January 31, 2011

Adam Mars-Jones Interview

Posted in Interviews, Mars-Jones Adam at 8:00 am by John Self

Adam Mars-Jones is one of those writers who remains, to me, frustratingly underappreciated, despite his profile as the Observer’s fiction critic, or a man who “reviews anything not nailed down.” He has no one to blame but himself. In 1983 and again in 1993, he was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, despite not having yet produced a novel. And the fifteen years that passed between his first novel The Waters of Thirst, and his second, Pilcrow, can’t have helped. Still, he has now seen the error of his ways and is publishing fiction regularly: a four-part meganovel about a disabled man who tells us everything in exquisite and excruciating detail. Oh. The second part, Cedilla, was released earlier this month and has been welcomed with giddy enthusiasm. While we await volume three, I took the opportunity to ask Adam Mars-Jones some questions about the Cromer chronicles and his work generally.

Can you tell us something about the writing process of Cedilla? Was it substantially written before Pilcrow was published? When will John Cromer’s story be complete?

The two books weren’t separate projects. Yes, it was mainly written by the time Pilcrow was published (in fact by the time Pilcrow was offered to Faber). I submitted a readable draft in May 2009, and a final one at the beginning of December that year, for publication in August/September 2010, though that didn’t happen. There was plenty of fine-tuning to do, to make sure that there was enough balance / symmetry between the volumes while also respecting the creeping onward flow of events.

Cedilla is a very large novel – or part of a very larger novel. How did this masterpiece of contrasts in scale (or ‘coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars’) find its form? Do you worry about carrying the reader along with you on such a long and detailed journey? Or to put it another way, were there any moments during the writing when you thought, “What I’m doing is mad!”?

The whole thing is clearly mad. I only realised how mad when I started editing material together to show Faber (2006?). If it had been in notebooks I would already have had a physical sense of how big it was growing, but in computer files its bulk was digitised away. It was only at that late stage that I realised that it couldn’t be a single volume.

I have to say I enjoy the disproportion between the littleness of the hero and the great size of the books that contain his epic of helplessness. It seems both strikingly wrong and strikingly right.

As for the form, Angela Carter used to tell students that they should plunge right in — not start with something about “So it was that on that November night I climbed the green stairs that would become so familiar to me. . .” but to get on with the scene you want to write. Good advice in general, but with this narrator the story was how he got to the room in the first place (not something to be taken for granted). Doors close against him, and can’t easily be opened. This was a life lived without short cuts and there could be no short cuts in the telling.

If you’re physically disabled as my narrator is then you have very little control over space, and it follows that you are at the mercy of time. The pace of the narrative needed to slow down correspondingly, with the hope that its extreme continuousness would become mesmerising rather than simply oppressive. It may be that there are readers who are put off by something that seems so very downbeat, but it was important to me not to serve this life up on a plate for consumption. A certain amount of surrender is called for! This person’s existence is multiply marginal — but not to him…

The prejudices that the modern liberal reader is likely to hold against John Cromer are not his disability, homosexuality, or vegetarianism, but his championing of homœopathy and religious faith (and perhaps his pedantry too). To what extent are you trying to balance the reader’s engagement with John Cromer with their distance from him?

Ideally the relationship between reader and narrator should be dynamic, plastic, fluid (after all, if that aspect doesn’t work, there’s not a lot else going on!). I can’t plot in detail the vagaries of this rapport — all I can hope to do is set up a force-field of potential charges, both seductive and antipathetic.

I don’t much mind what people reflexively hold against John — for instance gay readers normally want a bit more wish-fulfilment than they’re offered in these books! Paradoxically my great advantage here is that he is almost equally far removed from any possible reader, so that there is a real prospect of the free play of sympathy. A rabidly atheistic homophobe whose father is in a wheelchair (supposing such a person could touch the book without getting a rash) might conceivably have a global reaction to the book that was relatively similar to that of the modern liberal reader you hypothesise without coinciding at any single point.

I don’t particularly believe in homœopathy (thanks for preserving the digraph, by the way) but I wouldn’t want to be without my Arnica cream when there’s a bruise going on. And I do try to suggest that a major part of the character’s fascination with the system is its granting of power to the very small and insignificant. John has a similar fascination in the book with radioactive particles…

John’s religion gives him a feeling of connectedness, the sense that he’s part of the world despite appearances. That seems psychologically healthy. Hinduism too, the tradition that attracts him, regards pain as neither punishment nor sacrifice but unreal. Also healthy, I would think, since he must go through so much of it.

