Every writer has their obsessions. Happily for James Lasdun (not to mention his publishers), his obsessions are increasingly shared by the rest of the world. As such, Victory, composed of two novellas that address what the publisher terms ‘the clash of power and desire in our embattled contemporary lives’, will no doubt be hailed as timely, but the subjects it explores – the fallibility of memory, the nature of reputation, voyeurism, harassment and the public life of private acts – run deep through much of the prose Lasdun has produced over the last twenty years. Rather than chasing the times, the times have come to him.
Each of Victory’s novellas draws its energy from unstable pasts erupting into the present, but ‘Afternoon of a Faun’ is the more explicitly à la mode, with television journalist (and minor celebrity) Marco Rosedale accused of historical sexual assault by his former researcher Julia Gault, triggering a zero-sum battle for both their reputations. Bookending ‘Afternoon’ is the hulking figure of (an unnamed) Donald Trump, his presence meant to suggest that a case ‘specific to the individuals concerned’ is a symptom of a national malaise. Trump is presented as Assaulter-in-Chief, but he symbolises a wider political climate. In a world of conspiracies, denunciations, allegations and alternative facts, the very nature of reality is at stake, as truth and the past become no more than questions of character and reputation in the present: who do you trust and why?
‘Afternoon’ grippingly interrogates these questions, as the first-person narrator (a Lasdun surrogate: English writer living in America, famous architect father, balding) reconstructs the past from conversations with both Marco and Julia, weighing up various motivations, memories and character references in an attempt to attain some sort of clarity. The alleged