Like many others, I ended up in London in the late 80s when I finished the Leaving Certificate. By day I worked for a plastering contractor called Rudy Blackhawk on a site close to Battersea Power Station. Rudy was black, married to a Connemara woman, and his workers were, if it needs to be said, almost all Irish. Rudy was adept at coping with their turbulent mood swings, ferry-acquired skills, and casual racism. The whole ’County Kilburn’ London-Irish scene felt like a jaded theme park, yet many nights I ended up there playing along. I can’t have had much time for reading, yet I seem to have read a lot: Hesse, Quine, Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Swift.
As was my habit at the time, my eye would alight on books that held promise of unlocking secrets of how the world works. Books described as ground-breaking or probing or uncompromising. At a bookstall at Camden market this blurb intrigued me: When the letter came, inviting Alexander to attend an unspecified course of instruction, he somehow felt oddly compelled to attend. From that moment on, his world changed, all of his certainties and logic called into question. The book was David Wheldon’s The Course of Instruction, and had been published only a year before. It was one of the few contemporary books I read at that time.
Alexander is not sure what to make of the invitation. The director at the lab where he works takes a glance at it and grants him permission to take time off work. Alexander travels to the specified small industrial town and soon finds the address: a heavily elegant, tall red-brick house. He cannot immediately locate anyone in charge, and runs up against incompetence and confusion and servants hustling for tips. After several pages of this, Alexander gets round to asking blunt questions: ‘Do you know anything about the course of instruction?’ He considers getting the next train back to the city, but then he imagines the embarrassment of explaining what has happened to his boss. And so he stays, getting further embroiled in speculations and prevarications. The atmosphere is far from foreboding: Alexander is at times sarcastic, rude to badly-dressed staff, gets impatient at incompetence, and yet dozens of pages into the novel he is still there, still trying to establish contact with the correct authority. I well recall a growing sense of eeriness, an intensifying feeling of being suffocated. As the saying goes, if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly turn up the heat, it will boil to death without jumping out. I wanted to shout, ‘Get out. Just leave.’
When in fact Alexander does just that, I had a palpable sense of relief. I also had an intimation that this novel was devious beyond my comprehension. Alexander goes into the town, enquires about cheap hotels, starts drinking with some business reps, gets drunk in a pub lock-in. And, with no clear decision being made, ends up back at the house again.
I wondered—rather ridiculously—if perhaps the author hadn’t had any intention of conveying horror, but that this was entirely my own misplaced reaction. Perhaps I was reading a novel different to the one the author had typed, although the words were identical.
On the next renovation I worked on, there was a plasterer from Vietnam. Building workers were generally English or Irish, with Polish and Russian counting as exotic. This Vietnamese man was such an anomaly he inevitably attracted a second glance. In the café—more accurately ‘the kaff’—at lunch break I asked him what religion he was. ‘Back in Vietnam I am Buddhist, but here—’ he indicated London all around him, ‘here I believe in nothing.’ He said the word with a peculiar vehemence.
There, in London, authenticity was something remote, to be sought out in the small fields of Tây Nguyên or Mayo and exploited for a very authentic novel. Wheldon’s fictions spoke to me: the elusive nature of identity that pervades all his characters and the surreal unspecified settings mapped more accurately to reality as I experienced it.
When I re-read The Course of Instruction two decades later I was impressed by the hallucinatory precision of the writing. Like the films of Tarkovsky, we encounter images and impressions that bear a dream-like latent significance. There is almost an over-precise awareness of the space around the characters, of muffled sounds, gestures that may or may not have significance.
The novel is full of off-kilter observations. One frail servant is depicted: ’Her voice hardly raised an echo from the glossy walls. “They can never leave the subject alone,” she said, mechanically, as though rapid speech might help her preserve her balance.’ An official is described: ’He took a pace towards Alexander but checked himself, as though he were a dog at the end of a running chain.’
The feeling of horror was much diminished. On a second reading I agreed with Alexander that it is impossible for him to return to his unexamined work life (‘the routine mode of a routine life with ambitions which were no longer worth while’). There is nothing horrific about the House, though it may represent a path of thought that is of no practical use.
A religious interpretation of the letter Alexander receives, which had not occurred to me before, now seemed blindingly obvious. Many receive the call, each has to interpret it in their own way, it can be ignored if you wish, and so on. The House might represent the contemplative life, and the letter a religious vocation, or whatever the correlate might be in a secular world.