As for pedantry — again it’s the control of the very small exercised by someone with no possible grip on the large or even medium-sized. It’s not unique to John, by a long chalk, to have more power over words and their usage than of the things words claim to refer to.

One of the appeals of Cedilla is its verisimilitude, with almost-appearances by real people (Jon Pertwee, Tom Stoppard, poor Michael Aspel) and obscure real books on gardening and homœopathy, which goes beyond the usual 60s and 70s cultural reference hot-buttons. Was there much research involved in John Cromer’s story, given, for example, that you too were a student at Cambridge in the 1970s?

The past is a different country, but increasingly they seem to do things much the same there, don’t you think? It’s more fun to stake out your own province of the past. Some of my attempts at research were thwarted, anyway. I tried to get access to the JCR (Junior Common Room) Suggestion Books of Downing College, Cambridge in the 1970s — since nothing could be more informative about the real life of students at the time, behind the stereotypes. It turned out that thanks to Freedom of Information legislation the best I could hope for was an expensive transcript with all the names painstakingly crossed out, and that didn’t seem worth the trouble.

Illness seems to be an unavoidable topic for you in your fiction: rabies, AIDS, kidney disease, Still’s Disease. Is this coincidental, or a useful analogy or metaphor, or something else?

There’s a lot of it about. But yes, it’s a useful reminder that the body is something we forget about (to a certain extent) while it’s doing what we think it’s supposed to, until we’re reminded in some unwelcome way. Nothing rebukes our fantasies, i.e. our daily mental life, like the non-coöperation of the body. An illness is a sort of narrative opposed to the one we usually tell.

Seasoned Mars-Jones watchers for a long time awaited the publication of Hypo Vanilla, which appeared and vanished and vanished and appeared through Faber catalogues during the mid-1990s (and is now listed on Amazon as published in June 2007 and “currently unavailable”). Did this mythical work really exist, and will it ever emerge?

Blame the Internet. There have always been books that were announced and never came about, but it’s only now that the mythical object is acclaimed as real by your average search engine, having no ability to distinguish between an existing artefact and a node of references, and then picked up by others of its kind. Alasdair Gray has written about the high theoretical price fetched on one website of his Book of Prefaces, which had never been published (though he has since brought that beauty to birth). Hypo Vanilla was a planned pair of novellas, one daringly called Hypo and the other called Vanilla, which didn’t seem to want to get written. I finished a draft of Vanilla but haven’t looked at it since, while I got more simply stuck on Hypo. After the Pilcrow saga is all done, I might resurrect them with a third novella to round off a pleasing volume.

It seems astonishing that I could get away with having a book announced, as you say, more than once in a publisher’s catalogue without my editor at Faber (Robert McCrum at the time) getting tough and demanding at least to have a look at what I was doing. I hope he doesn’t feel I abused his indulgence.

McCrum coped admirably in the early 90s when Faber had announced a novel (I won’t mention the name for fear of it turning up on Amazon), had commissioned a cover and asked me for a blurb, all without seeing the thing. At the last moment I told him that the project had stalled, but that I was working on something else which might fill the gap (the gap I had made). I wrote The Waters Of Thirst in a couple of months and he put his weight behind that, new cover, new blurb and all, as if this was standard business practice.

Perhaps it is my punishment for such misbehaviour to be haunted by Hypo Vanilla. Recently I had to make more than one plea to the British Council to delete its reference to the “book” on the Contemporary Writers website. Why did a supposedly authoritative resource produced by a publicly funded body get it wrong, when Wikipedia didn’t? Good question. The Internet is full of surprises.

I see I’ve dodged the question in paragraph 1 about how much further there is to go with the Pilcrow saga. Two more books taking the character up to the mid- to late-90s, I think. The reference in Cedilla to Mallory’s body never having been found ties me to that, unless I fudge it of course, by having him miss the paper on the day the discovery was reported or giving him a convenient stay in hospital…

was dedicated to “the memory of the Net Book Agreement, unglamorous defender of my trade.” What effects have you noticed, as a novelist and critic, as a result of its demise?

