The pleasure in Rose Tremain's novel is both subtle and startling. It is something like puppet theater.
We give puppets a bad name, and use expressions like "Puppet Regime" and "Mere Puppet." But there is nothing mere about them. Over different centuries and cultures, the play of puppets presenting a story or legend has conveyed not only character but fate as well.
They are objects, crude or ravishing in themselves, that move out beyond their own manufactured and changeless nature to create more than the sum of their made parts: a magical rhythm imparted by their invisible movers.
Most of the characters in "The Swimming Pool Season" are curious, original and finely made. They are almost all, like puppets, fixed in their attributes. The drama in this mysterious and ultimately tender comedy is achieved not by the characters' development but by their acting and living out the consequences of their own and each other's actions. And the combination of these actions goes beyond the actions themselves to suggest an unspoken but affecting sense of life's orders and patterns.
The novel's central figures are Larry and Miriam Kendal, a middle-aged English couple who have retired to a house in France's Dordogne region after the failure of his outdoor swimming pool business--a quixotic venture in view of the British climate. She paints; he putters and frets.
The title refers to more than Larry's impractical infatuation with swimming pools. (He thinks of them, borrowing a friend's words, as "loops of brightness" transforming a dull and scrubby outdoors.) The "season" is that time in middle age when there may be a last effort to recapture some lost youthful magic.
For Miriam, it is her return to Oxford to be with her dying mother, a woman whose beauty, wit and voracity for life created a glamorous aura that Miriam was never able to penetrate. As for Larry; left behind in the village of Pomerac, he begins work on a swimming pool that will, he fantasizes, captivate his French neighbors and recoup his fortunes. It will be a glorious pool, modeled on the black-and- white mosaic of a church; it will be, he reflects, his cathedral.
Through the book, we shift back and forth from Miriam's stay in Oxford to Larry's life in Pomerac. Each of them impinges on a whole circle of other lives, and Tremain manages to convey quite brilliantly the Englishness of one set of people and passions, and the Frenchness of the other.
The stuffy house in Oxford is full of preserved memories and easily bruised feelings. There is an aging bookseller who briefly falls in love with Miriam, forsaking his pale assistant and mistress. There is a homosexual lodger who regards Miriam's mother as his own. There is Miriam's son, a counter-culture child who has grown up to manufacture a highly profitable line of scatological furniture and fixtures. And there is Leni, the mother, who makes a sprightly dying of it with her queenly tastes and erotic recollections.
The Oxford figures, with all their varied and well-drawn eccentricities, are muted in comparison with Larry's neighbors in Pomerac. The swimming pool project is only one of many threads in Tremain's remarkable tapestry.
There is the farm family next door, whose central figure is Gervaise, a battler and nurturer. Her husband is bitter and burned-out; her two loves are Klaus, a magical German workman who lives with them and is caught up with Larry's pool-cathedral, and her son, Xavier, handsome and in trouble.
Larry spends much of his time helping and consoling Nadia, a Polish neighbor whose husband is in an asylum in the north of France. Nadia, whose mangled English is fashioned by Tremain into a comical but artful depiction of character, is one of the book's triumphs. Another is Agnes, a purposeful young girl who sets about trying to seduce Larry with quiet diligence. She is engaged, but does not want to be a virgin at marriage because she does not think it desirable, out of ignorance, to let her husband define the standards of conjugal pleasure. Pursuing Larry is like shopping for a useful household appliance.
The figures on both sides of the Channel are drawn with a detail and idiosyncrasy that makes each one absolutely distinct. Tremain has some of the chilly, dispassionate wizardry of a Compton-Burnett or an Iris Murdoch. But what she is interested in are the lines of movement among her figures, the flash of comfort and solidarity that can take place from distance to distance.
Klaus nourishes Gervaise. Gervaise warms Larry with her rooted humanity and energy. Larry's nutty visions inspire Klaus. Nadia's bright hospitality, persistent interference and broken English irritate Larry out of his periodic depression; at a crucial moment, he gives Nadia love and courage in her loneliness. At a celebratory dinner, Gervaise, her husband, Klaus and Larry are as different from each other as unrelated animal species. Yet, in an extraordinary feat of writing, the author winds a palpable communion among them.
Sometimes, Tremain writes close-up; at other times, she surveys the lives of Pomerac and Oxford at a lyric remove something like that of Dylan Thomas in "Under Milk Wood." Where everyone is and what everyone is doing at a particular moment are essential to her art. Emotion, to her, is not psychology; it is action, gesture, relationship. Ten seconds after Punch sinks down, Harlequin appears, and the movement of soldiers in the background pounds out a rhythm for Columbine's sobs. A yellow moon rises.