I was struck by a surprising parallel with George Herbert’s ‘The Collar’. In the poem, Herbert—convincingly to the modern ear—argues that he is a free man and not a slave to his faith: ’Forsake thy cage, / Thy rope of sands, / Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee / Good cable, to enforce and draw, /And be thy law’. In an alternative reading of the novel, Alexander’s periodic appeals to common sense (‘Do you think I’m restrained in this house like a dog?’) are not isolated moments of clarity, but instead are empty bluster.
When I first read it I wasn’t aware of how the novel is laced through with existentialist concerns: engagement, authenticity, the ongoing creation of one’s self. Such concepts form a shared cultural background of much Central European fiction from the 1930s onward, and it would be wrong to suggest these writers were all reading their Sartre and Heidegger. If there is an overt philosophical alignment in Wheldon’s novel, it is rather to Wittgenstein. There is a preoccupation with interpretations of what has been written or said. The ability of language to communicate is constantly in doubt, characters launch into convoluted deliberations only to dismiss them as empty reasoning. The servants, he learns from an ally in the house, keep a phrase book for better communication with visitors. ‘Because they do speak the same language it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that they think in much the same way as ourselves.’
The Course of Instruction was Wheldon’s second novel, and some months after reading it I sought out his debut work, The Viaduct. A released prisoner, referred to as A except for two scenes where he is called Alexander, has nowhere to go and follows the disused railway track above the city. He is initially pursued: the authorities have drummed up some secondary charge to put him back in jail. A meets up with other travellers on the railway, and learns the customs and superstitions of this way of life. He joins up with a tall man who first took to the railway because his family was embarrassed about his epileptic fits. The tall man has a pathologically shy companion, who relates how there was a time when he was unable to speak to people for shyness, and used to observe them and imagine conversations. He too had his reasons for leaving his previous settled life. ‘The area was pointless, and its religion, and the way in which people lived. There was decency, but it was a decency born of cant.’
It’s a sort of Wizard of Oz for the existentially inclined, no disrespect to either book. It’s written in a stark confident prose that is at odds with the subtlety of the thoughts being conveyed. There is an immediacy to the characters, there is plot and tension, and yet they are not realistic in any conventional sense. To be precise, they are not familiar characters such as we meet every day. Reading the novel is like a close encounter with thinking creatures who are almost, but not quite, the same as ourselves, and in the process we come to realise how strange we are.
The story is immensely quotable and resists any single interpretation. The paucity of similar fiction, on such a serious level, leaves the reader grasping for comparable works: Beckett’s two tramps on their barren wasteland keep coming back to mind, Kafka’s castle, several fictions from Borges, some of Ishiguro’s novels.
There’s an amusing story about the similarity to Kafka. Wheldon swears he had never read a word of Kafka before writing the novel. He wrote it using a clunky ancient typewriter, which was a bit of a strain on his fingertips. To save effort, he typed A for Alexander, thinking that if it ever got published the full name could be inserted then. But as he wrote the text it developed a loose poetry of its own. The character began to inhabit his one-letter name. When the novel was finished Wheldon realised that substituting ‘Alexander’ would ruin the rhythm. Some early reviewers latched on to the K <> A parallel, and coupled with a perceived similarity in style, criticised the novel for being too obviously derivative.
There are overlaps with Wheldon’s concerns in The Course of Instruction: the extent to which our thoughts and mannerisms are borrowed from others, the instability of our self-image, a heightened awareness of how people can have fundamentally differing natures. The Viaduct is more fable-like and proceeds with greater speed. Both novels involve the protagonist moving to a place where established ways of thinking prove fragile. Both have an unspecified setting; architecture and some customs are recognisably English, but there is no mention of place names.
It would be hard to argue that Wheldon’s novels were under-appreciated when they first appeared. The Viaduct won the Triple First Award and attracted praise from Graham Greene and William Trevor. Both received glowing reviews in major newspapers and were also published in the USA. And yet an internet search throws up almost no references to Wheldon’s fiction. Google ‘David Wheldon’ and you will come across discussions of The Wheldon Protocol for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. It’s the same person, though it takes some online detective work to verify this. Wheldon is a medical doctor who specialises in infections of the central nervous system, and has recently retired. He continues to write, and has published two more novels, A Vocation and At the Quay, and several books of poetry, as well as numerous uncollected short stories.
Interest in Wheldon’s work has revived recently. Confingo magazine is publishing several of his stories sequentially, and his fictions will also appear in Nightjar Press and Woven Tale Press.