Of course it’s unrealistic to imagine that the NBA could have survived into the age of the Internet, but I don’t see that the ability of supermarkets to discount bestsellers has done anything but harm to a literary culture that has always seemed precarious. Self-publishing on demand seems to work for some people. I don’t have that much self-belief. The régime of semi-dysfunctional nurturing at Fabers has suited me perfectly. Whenever I grumble that I can’t earn a living from fiction as I near my 30th anniversary in print (and I can hardly say I’ve had a rough ride), and that Fabers don’t launch rockets to carve the titles of my books on the moon, I remind myself that no sensible publisher would have let me go so very much my own way.

Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?

Absolutely. I thought Enid Bagnold’s Autobiography, published in 1969, which I picked up from a shelf in Charing Cross Road a few years ago with no great expectations, was astonishing. That very mumsy name disguises an uncompromising sensibility. Maybe the book fell a bit flat on publication because people weren’t expecting an old woman to avail herself of the ’60s freedoms (she decides to explore family history on the basis that “sperm had been shot across two centuries to arrive at me”). She puts in a mention of the face-lift she had in her 70s, to amuse her grandchildren, who she speculates would live in a socialist state where such things were illegal, or a world in which they would be the only toilette for a woman after 30.

Since then I’ve read at least one first-rate novel by her (The Loved and Envied), though one that is hard to read in its grain these days, as a profound study of a range of asymmetrical relationships, because so many of the characters are stinking rich (or at least pretty whiffy). The Donmar production of The Chalk Garden convinced me that as a comedy it’s the equal of The Importance of Being Earnest, though with a lot more in the way of human interest. A later play, The Chinese Prime Minister, which she thought the better piece, was intended to be an argument for the joys of old age until wicked Edith Evans got hold of it and squeezed out of it all the pathos that wasn’t meant to be there. Perhaps the Donmar could get their teeth into that. . .

Two Irish classics: The Real Charlotte (1894) by Somerville and Ross is a rather acrid tragedy written by a pair of women (a couple, even) better known for the comedy of The Irish R.M. I can see how you can collaborate on a comedy (just top each other’s jokes), but on a tragedy? It’s a mystery. Their control of point of view is extraordinary, so that we gradually become aware of how much of her personality the heroine keeps hidden. “Heroine” seems the wrong word for someone so destructive, but sympathy holds for this un-gentle, uncongenial woman, seething with rage and desire, in a society that has only the most demeaning uses for such people.

And The March Hare by Terence de Vere White (1970), describing Dublin life of a slightly later period, with a lighter touch but no less penetration.  Holding the 1973 Penguin is a historical exercise in its own right, a flashback to the time when a book could be confidently and successfully published with no quotations from reviews, no puffs from other authors and no reference to prizes or short-lists, simply with the description “waspish Irish story-telling at its best.” The time of the NBA, yes, but so much else has changed since then. . .

January 27, 2011

Linda Grant: We Had It So Good

Posted in Grant Linda at 8:00 am by John Self

Linda Grant was the surprise of the Booker 2008 season for me: her novel The Clothes on their Backs was the best on the shortlist and, in my opinion, should have won. Inevitably, then, I wanted to read her new book.

We Had It So Good is a book of contrasts: England and America; parents and children; reason and emotion; the past and the future; stability and chaos. The elements are combined beguilingly. Stephen and Andrea Newman came of age in the 1960s and lived a life both strikingly individual and typical of the postwar generation. Stephen is American, the son of a Californian fur trader to the stars; tantalisingly close to glamorous fame but held at one remove from it (“they had assistants bring in the coats, the heat of the stars’ bodies still trapped in the linings”). Stephen dodges the Vietnam draft by moving to England, accompanied by a fellow Oxford Rhodes scholar destined to become much more famous. Coming from a young country where “if you peeled off the layers of the present you would find only more present,” he finds that in England, “history’s insistence on not getting out of the way was depressing.” So the present and future is what enthralls him, particularly when he meets redheaded Andrea and her friend Grace. He marries the former, while Grace will become an emblem of opposition (“Fuck this fucking country”), the obverse to Stephen and Andrea’s increasingly conventional marriage, seemingly idyllic and settled, but also built of constraint and compromise.

