Balchin Nigel

Roundup: Nigel Balchin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Gerard Woodward

I read – consecutively – three books recently which didn’t thrill me enough to devote a whole post to each, but I wanted to cover them briefly nonetheless.

Nigel Balchin: The Small Back Room

Nigel Balchin: The Small Back Room
The Small Back Room
(1943) is best known as the source of a film by the great Powell & Pressburger, though one of their minor works. I picked up a cheap copy of the recently reissued (and even more recently remaindered) Cassell Military Paperbacks edition, the cover of which is less handsome than that shown above. It is not as good in my opinion as Darkness Falls from the Air, which I enjoyed last year. The narrator, Sammy Rice, has the same sort of brittle wit as Bill Sarratt in Darkness, and there’s a cracking opening line:

In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.

What’s interesting is that this is rarely mentioned in the rest of the book, other than an occasional reference to Sammy’s limping gait. Similarly, his alcoholism, a major thread in the film (there is an – unintentionally, I think – hilarious visual metaphor of him being crushed against the wall by a giant whisky bottle), is only explicitly addressed once or twice. This is thoroughly admirable, as someone with ongoing problems doesn’t necessarily dwell on them all the time, though it did leave the book with a lopsided feel for those, like me, who saw the film first.

The content of the book is mostly Sammy’s struggles with the bureaucracy of the government department he works for, developing scientific ideas which might help in the war effort. There’s a good deal of office politics and the trouble with politicians (as there was in Darkness). This has the ambiguous effect of faithfully representing the nausea-inducing boredom of committees, demarcation and internal power struggles while being occasionally boring itself.

The book ends with a tense bomb-defusing scene, which is less tense than the filmed version, and the story thereafter sort of peters out. The thing that The Small Back Room brought home to me is that, while a book composed mainly of dialogue might seem an easy option, it can actually make for a tougher read than a more narrative novel. Balchin does well to progress the story largely through dialogue, but the end result is only moderately interesting.

Sleepless Nights

Elizabeth Hardwick: Sleepless Nights
I bought Sleepless Nights some time ago after seeing it recommended by Colm Tóibín in one of those end-of-year roundups. It’s a quite singular book in that I ‘enjoyed’ it hardly at all, yet think it so fascinating and full of good things that it should be more widely known. First published in 1979, it’s not hard to see why it had fallen out of print until NYRB Classics reissued it: it’s a difficult book, and a tricky one too which by its brevity leads the reader to expect plain sailing. (In fact it reads something like a 300-page book compressed to 128 pages.) Difficulty, in this context, means nothing more than that the reader should pay attention – hardly an arduous challenge – but also that we should admit there may be structure in apparent chaos (and not be too hung up if we can’t find it). The prose, certainly, is beautiful:

More or less settled in this handsome house. Flowered curtains made to measure, rugs cut for the stairs, bookshelves, wood for the fireplace. Climbing up and down the four floors gives you a sense of ownership – perhaps. It may be yours, but the house, the furniture, strain toward the universal and it will soon read like a stage direction: Setting—Boston. The law will be obeyed. Chests, tables, dishes, domestic habits fall into line.

Sleepless Nights is a book of “transformed and even distorted memory”: but “if only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.” What the narrator does remember is a series of splinters from a life, often very like the life of Elizabeth Hardwick (whose name she shares too). That is, the reader is encouraged to confuse the book with a fractured memoir. In his introduction, Geoffrey O’Brien observes that

Sleepless Nights might be taken as an exploration of the problem of genre, the problem of distinguishing fiction from what is so coarsely described as ‘nonfiction’, except that the book is more like a demonstration that the problem is illusory.

