's romances, by contrast, do incline to the farcical. In fact, this uncertainty of tone, veering between the comic, the moving and the grandiose, is another major weakness in the novel. But Lottie's lover, Andre', is very well done, right down to his leopard-skin printed shorts and preposterous English.
In the end, unsurprisingly, there is a reaffirmation of love, marriage and good luck. " 'We're lucky,' Harold gabbled tenderly, kissing her damp hair . . . In the long run, though, they became the stars." None of this is very convincing, since the reunion is so clearly a setup. Yet, without the symbolism, the pop philosophy and the creaky stage management of places, seasons and people, "Light Years" might well have been a successful light novel.