Their story is being told by Stephen and Andrea to their children Marianne and Max (the names seemingly chosen to emphasise their firm middle-class status). But when Marianne tells her brother that “you cannot rely on them for the truth. Parents, by definition, are liars,” we have some sympathy with her. Stephen’s account of the 1960s and 70s seems to veer too close to media shorthand rather than the particularity of lived experience: bare-breasted hippies, patchouli oil, bell-bottoms and cheesecloth shirts, loon pants and joss sticks. Is he really telling his children – and us – what he remembers?

Stephen and Andrea – and the rest of their generation – are not just parents but children too, and the strongest sections of the book are cross-generational exchanges. Stephen travels to eastern Europe with his elderly father; Grace has a particularly chilly encounter with her father which will indelibly mark her; Andrea must come to terms with the notion that people, even parents, can hold two contradictory impulses in their heads:

Once, Andrea overheard her mother say to the housekeeper, ‘If I had my time over again, I wouldn’t have had children. I’d have been fancy free.’” [Then,] seeing her standing by the door, said, ‘Don’t listen to me, Andy Pandy. I wouldn’t give you up for anything.’

This feeds into Andrea’s adult occupation of therapist, charged with “teaching her clients (particularly the women) that they were not responsible for the actions of other people.” Women “had no sense that they deserved to put themselves first and foremost.” And why should they, when Grace, the woman who does do that – “I’m in that room and no one has the address. However hard they look, they’ll never find me” – ends up suffering so? Meanwhile, as maturity and family take hold of Andrea and Stephen, they settle down for the long littleness of life: “Stephen can’t think of much to say about it. It was a period of growth followed by satisfactory consolidation.”

Yet in this “blur of middle age and child rearing,” there is much surprise and detail. Deafness, war, illusions; modern history, unexpected illness, the dismantling of a life. The details – on advertising, for example – sometimes look like research infodumps, but are elsewhere well assimilated and bring life to the characters (and the characters to life). Stephen, in an inspired sequence of scenes, uses Google to find out what has happened to people featured in the early sections of the book – and this adds a coat of entitlement to his characterisation, for who else but this easy-achieving generation would presume their old university pals had risen far enough in the world to be picked up easily by search engines 30 years on?

In the end, their high achievements mask their uneasy knowledge that their way in life was made easier by the sacrifices of their parents’ generation in war and depression. “We’ve had it made.” That, too, is the debt of every generation, and of any child to its parents. I said earlier that We Had It So Good is a book of contrasts, and it is also a book of two halves, where perhaps inevitably, the interest level rises considerably when things start going wrong for the golden couple in the second half. Neither successful and interesting careers, nor lucky buoyancy on a rising tide of house prices, can ultimately shield them when it’s their time to experience “the usual ineffable sadness of merely living.”

January 20, 2011

Adam Mars-Jones: Cedilla

Posted in Mars-Jones Adam at 8:00 am by John Self

Adam Mars-Jones’ last novel Pilcrow was one of the curiosities of 2008. I was impressed by the writing but befuddled by the overall conceit – a book of fictional minutiae which was seemingly endless (in both senses). However it matured in my memory sufficiently that it became one of my favourite books of that year, and I began eagerly to await the sequel. Three years later, here it is.

Cedilla begins with an advantage over Pilcrow. Back then, we were in the dark. Now we know that this is a multi-part story, that John Cromer is here for the long haul. And long is the operative word: Cedilla’s 733 pages dwarf Pilcrow’s 525, and apparently with these two volumes we are only halfway through Cromer’s tale. This knowledge is important (of which more anon), but it also makes it worthwhile for me to make a rare reference to the blurb of a book. How do you get a reader not only to read 1,250 pages of tightly-written prose with not an awful lot of dialogue or ‘action’, but to look forward to the next 1,250? The answer in this case is charm: Mars-Jones starts his charm offensive on the inside flap, with a beautifully judged blurb. After a brief overture, we get a refrain of the line from the blurb of Pilcrow: “John Cromer is the weakest hero in literature – unless he’s one of the strongest.” It’s hard to overstate how much this simple reiteration pleased me, and drove me into the book with the rare feeling that the text, and not just the reading experience, had begun before I’d even reached the first page. The charm continues further down the blurb, with the very Mars-Jones observation that, “None of the reviews of Pilcrow explicitly compared it to a coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars, but that was the drift of opinion.”

