Monday, August 1, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.
“TRIPLE FUGUE” (first published 1924) and “DUMB-ANIMAL” (first published 1930) by Osbert Sitwell
Serendipity is always a major part of one’s reading experience. One evening some years back, seeking general diversion, I took from the shelf a battered Pan paperback published in 1947, called Alive – Alive Oh! It consisted of five long short stories by Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969). I began by reading the title one, and thoroughly enjoyed it, partly for its bitchy, fashionable-1920s tone. However, Sitwell’s introduction told me that these five stories were in fact what he regarded as the best from his two short story collections Triple Fugue (1924) and Dumb-Animal and other stories (1930). So I sought both volumes out. The former I also had on my shelves in an old orange-and-white Penguin edition. The latter was retrieved for me from the stacks of the university library. It was a first edition and I was interested to discover that the pages of its longest story (“Happy Endings”) were uncut. I cut them, reflecting on how many books there must be on library shelves and in library stacks which nobody has ever actually read. Here’s a copy of a book printed over eighty years ago; and I’m the first person to crack it.
I won’t give you extended synopses of what these stories contained, but I will give you a little taste.
First the stories from Triple Fugue (1924).
In “Low Tide”, two wealthy old spinsters live off the dividends of their late father’s income in a faded seaside resort, not realising how old-fashioned their tastes are and observing all the proprieties. But due to poor budgeting advice, they lose their fortune in bad investments, are reduced to poverty and have to live in a cramped top-floor apartment. One of them commits suicide by jumping. The story is mainly description of the resort, its old-fashioned prejudices, and the tastes of its inhabitants – very much the work of a 1920s writer dismissing faded Victorian and Edwardian tastes. The tide going out with assorted rubbish is a powerful image.
“Friendship’s Due” is a 1920s story ridiculing pre-war literature. In this case, it presents the portrait of a minor poet and critic, Ferdinand McCulloch, who hoped to gain fame as a poet after being associated with another minor poet who had committed suicide and whose biography – with self-publicising references – McCulloch and a journalist had arranged. But instead, McColloch merely became known as the friend of the deceased poet. So, in order to publicise himself, he constantly threatens to commit suicide, which works for a while until even his fiends get bored with it. There are specific references to defunct 1890s Celtic Twilight and Decadent “Pagan” poetry, and a few real names appear, as well as a mention of the critic “Muddleton Moral” (an obvious slap at John Middleton Murry, as I noted on this blog in my notice of Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point).
In “The Greeting”, one of the few Sitwell stories without satirical intent, a wealthy man with an invalid wife becomes enamoured of the lady’s companion who looks after his wife. She is murdered in her leafy bower, some way from the mansion, where she likes to spend the afternoons alone. A passing tramp is suspected, but the parrot, which imitates human voices, repeats what was said and hence reveals who the real murderer was. This story is quite a good exercise in the macabre. It has a stronger plotline than most Sitwell stories and a good ending, although the idea of the bird learning the key phrase from one hearing is incredible to the point of silliness. Again, of course, the description of time and material place is the real attraction.
There follow two stories, which, in tone and structure, are basically the same story. “His Ship Comes Home” is the portrait of an old dandy who has spent his life sponging off the fashionable and the rich by claiming illustrious family connections. He marries and is quickly divorced by a young woman with some money and manages to live off the proceeds, still affecting a shabby splendour, which now looks pathetic. “The Machine Breaks Down” is the portrait of a pseudo-intellectual who affects profound knowledge of musicians. His downfall is observed as he practices the patter with which he tries to interest people in his life. Both these stories are so specific in their descriptions that they are probably lampoons of real people Sitwell knew.
