Monday, July 15, 2013
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
Have you ever had the experience of forming a strong impression of a book before you have read it; reading it, and discovering it is quite different from what you imagined it would be; and then reading what the critics have to say and discovering that apparently you are quite in the wrong?
To illustrate my own experience in this field, allow me to give you my account of reading a novel of which you have probably never heard. The King of a Rainy Country was first published in 1956 and was one of the early works of the cranky and sometimes cantankerous Brigid Brophy (1929-1995), then in her mid twenties.
I will divide my experience into three world-shattering parts.
Part A: The Book I Thought I Was Going To Read
A hardback copy of The King of a Rainy Country (presumably a first edition) sat on my father’s bookshelves when I was a child. I can remember its green-white-reddish dust-jacket and I remember once taking it off the shelf and reading the blurb, which was something about a woman setting off to find a childhood friend whose naked photo she had found. Only years later, but still before I’d read the novel, did I discover that its title was a quotation from Baudelaire (“Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux…”). For some reason I had the idea that it would be a highly intellectual comedy. I don’t know why.
Part B: The Book I Actually Read
Years later I found a paperback reprint of the novel, with a hideous green cover, in a second-hand bookshop, so I snapped it up and decided to see if it was what I had thought it was.
Published in the mid-1950s, but apparently set just a few years before that, The King of a Rainy Country is indeed a brisk but regrettably twittery comedy. It is told in the first person by Susan, who is living with Neale, who likes to quote Baudelaire’s poetry. Susan and Neale sometimes talk in a vaguely romantic way about getting married, but they do not sleep together. In fact their relationship is oddly ambiguous. Neale seems to be a layabout who sleeps most of the day. He once invites a young Frenchman home. The Frenchman apologizes to Susan for not making a pass at her, because he is “queer”. The implication is that Neale really is too.
Susan gets a job with a rather dodgy bookseller. Being somewhat gormless, it takes her a few weeks to realize that his real trade is under-the-counter pornography (the books that are described sound like fairly harmless 1950s cheesecake, nude girlie magazines etc.). In one of her employer’s books Susan finds a photograph of her old school friend Cynthia, nude.
What has brought Cynthia into this trade? Susan is intrigued enough to set out with Neale to find Cynthia. After a few false leads (and some farcical stuff as her smut-merchant boss flees with the police in pursuit), Susan and Neale discover that Cynthia is probably in Italy at the Venice Film Festival. The central third of the novel is really a detachable story of its own – Susan and Neale get to Venice and get a job as tour guides to a bunch of silly and loud American tourists. Susan has to fend off the advances of some of the males. In this detachable third of the novel, Brigid Brophy gives the predictable and rather superior British attitude to vulgar Yank trippers.
Finally in Venice they catch up with Cynthia but (big and deliberate surprise), what we were led to expect would be the novel’s grand climax turns out not to be. Quizzed about her nude modelling, Cynthia shrugs it off as just one of those things she did to get work. No big deal. And there that matter rests.
But in coming to Venice, Susan has met the opera singer Helena Buchan. Helena is considerably older than Susan – in her forties and with her singing career coming to an end. Cue a few arch references to opera plots that parallel the plot of this novel. Susan goes off on a journey with Helena, who is having publicity photos taken. With none-too-subtle irony the novel suggests that Helena’s publicity photos are really just the same as Cynthia’s nude photos – a means of building a career.
When she returns from this side-trip, Susan discovers that Neale has slept with Cynthia, who was disconsolate at not getting a part in a film. The two of them are talking about getting married.
Susan goes back to London on her own. She thinks about joining Helena in Vienna, but Helena dies. Helena had been married for a brief two years before divorcing. Before her death, she sends Susan her old wedding dress. In the very last words of the novel, Susan is looking at a bride caught in a shower of rain and “running to the temporary shelter of the bridal car”.
Now why do I call all this twittery? Partly because so much of the dialogue reads like sitcom – snappy exchanges of smart whimsicalities between Susan and Neale. The actual experience of reading the novel is frothy, light and speedy, especially as young Brophy writes in machine-gun-fire-like declarative sentences.
I think I can see how it would have been read in the 1950s – the daringness of having characters shacked up; the louche-ness of the porn seller; the romantic talk in Italy; but in the end a sort of innocence (no explicit sex scenes of course – this is the 1950s). I guess it would have been seen as bright comedy for intelligent, romantic bohemians. There are, of course, puzzling lacunae. How come Susan and Neale can both speak fluent French and Italian? What exactly is Neale’s background anyway? But, as I surmise it would have been read back then, it comes across as an amusing anti-romantic story. The big quest (for the meaning of Cynthia’ life) ends in bathos. After all their initial romantic talk, Susan ends up without Neale.
But even in the 1950s, more alert readers might have picked up the subtext. Once she’s seen Cynthia’s picture, Susan is more anxious to find Cynthia than to relate to Neale. She has a number of flashbacks to schooldays, where she had a romantic crush on Cynthia (holding hands in the dark; kissing during the school play etc.). The lesbian element is probably as explicit as it could have been in a mainstream novel in 1956, and there is the oddness of Neale living with, but not sleeping with, Susan. Helena Buchan is a sort-of maternal figure to Susan, but there is a scene where Neale says he imagines her to be (as the novel prints it) “bi-sexual” and at one point Helena comes close to making a pass at Susan. Helena’s sending her wedding dress to Susan might be a maternal gesture (an older woman giving a younger woman something she might use); but it could also be read as a symbolic marriage of the two women. Finally those last words of the novel, about “the temporary shelter of the bridal car”, seem designed to point out that marriage (to somebody of the opposite sex, of course) is not a permanent answer for Susan.
But would all this have been taken in by the average intelligent reader of 1956? I’m still not sure. The title refers to a poem about lassitude and boredom with sensuality. That could have been the way it was read – as a novel wittily saying that romantic love is a bit of a bore.
Part C: The Book That, Apparently, I Was Meant To Be Reading
Only after reading The King of a Rainy Country, and forming the above impressions, did I venture to see what other people thought of it. I looked up both the author and the novel on various internet websites. And I discovered that it’s now regarded in homosexual circles as a pioneer work of gender-bending. The author’s biography feeds into this impression. Brigid Brophy was married and had a daughter, but was basically lesbian and spent most of her adult life with her female lover (although it was her husband who looked after her in her terminal decline via multiple sclerosis). Hence, especially by enlarging on the type of details I’ve already covered, the novel can be seen as coded advocacy for bisexuality. All this may well be true, with the added spice that, as a student, Brophy was sent down from Oxford for unspecified sexual activities; and she later found work as secretary to a pornographer. But it doesn’t alter the fact that the novel belongs to, and stylistically is tied to, its age.
Is it a pioneer postmodernist work? This is another claim that is now being made for it because of its allusiveness (to literature and opera), its elusiveness (the backstories of characters not being explained) and its playful style.
But I don’t really buy this. To me, analysing this frothy novel in these terms is akin to film historians searching hard for sexual subtexts in Hollywood comedies of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Of course such subtexts are sometimes there, but they never provide the dominant tone of those films, and never constituted their dominant impact upon audiences. The King of a Rainy Country is a dated 1950s comedy with a few knowing nudges and winks for the sophisticates and a dominantly sitcom tone. Anyone looking for full-on sexual subversion will be as disappointed as the film students who sit all the way through a Howard Hawks comedy for the sake of a few lines of double entendre snuck past the Production Code censors by the scriptwriters.
Of course it could be argued that the 26-year-old Brigid Brophy couldn’t have written it any other way in 1955-56, but that is a whole new argument and doesn’t alter the fact of the novel’s datedness.