Charm is how John Cromer gets his way too. He needs other people’s help, being so limited in his abilities. In Pilcrow we learned how he was treated for childhood Still’s Disease in precisely the wrong way, leaving him with fused joints and unable to walk, not to mention, at four feet nine inches, “just a little taller than Edith Piaf. She was the lady on the radio who had no regrets [...], but wouldn’t she have wanted to be a tiny bit taller?” He gets his way too with pedantic attention to the symbols of language (so he writes coördination and homœopathy) and revels in medical words (“there’s nothing like a technical vocabulary for conferring the illusion of control”). John’s control over facts has to stand in place of his control over events. He is marginalised by doctors (though perhaps no more than any patient in the deferential 1960s):

Luckily my [bones] didn’t hurt. I thought they did, but I was wrong. One of Ansell’s deputies explained that since the knee joint was fully fused and had no moving parts, there could be no pain. In those days it was up to the doctor to decide whether the patient was in pain or not.

Other than occasional bursts into Technicolor life (such as the excruciating description of the pain after his hip operations), John’s wry tone is more or less consistent throughout. This presents certain challenges for a book which is already a masterpiece of contrasts in scale: epic in length, trivial in particulars, a life both exceptional and unexceptional, described in paragraphs fat on detail but rich in entertainment. To criticise it in all its extravagant tedium is almost futile: it is what it is. “Getting into the room is the scene,” said Mars-Jones in an interview on Pilcrow: John’s is “a life without shortcuts.” This slowness, this step-by-step approach are important because they reflect the character’s difficulty in the ordinary business of life. Despite his belief in his own charm, John’s determination to live a close to normal life on his own terms means others can find him “difficult to deal with. Impossible to satisfy.”

He quietly rebels against the assumption that he must sit in his Tan-Sad quietly and wait to die. His life continues to take place in a series of institutions: school, hospital, ultimately Cambridge University. However, if Pilcrow saw him largely static and subject to others’ well-meaning whims, Cedilla is an account of his struggles toward independence. “If I let the waters of home close over my head I would never be heard from again. No door would close behind me with any finality, but no new door would open ever.” He struggles to match his own desire to be a part of the world (even at the edge of it) with the restrictions society places on him.

A foul mouth isn’t ladylike, and it isn’t disabledlike either. [...] Swearing is dirty, and we’re above it. That may be the mechanism. Swearing is powerful. We’re not entitled. Perhaps the two notions converge in some way I don’t see.

Being of limited ability to make physical journeys, John embarks on spiritual travels instead. After developing form of “home-grown meditation” (“instead of the pain going away, I went away from the pain”), he proceeds to explore eastern faiths, even seeking a guru of his own, thousands of miles away. “The text changes your life not by virtue of being true but because you are ready for the transformation it announces.” For someone with John’s difficulties, becoming part of a religious tradition which regards pain as unreal is a perfectly logical response. It also provides him with a label with which to identify himself, a better one than that assigned to him by circumstances. “Special treatment was exactly what I didn’t want, not noticing that it can sometimes be the product of ordinary kindness.” When he goes to university, the pleasure of “fairytale privileges,” such as a lock on his door, bolsters his sense of independence, which comes to an affecting climax at the end of the book.

Cedilla, like Pilcrow, is often funny about John’s disability without belittling it. One comic highlight is a scene involving Astral Weeks, a Mars bar, and “the signed confession of my self-abuse.” He does his damnedest to explore his sexuality, and offers false modesty on his lack of descriptive powers: “Why should I sift through the various individuating traits to convey a vivid impression when all anyone needs to say to pick me out, apparently, is ‘John’ and then, ‘You know, John in a wheelchair.’” Nor is he wholly sympathetic, being a terrible snob, though at least self-aware about it:

We watched [ITV] ‘just to see how awful it is’, to be amazed at what lower people found entertaining. Our pleasures lay some distance from our principles, and often the things we said we liked did nothing for us.