The spot-memories which the book explores are intense through brevity. Real figures, such as Billie Holiday, come and go along with old flatmates such as ‘J.’, who barely appeared on the page before he died in a traffic accident, when a car “rushed into an ecstatic terrorism against J.’s neat, clerkly life at the curb.” Time passes and repasses, back and forward, “a decade falling like snow on top of another, soundless.” It is a bold, admirable work which I found quite impossible to appreciate fully – or to write about adequately. To redress the balance, I offer you a helpful contemporary review of Sleepless Nights, which compares it with Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Gerard Woodward: August

Gerard Woodward: August
If, as Alan Bennett says, “all families have a secret: they’re not like other families,” then Gerard Woodward’s Joneses top the table for idiosyncratic individuality, with a glue-sniffing mother and a psychopathic pianist son, and everyone else (and those two as well) an alcoholic. Ever since reading, and loving, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon a couple of years ago, I’ve been eager to read August (2001), the first volume in the trilogy. Eager but reluctant, for fear that it might disappoint.

It disappointed. It didn’t strike me as being near the high standard of I’ll Go to Bed at Noon – but then, what is? Indeed, if I had read August first, as intended by Woodward, I don’t know that I would have gone on to read the second volume.

This is not to say that it’s bad. It’s well-written, with the peculiar and seductive mixture of compassion and wit that Woodward does so well. Perhaps part of the problem was the structure, which loosely describes the family’s camping holiday in Wales each summer during the 1960s. Really, however, the meat of each section is in the flashbacks, which means there’s a lot of dense rehearsing rather than getting on with it: not something I object to in itself, but it did slow the reading down a lot for me.

As with I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the central characters for me were Colette, the glue-sniffing mum, and her son Janus, a fascinating and frightening figure whose great giftedness for music we are never really given much evidence for. It’s horrible to read his taunting of the other family members, but impossible to tear yourself away.

‘I’d like to know why you did it.’

‘Did what?’

‘I’d like to know,’ Janus lowered his binoculars, the eyepieces having left a pair of red pince-nez on his nose, ‘why you were intimate with my father.’

Janus’s eyes looked stupidly small. Colette bent forward with incredulous laughter and repeated the word ‘intimate’ to rehear its quaintness.

‘Am I embarrassing you?’ said Janus.

‘You’re embarrassing yourself.’

‘Am I causing you pain?’

‘Only of laughter.’

‘Sometimes I feel it is my vocation to cause you pain to counterbalance the pleasure you had in conceiving me.’

It’s all downhill from here, and knowing where the story is leading probably did not help. My fault perhaps, as much as Woodward’s. I will certainly read A Curious Earth, the third volume of the trilogy, but with a lot less urgency and excitement than that with which I approached August.

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls from the Air

Anyone who reads this blog regularly may recognise this book; it was recommended by Patrick McGrath in the interview I posted with him recently. I had (just about) heard of Nigel Balchin before this: there’s a battered copy of his novel A Way Through the Woods in my local Waterstone’s, under its film-tie-in title of Separate Lies. It’s been there so long it feels like an old friend. A little further investigation shows Balchin was the author also of The Small Back Room, made into a 1949 film by the great Powell & Pressburger (though one of their lesser works).  Hazel, who commented on this blog, showed that it was an older generation who were most familiar with Balchin, and a thorough piece by Clive James in 1974 – a few years after Balchin’s death – found his best known books then ‘still selling well’.  Sadly, thirty-odd years later, his best known contribution to our current culture is probably that, as an employee of confectioners Rowntree, he is credited with inventing the bubbles in the Aero bar, and the Kit-Kat.

Darkness Falls from the Air

In reading Darkness Falls from the Air (1942), an immediate problem of expectations arises. The book comes strongly recommended by a favourite author – and haven’t I been let down in that regard before? (Martin Amis, I can never love Nabokov or Bellow as much as you do.  But then, who can?) In particular, McGrath describes the book as having “the most perfect ending of any story I’ve ever read.” Well, apart from the fact that I would apply that particular epithet to McGrath’s own Dr Haggard’s Disease, this is practically a disappointment waiting to happen.