And so to the last story in the volume, “Triple Fugue” itself, which is an unholy mess. A long story, amounting to a novella (nearly one hundred pages), it opens with a lengthy and pompous throat-clearing essay in which the narrator tells us of the deficiencies of democracy and how the Italians and Russians are now intelligently getting rid of it (this is written in 1923), and how Jews are an imitative people much given to theatricality and are leading European culture down the wrong paths etc. It then moves into a story set in the distant future year of 1948, which the narrator begs us to believe will simply continue current trends. Three contrasting men are introduced – the subservient gossip-columnist Valentine Leviathan, the minor diplomat and purveyor of gossip Lord Richard Cressey, and the aesthete Freddie Parkinson who loves Chinese vases etc. In this world, newspapers have become the arbiters of government and press barons have taken over parliament, with laws saying that people must do exactly as the newspapers tell them. People buzz around in private planes. There are incidental digs at Sir John Squire and other literary bestsellers of the 1920s. There’s a long portrait of a silly and pretentious countrywoman, Lady Septuagesima, who has literary ideas. The conceit of the story is that the three men are simply stages in the development of a single personality. In this world, the very rich are charged such heavy death-duties that they respond by simply refusing to die, and life-prolonging operations (starting with monkey glands) become more and more the norm. Consequently when the three men, flying in the same plane, are killed, one of them is resurrected by an operation – except that there are bits left over because the surgeon has sewn combined bits of them together. So the three men are literally made one. The “climax” comes at a literary luncheon, which gives Sitwell the excuse for yet another dig at old fogeys liking Georgian-type verse, when the one man giving a speech is recognized by different parts of the audience as three different men and there is a kind of riot in which people discard the idea of having personalities of their own. I can’t see the point of this singularly inept and tedious tale. Apart from its digs at typical 1920s things (crass newspapers, monkey-gland operations, society gossip etc.) its central plot device does little more than say there are vacuous people in more than one sphere of life. It is repetitive, and once again some of the characters are so specific in their irrelevant details that we can only assume they are lampoons of real people for whose existence we don’t now give a toss.
The title story “Dumb-Animal” is really two separate anecdotes loosely linked by the narrator’s hearing them on a train journey. (a.) An African explorer claims to have seen a gorilla in the moonlight bowing and worshipping the moon and sees this as the beginning of all religion. (b.) A small boy befriends a mangy dog on a beach, but is reproved by his strict nurse who says she will kill the disgusting beast if it comes near again. Next day, to save the dog from being killed, the small boy throws stones at it to drive it away. Now his nurse reproves him for being cruel to animals. The second part of the story is a good, tight, ironical anecdote, which might have worked better on its own.
“That Flesh Is Heir To…” is a long story, which begins with theorising on the nature of contagious disease, and how it colonises human beings and is hence the great world conqueror. There are references to the 1918 “influenza” epidemic. Then we enter an account of the fashionable woman, Muriel Chitty, who carries her infectious disease everywhere without being harmed herself. The narrator shares a Mediterranean cruise with her and gradually realizes that she is responsible for the deaths and epidemics they leave in their wake at each major port. It is hard to see what the satirical point of this is, unless Sitwell is once again working off his spleen at a certain sort of fashionable woman. Is it saying that tourists are pests in the real sense? (In which case the narrator is as implicated as Muriel Chitty.) The incidental descriptions of African scenes and their relationship to Muriel Chitty reveal much implicit racism on Sitwell’s part – especially in the farcical passage where Muriel Chitty pays to buy mistreated animals, and so the Arabs and “natives” start mistreating their beasts to qualify for her payment. It is in describing other cultures that Sitwell, as so often, outruns his supposed erudition.
“Echoes” is simply a descriptive anecdote. In Fascist Italy, at the ceremony to open some public works, the narrator observes beggars being spectacularly mistreated by officials and respectable people.
“The Love-Bird” is an attempted modern fairy-tale. A wealthy man (bachelor) sells his ancestral mansion and most of its contents so that he can live a life of comfort with two motorcars and four or five more modest residences. He is keen on making mechanical toys, such as mechanical birds singing. But he is profoundly unhappy and bored. One day a real bird – a parrot – flies in his window. He feeds it and cages it with his jewelled artificial bird. But the real bird fights with the artificial bird, which offends it, and then dies. The wealthy man becomes sad unto death. This has the makings of a very strong symbolist story, and I am surprised that Sitwell didn’t include it in his collection of “the best” in 1947. Of course in some ways it is a reworking of Hans Andersen’s “The Nightingale”, but unlike other Sitwell stories, there is a real anti-materialist edge, even if the narrator appears to be the rich man’s lackey and companion (the narrator acts as chauffeur to the rich man).
“Charles and Charlemagne” is another long story, which misfires as badly as “Triple Fugue” did in the earlier volume, and in the process reveals Sitwell’s worst faults. Essentially it is the tale of a fashionable and foolish woman who takes a long succession of lovers, and no matter how brief each liaison may be, she redecorates her home and adopts meals and clothes that are appropriate to the lover. The story thus becomes a long (and eventually tedious) list of her home decorations and her dinners – including, incidentally, one New Zealand lover, which apparently means barbaric bushman style of decoration. The woman, of course, has no soul of her own. The denouement has her taking a deep-sea diver as a lover and the two of them drowning and ending up as two skeletons dangling in a cage beneath the sea. In this case, the story is so mechanical I am surprised Sitwell did include it in his reprint.