One of the most appealing qualities of Cedilla is its verisimilitude – at times it feels as though the book should have an index – which Mars-Jones achieves by dedicated reference to unexpected but realistic details. As well as obscure but real books on homœopathy and gardening, there are comic subplots about celebrities local to John’s home town of Bourne End: John’s mother becomes practically housebound for fear of bumping into the intimidatingly clever Tom Stoppard, while Michael Aspel runs other drivers off the road like a televisual Mr Toad. (No ‘I ♥ the 1970s’ clichés here, though Dymotape does make a late appearance.) These give the invented people and events which are tied in with them almost too much reality.

In everything I have written so far, I have dealt with only a scattering of details from Cedilla. It is a mammoth volume: part of an even greater one. The whole undertaking must lie somewhere between brilliance and madness. Its length inevitably becomes part of what the book is about. It is necessary to overlook this to get the most from it, otherwise the unvarying tone and foreknowledge of no ending – just a stopping – will wreck it. The way to approach it therefore is to imagine each section to be part of a very slim book which must be savoured; as a mountaineer dividing the ascent into single steps. Indeed, as one goes smaller and smaller in scale until reading it from page to page, then line to line – imagine! – the standard of writing comes into its own. Each sentence is a small jewel of exquisite design; a tiny Crunchie bar. Sympathetic, funny, heartfelt, true. When read this way, one would be happy for the book to go on forever – which is just as well, really.

January 13, 2011

Hans Keilson: Comedy in a Minor Key

Posted in Keilson Hans at 8:00 am by John Self

Hans Keilson first came to my attention last year (and I expect I am not alone) when Francine Prose reviewed this book and another reissue in the New York Times with the following splendidly declarative opening paragraph: “For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: ‘The Death of the Adversary’ and ‘Comedy in a Minor Key’ are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.” (But what an insult to the children of Twitter! Everyone knows it’s the last paragraph we skim.)

Comedy in a Minor Key (1947, tr. 2010 by Damion Searls) is published in the UK by Hesperus Press. They specialise in novella-length books (this one is 106 pages long), and I am a little ashamed to admit that although I’ve accumulated several of their titles, I’ve never read them until now. (Admit it: their designs just aren’t as fine as those of Melville House or Pushkin Press.)

It opens with a perspective unusual to British readers: scenes of Dutch householders hearing air raids by Allied forces during the second world war.

The first shots of the night – dull, thudding pops – were in curious contrast to the fine, almost musical sound of the airplanes. The windowpanes and doors shook and rattled, and the whole house, too lightly built, answered the explosions with a delicate, quick shudder. The beginning was always exciting, no matter how many times a person had already lived through it.

The conflict this describes – dread versus excitement – is maintained thematically through the book. The story deals with a serious topic – citizens risking their lives by harbouring Jews in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands – but handles it with lightness. The title says it all. The timeline shifts between past and present, from our heroes Wim and Maria’s experiences in taking in Nico, to their farcical actions in trying safely to dispose of his body when he dies unexpectedly.

The psychology of the characters is deftly done, though Keilson’s tendency to explain everything makes the book feel like a lighter read than it is. Jop, the resistance activist who persuades Wim to take Nico in, asks him if he has ever considered his “patriotic duty.” “The concept, which had never made the slightest impression on Wim before, much less been able to move him toward any action, sounded new and full of meaning, now that the Netherlands had been conquered and occupied.” His wife, Maria, however, hesitates to agree as readily as Wim. “It was in her nature to make all her objections up front, at the start. This made her a bit slow to take action, but it saved her from all sorts of reproachments and resentments after the fact.” And, he might have added, solidified her decision once made.

Nico, the stowaway, is rich and real too. What, he wonders, does it mean to have his life saved, if his life is reduced to one room? “The landscape, the sky, the distant sea, was not always a consolation, a balm to soothe the eye. Often, too often, it was a door that stayed closed.” When he arrives with Wim and Maria, “he would happily have taken a place on a pile of coal in a barn and been satisfied.” But the more he has, the better he is treated, the harder to please he becomes, and the more distant gratitude seems. There is comedy in the darkness and darkness in the comedy, so that at times it is hard to tell which is which. At its best, these moments double as efficient character sketches, as in this sole appearance by Leo, a teacher cum photographer who does a sideline in cutting Nico’s hair:

‘I only do one kind of cut,’ he said, eagerly rubbing his hands together. ‘I hope you like it. And if the esteemed client wishes to continue  to make use of my services after the war…’

This sort of neat character summary in a line or two is surely what led Prose to her high praise: many longer-winded novelists could learn from this. If fiction can be described on one spectrum as ranging from the “full of blah” (you know the sort of thing I mean) to “entirely devoid of blah,” then Comedy in a Minor Key, quietly and without triumphalism, presses itself firmly to the latter end.