Our narrator is Bill Sarratt, a civil servant with an unfaithful wife and a extraordinary degree of coolness toward the bombing of London during the Blitz (“They seemed to be dropping a hell of a lot of stuff – far more than earlier in the evening.  I heard several sticks of three land, and once two fell close enough to leave me waiting for the third with a lot of interest”).  His wife’s lover, Stephen, tries to match him for cynicism.

Marcia and Stephen turned up about five minutes after I got there.  I thought they made a pretty pair, and didn’t much like it.  Marcia was all smoothed out and sparkling like women are after that sort of thing, and Stephen was looking big and handsome and haunted and so like a creative artist that you wouldn’t have thought he’d have the nerve to go around looking like that.  They were very much together, and I felt like a stockbroker uncle taking the engaged couple out.

I said, ‘I’ve ordered you some smoked salmon honey, right?’

‘Lovely,’ said Marcia.  ‘Bloody day?’

‘Average,’ I said.  ‘I think I may commit suicide soon.’

‘You can’t do that,’ said Stephen.  ‘I thought of it first.  Besides, why worry?  If you wait a week or two you’ll probably be killed anyhow.’  He drank some sherry and looked haunted.

The sense of ironic detachment even extends to Sarratt’s apparent acceptance of Marcia’s lover.  The chaos of wartime seems to be reflected in his psychology: all bets are off, normal rules of engagement are suspended.  The wit comes so thick and fast (“I tell you about my bomb?” says the proprietor of the local Italian restaurant.  “No.  And you aren’t going to now,” replies Sarratt.  “Otherwise I shall show you my operation”) that we know it must be covering over something else.  “I do loathe this facetiousness of yours,” Stephen tells Sarratt at one point.  “Why do you do it?  It’s horrible.  It’s macabre.”  But the trace of something that lies beneath shows when Marcia and Sarratt do have an argument – about Stephen – and they still “hung on to each other” while there were “occasional bumps going on outside.”  The word ‘outside’ – making a unit out of Sarratt and Marcia, pitting them against the world instead of against one another – is the first sign of a chink in his armour.

When he’s not pretending not to care about his wife and her lover, Sarratt is faced with a working day as tangled as his personal life.  At his job in the Civil Service, his time is taken up working on nebulous projects which never come to fruition, while bureaucratic doubletalk and pointless personnel shifts bring to mind the satire of Yes Minister.  And the mess of ineffectual government recalls the line in Fawlty Towers: “How did they ever win the war?”  It’s easy to forget on reading it now that at the time of publication, nobody knew how the war was going to end, which makes Balchin’s willingness to give his character such an insouciant attitude to the German bombings all the more bold.

Fred Giles came in and said one of the messengers had been killed in last night’s raid, plus wife, plus son, plus daughter, plus son-in-law.  They were in an Anderson.  It was a direct hit.  Fred said, ‘Somebody was going to start a fund for the family and then they found there wasn’t any family.’

This knowing take on the British stiff upper lip and muddling through, studded almost sickeningly with ice cold bons mots, can only go so far without becoming tiresome, and at 200 pages Darkness Falls from the Air doesn’t outstay its welcome.  By the now-legendary ending (“It seemed to me that the thing wasn’t as over as it ought to have been”), we have seen another side not only of Sarratt but of Balchin: the tension in the closing scenes was recognisably from the same hand as the nerve-shattering bomb-disposal sequence in the film of The Small Back Room.

There’s even room for optimism of a sort, though it’s typical of this tricky and intricate novel that you have to fight your way through a lot of cool wit and understated tragedy to find it.

If it came to that I was in a better temper myself.  The sun was shining and altogether it looked like being one of the better days.  I felt that one of the better days was due anyhow.


Postscript: If the above hasn’t persuaded you to try this fine novel, then let Patrick McGrath himself have a goBe warned though that he loves that ending so much, he can’t resist giving it away.