“Alive – Alive Oh!” is very bitchy and funny as literary satire on an easy target. It is the story of a Georgian late-Romantic poet, Joseph Bundle, whose nature verse is much admired by the newspapers and who is widely believed to be nearly dying, which of course increases his romantic appeal. He apparently dies in Italy. But the narrator discovers he is still robustly alive there, living an easy life, and in fact still hating and despising the birds and beasties he is assumed to adore. Nature poetry is merely an affectation of the well-to-do. Again, this is Sitwell the 1920s writer having fun with the tastes of an earlier generation – in other words, a would-be Modernist (albeit a rather privileged and cosseted one) slings off at Georgians and the generation of Rupert Brooke etc. It was only after I had read this story that I discovered in Harry Ricketts’ excellent study of First World War poets, StrangeMeetings, that the fictitious Joseph Bundle is an amalgam of a number of soldier-poets, but is largely based on Robert Nichols, who for a short time was regarded as a major voice but who is now quite forgotten.
“Happy Endings” is the longest story in the volume – over a hundred pages – and is really the least like a story, being mainly a memoir with a tiny “plot” element tacked on. The narrator hears two of his old teachers agreeing that happy endings should be compulsory in literature, and this sends him off into a long reminiscence of the military “crammer” he went to after he left Eton, where young boys of no particular talent were trained to be army officers and gentlemen, and then the cavalry riding school that followed. This is, in effect, straight memoir by Osbert Sitwell of his own background. At a certain point the “story” veers off into a character portrait of one of the teachers. Mr Windrell, whose dull existence is enlivened by his belief in warlocks and similar occult rubbish. The narrator’s tone throughout is contemptuous, both of the tawdriness of the school and of the foolish ideas of the teachers and retired officers therein. They believe that the next war will be a splendid mobile cavalry affair, over in a few weeks. Obviously this would have had immense satirical appeal to readers immediately after the First World War. The pay-off has a brief scene of the narrator at the real war, so unlike the one imagined, seeing the death of two people attached to the school, and then his return to the dying Mr Windrell who, in his poverty and pain, has abandoned his foolish occult beliefs. So much for happy endings.
Now having made you trudge through these two forgotten volumes by Osbert Sitwell, I am forced to ask - What is the general quality of an Osbert Sitwell story? There will usually be a very simple situation, which could be told as an anecdote in a very few pages. That is why the “plots” are so easy to summarise. But this is merely the pretext for elaborate descriptions of scenes, people, places and social customs.
The tone is generally one of civilized (or amused) contempt for fashionable and foolish people, generally of the wealthy leisure classes. To that extent they are satire, but the satire never really attacks anything essential. The implied author-narrator is, after all, himself a member of the wealthy leisure classes. What is the main sin of the two wealthy spinsters in “Low Tide” except to be rather out-of-date in their tastes? How is the plague-carrying woman in “That Flesh is Heir To…” different in her habits (taking ocean cruises, tourism etc.) from the narrator, apart from the fact that she bears infection? Does the narrator do anything to alleviate the suffering of the beggars in “Echoes”?
It will be noted that nearly all the stories are told in the first-person, which means in effect that Sitwell is speaking in his own voice, as no other narrator is implied except his civilized and somewhat blasé, world-weary self. These are essays as much as stories. In nearly every story (and especially the longer ones) there will be a long list of some sort, which will allow Sitwell to show off his supposed erudition – the list of the possessions sold by the rich man in “Love Bird”, the list of house furnishings related to each lover in “Charles and Charlemagne”, the different types of beggar catalogued in “Echoes” etc. This does make for entertaining reading, but things do dominate people. Characters are judged by their possessions and Sitwell is judged by his knowledge of those possessions and discrimination as to what should be their right uses, if only one had the same high standards of taste as Sitwell.
I would place Osbert Sitwell, as revealed in these stories, somewhere between the sharpness of Evelyn Waugh (who would have handled these plots as tight, brief incidental anecdotes in the midst of better plots) and the entertaining but glib spite of Noel Coward. 1920s Sitwell affects to be fashionable and modern and to laugh at older people who aren’t, but doesn’t ever question the nature of his own privileges. Worse, the personal malice means that much space is taken up with personal lampoons of people who now mean nothing to us. There are some flashes of wit, but generally there are attacks on easy targets, sneers and tedium.
How should he be ranked among other British prose satirists of the 1920s? He is not as plodding (but then not as thoughtful) as PercyWyndham Lewis, but he has none of the deft skill of Aldous Huxley or Evelyn Waugh. And he really is ham-strung by that dreadful snobbery that afflicted him all his life.