January 6, 2011

Barbara Comyns: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Posted in Comyns Barbara at 8:00 am by John Self

A chance encounter with Dorothy, a publishing project (probably via the ever-distracting Twitter) led me to this book. It is beautifully published by them, in a squarish format and waxy cover. Comyns has another title reissued through NYRB Classics, and another available from Virago in the UK where she lived and worked. This piecemeal availability (rather like Patrick Hamilton’s) will have to do, though Comyns deserves better: the book reminds me of other English originals such as Muriel Spark or Penelope Fitzgerald. Like theirs, Comyns’ novel is a curious work which does not explain itself, and teases the reader between comedy and darkness.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954) takes its striking title from Longfellow’s ‘The Fire of Drift-Wood’:

We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;

Like the poem, the novel concerns itself with recounting the past: “Summer about seventy years ago” is the setting. At the beginning is a flood: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.” The windows belong to Grandmother Willoweed, formidable matriarch of both her family and her Warwickshire village, more or less of the landed gentry but not always ladylike (“What do you think I pay you for, you insubordinate slut?” she rebukes one of her maids). Dependent on her are her son Ebin and his children Emma, Hattie and Dennis.

The realisation that we are in for a surprising journey comes early, when as a result of the flood “the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below. [...] For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared.” This detail is more significant than it appears. By comically giving human attributes to birds, Comyns also pre-warns us that the people in her book will be no more dignified or impressive than animals for their supposed higher status. Certainly she is not lenient on her human characters. Ebin Willoweed, emasculated by his mother, feels so much “a failure in everything he undertook” that he is depressed by the mere sight of the full river “flowing with such purpose and determination.” With money worries and family fears, “sometimes in the night he thought about the future quite a lot.”

Who, the reader wonders, is the real tyrant here? Grandmother Willoweed, or her creator? When her anti-heroine licks her lips to tell her granddaughter a brutal story, Comyns lets us know (those animal qualities again) that Grandmother Willoweed has literally a forked tongue.

She put her glass down on the sideboard and said, “Doctor Hatt was called away in the middle of my whist drive. His wife was worse – her nose was bleeding.” She filled her glass from the decanter and gave Emma a strange glance.

“Well, people’s noses are always bleeding. You are supposed to put a large key down their back.” [...]

Grandmother Willoweed took a sip of port, and looked with her lizard-like eyes over her glass.

“Well, my dear, a key wouldn’t have been much use in this case; this was a peculiar kind of nosebleed. It went on and on until the bed became filled with blood – at least that is what I heard – it went on and on and the mattress was soaked and the floor became crimson; it went on and on until Mrs Hatt died.”

Grandmother Willoweed is teasing her listener just as Comyns does with the reader; the truth or otherwise of what she says is neither here nor there. We are all engaged in this process of storytelling together. What Mrs Hatt suffers is nothing to what is yet to come for other villagers: they will follow the hens and the doctor’s wife to a liquid death.

In a book where everything seems to have double meanings, Grandmother Willoweed is mocked as well as feared. Her refusal to cross any land she doesn’t own means she must attend Mrs Hatt’s funeral by sailing down the river on a barge, looking simultaneously like the guest of honour and figure of fun. Unable to hear the villagers’ jeers from the shore, she “thought [they] were paying her homage, and bowed gravely.” Later, a delivery of small loaves of rye bread to every villager is to be as ominous as the chapatis in The Siege of Krishnapur. “Then the shouting started, that appalling shouting started…”

If all this doesn’t persuade you of the merits of this eccentric, charming, ambiguous little gem, then recognise the mark of honour that Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was banned in Ireland on its publication. Perhaps they were fearful of the suicidal chickens exerting a malign influence on Ireland’s own poultry and domestic fowl.


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