I would never have heard of Jocelyn Brooke’s “only true novel” if it hadn’t been for a fleeting mention (“unbelievably fabulous”) in The Midnight Bell in December 2007. There, Sean predicted “over the next couple of years … republication by C&R or NYRB Classics or someone.” Well, I have no idea what C&R is, and NYRB haven’t taken up the gauntlet, but Faber have, and several of Brooke’s books are now available in their unfortunately hideous Faber Finds print-on-demand series. I read it in a 1983 King Penguin edition, with a valuable introduction by Anthony Powell.
The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950) is a fascinating curiosity – and more than that – which blends seemingly incompatible elements (and brings to mind disparate authors, from Kafka to Cheever) in the creation of a unique fable.
At the beginning of the story, village bank clerk Reynard Langrish is feeling a sort of ennui, “an inexplicable dread … it was as though he were living in a glass bell,” and as he walks home from work, his only succour is the knowledge that he “belonged to this countryside, was united to it.” When he gets home, the usual quiet evening in with his mother is interrupted by a chance caller, whose arrival is described in messianic terms:
The light streamed out through the open doorway, [in] which stood the tall figure of a young man: framed in the narrow doorway, he seemed immense, larger than life – a visionary being conjured out of the night’s wildness.
This portentous visitation is Roy Archer, a young man who quickly befriends Reynard. He introduces him to “the life of the body” – a boxing club, physical activity, army training, challenges to Reynard’s mental stasis. It is here that we first see the unveiled homoeroticism which is threaded through the book, and by the time Roy teaches him bare-knuckle fighting (“the dimmed car lamps made a little world of brightness in the surrounding dark, a world in which their two naked bodies were the sole inhabitants”), it’s not so much an undertone as an overture, augmented by the innocent appearance, in 1940s meanings, of words like cock, spunk and queer.
It’s not just cause for ironically raised eyebrows. Roy initiates Reynard into a mysterious world, where he must join the Army to play his part in ‘the Emergency’. The state of affairs is never adequately explained to Reynard (“But is there a war on, sir, or what?” “A war? I’m afraid you’re rather simplifying the issue, aren’t you?”) and it is a world which seems to exist in the same fields and pathways as Reynard’s old world, but which runs parallel to it. In his first encounter with Roy, Reynard can hear the sound of bugles coming from “the mysterious region known as Clambercrown,” even though there is no army camp there. The whole English countryside, to which Reynard feels intimately connected (“his totem, the fox”) seems part of a conspiracy to confuse and disorient him.
Nothing in this high remote place seemed earthly or substantial: sound merged with sight, the blown grasses were an emanation of the wind itself, trees hung cloud-like above the horizon.
As Reynard pursues his secret assignations with Roy and the training camp, about which his mother and bank colleagues know nothing, their relations seem like an analogue of another kind of affair. “During his working-hours not a word escaped him as to his friendship with Roy; and when Roy himself paid one of his frequent visits to the bank, no slightest word or gesture on either side betrayed the close bond which united them. Reynard, indeed, adopted a brusque, almost discourteous tone towards Roy, and would sometimes silently criticise his friend for appearing too friendly.” Reynard’s desire for a different life seems to hint at a dreamed-of world – still decades away when the book was published – where men could publicly be more than just friends. It is raised again, in a touching scene where Reynard, having been forced to share sleeping quarters with a tramp, wakes to find that his companion has robbed him during the night.
The trust, even the affection, had been genuine; of this Reynard was still profoundly convinced; yet they had not been able to survive the night; dawn had brought corruption, the precocious flower had withered in the bud.
With this spoiled dream of more open sexuality, the book might almost, like Forster’s Maurice, be “dedicated to a happier year.” And dreams, or rather imagination, could account for much of what happens in The Image of a Drawn Sword. Roy is as likely to blank him in the street as he is to greet him like an old pal. Time seems to pass more quickly for others (“Funny how time goes”) than it does for Reynard: Roy climbs the greasy pole silently – Captain, Major, Colonel – in what seems to Reynard to be only a matter of weeks, while he is conscripted without warning. As Reynard battles the Army bureaucracy to find out what is going on (“That’s what we’d all like to know, mate”), it’s easy to see why the back cover of my edition applies the rank adjective Kafkaesque to the book. (What they really mean, I suppose, is Trialesque.) The more introspective he gets, the unhappier he becomes. Only when he accepts “the knowledge that the whole affair was … out of his hands” does he achieve “a curious, passive contentment.” That is not to prepare him for the heartstoppingly effective (if not entirely unforeseeable) ending, which is what moved The Image of a Drawn Sword up a rung for me, from curio to keeper.