June 25, 2009
Rex Warner: The Aerodrome
When Vintage Books relaunched their previously elegant Classics line a couple of years ago, they adopted the asinine branding practice of replacing the author’s forename on the cover with the word Vintage. Irritating yes, but also baffling when applied to writers who aren’t household (sur)names, such as Rex Warner. The Aerodrome was one of the first titles they issued in the new design, which by some form of logic I presumed that meant they thought it was one of the very best. Certainly it has its followers: Anthony Burgess named it as one of the 99 best novels written between 1939 and 1984.
The Aerodrome (1941) is subtitled A Love Story, though if one had to define it, sci-fi and dystopia would come to mind sooner. It’s set in a parallel England in the mid-20th century, where the war is not between the Nazis and the British but is internal, between order and chaos. It’s a singular book, an odd one, and about the best I can say for it is that I’m glad I read it because now I don’t need to wonder what it’s like any more.
Few, I think, would suggest that The Aerodrome is elegantly written. The first quarter of the book features three dramatic developments, each dispatched about as implausibly as could be: if you’ve had enough of master criminals detailing their plans by soliloquy, how about Warner’s variation, where a rector delivers a twelve-page murder confession to God, handily in earshot of his wife and adopted son? (Later, another character expires while making a deathbed revelation.) Aside from this carefree approach to credibility, there is sheer clumsiness (“I had been taking things very much too much for granted”) and a muddy willingness to use one sentence where two or three would be more welcome:
It was not until the end of the meal that there was made to me by those whom, up to now, I had assumed to be my parents a disclosure important enough to unsettle the whole basis of my thoughts and feelings; and it was the Flight-Lieutenant who, more than any other of those present, had seemed to understand how important to me this disclosure was, even though all his views on the subject were, I could see at once, wholly different from my own.
Nonetheless there is a canniness at work, as Warner confounds the reader’s expectations by introducing us to a seemingly typical English village, and only later making references to the aerodrome which will take over the villagers’ lives, with its “large hangars at the top of the hill curved in a way so like the natural roundness of this land, and yet in its perfect regularity so unlike.” There is a wonderful scene where the Air Vice-Marshal of the air force behaves abominably at a funeral, but the narrator, Roy, nonetheless joins the air force largely as a replacement for the security he has lost with the death of his father.
Yet it remains a curious and uneven book, where the muddy prose tends to block out any sense of development, and then the narrator Roy switches allegiances with head-spinning speed. The only evidence we have for Roy’s sudden conversion to the cause of the aerodrome are the rambling rants by the Air Vice-Marshal, who claims the air force and its cleanliness and purity as an evolutionary step ahead of the village it seeks to occupy and correct:
Please put [your parents and your homes] out of your minds directly. For good or evil you are yourselves, poised for a brief and dazzling flash of time between two annihilations. Reflect, please, that “parenthood”, “ownership”, “locality” are the words of those who stick in the mud of the past to form the fresh deposit of the future. And so is “marriage”. Those words are without wings. I do not care to hear an airman use them.
The threat from the aerodrome remains undefined, bar one or two shocking incidents. This nebulous sense of peril is apt enough – the reader can read into it at will – but it also feels like a lack of nerve on Warner’s part. He claims Kafka as an influence (a common claim: who doesn’t?) but, as Michael Moorcock points out in his introduction, there’s not much evidence of this in The Aerodrome. The analogy of the story is with fascism: the sloppy, deceptive, incestuous village is to be preferred to the clinical, orderly, dictatorial aerodrome, “designed to stifle life which, however misused, was richer in everything but determination.”
Moorcock’s introduction – more interesting to me than the novel itself – emphasises that The Aerodrome is “very evidently a novel of ideas” (though I’m not sure where he gets the plural from), and if that means there is not much consideration given to characters or story, then he’s got that spot on. There are plot points set up to engage the reader, and they are resolved, but the impression given is that Warner didn’t set much store by them, that they are little more than bait. I was put in mind of the fascinatingly sterile novels of J.G. Ballard – by no coincidence a Warner fan, according to the back cover of this edition. It has that same sense of promise, originality, frustration and disappointment. Moorcock also describes The Aerodrome as “Warner’s masterpiece” – bloody hell, are you sure? Not so much Vintage Warner, then, as Corked.