Monday, 22 June 2015

On James Kennaway

I was sent the above last week.

Here’s some post-coital gallows humour. After drinking with a newspaper editor and then in a club, and after very rashly placing Susie (‘in little bruised pieces’) in the care of Fiddes and then camping out for a while in another drinking club, Link goes to see Mandy, a prostitute on whom Fiddes has performed an illegal abortion, and after they fuck Mandy tells him about a documentary she watched on TV:

Quite the scene. This is of cows going into a slaughterhouse. Great, it was. They look exactly like people, you know – there’s Aunt Maisie with her bow legs and udders brushing the gound, and there’s another who’s the split image of a silly tart that used to stand on the corner of Audley and Curzon Street, when I was in the first bloom of my youth. But most they’re like horrible housewives in Winchester or Blackheath, or maybe Wembley. Stupid, you know, not vicious, stupid. And they waddle into this slaughterhouse calm as can be, just like the supermarket; then ‘bonk!’ there’s a chisel gets hammered right through their nuts. They sway a couple of times, then fold up. It had me in stitches. It’s horrible really. But it was funny for me ’cause I knew all the cows.

The night is far from over – after being chucked out by Mandy (‘I hate sleeping with men. There’s always that meddling goes on at half past five’), Luke goes on to a police party with a couple of other prostitutes in tow, and then flies to Germany to see the son of his last true love, who was killed when she skied into an army truck – so the slaughterhouse comes almost as light relief, a welcome change of pace. All of Kennaway’s novels are short but you do need stamina (and a good head for drink).

Link, Fiddes and Susie combine to form the triangular relationship at the heart of Some Gorgeous Accident (1967), the last novel published by Kennaway before he was killed in a car crash at the age of forty in 1968. The bond between Link, a war photographer, and Fiddes, a doctor in a charity hospital (‘wondering why he’d chosen to be the kind of doctor who makes no money. There was such awful, English arrogance in that’), is already there at the start of the book: ‘When they met there were always the same ironies, obscenities, insults and jokes.’ So is the bond between Link and Susie: ‘Why, he just took the girl out a couple of times. Once for a week, a super steeple-climbing, Ritz-eating, no sleeping frayed-lovers week. Next time for a few months of hell in the Village in New York.’ The link between Fiddes and Susie is effected by Link, acting out of motives that seem sometimes innocent, sometimes not. That there’s a sexual element in the bond between Link and Fiddes is arguable: ‘A homosexual, or latently homosexual attachment, Mr Link? … If I sometimes think so, Fiddes would go on, it is only because I can find no better for such a close relationship.’ Later: ‘Is there always a moment in a triangular situation where everyone’s sex is the same?’

Formally, you could – though I can’t see why you’d want to – call Some Gorgeous Accident an experimental novel, at least mildly so. Pages in the second half of the book are taken up by transcriptions of court proceedings (someone has snitched to the BMA about the abortion carried out by Fiddes). The novel is written in brief sections under italic sub-heads (sort of); some are straightforward scene-settings or timelines (‘Meanwhile, back in Jack’s café’, ‘Later, two or three drinks later’), others very different: ‘Nerves, Linky, nerves’; ‘Yet it’s too easy to throw this scene away’. Who exactly is narrating? The stop/start of the sections might suggest that what you’re reading is more draft than finished novel, but not so. According to The Kennaway Papers (1981) by Susan Kennaway, a memoir including extracts from her husband’s letters, diaries and notebooks, ‘James used to say that for every slim novel he published he would write an average of a million and a half words, which was not an exaggeration.’ The book began as a novel set in Kashmir, then it shifted to Scotland, then to London; and at some stage it became, well, life: the Link-Susie-Fiddes triangle mirrored – though you don’t need to know this – by that involving Kennaway himself, his wife Susan and the writer David Cornwell, as documented in The Kennaway Papers.

What came before Some Gorgeous Accident was far from negligible: Tunes of Glory (1956), an army-barracks novel (later filmed with Alec Guinness and John Mills); Household Ghosts (1961) and The Bells of Shoreditch (1963), both featuring aldulterous triangles; a number of screenplays. But then the two posthumously-published novels …

They were painting the gothic corridors of the railway hotel when the economist arrived. It was about six o’clock in the evening, early in May, which is no great time to die, and it had been raining heavily.

That’s the opening of The Cost of Living like This (1969). The economist is Julian, who has cancer (and a flask of jungle juice in his coat pocket: includes heroin, morphine, cocaine); the other two in the triangle are Sally, a teenage office worker and champion amateur swimmer; and Julian’s wife, Christabel. Also featuring: a wedding party on a flight from London to Glasgow; a Scots football referee called Mozart; a painting by Lucian Freud (‘No shit, d’you know? It’s just a few leaves, and it fascinates me because when you’ve seen it you feel you’ve never looked at a leaf before’); a student demonstration, a fire, suicide. It’s about sex and death, of course. It’s slightly absurd; intricately but fluently structured (though given the high stakes and Kennaway’s gift for sparring dialogue, at times you feel that all he has to do is get any two or three of the characters in a room and let them get on with it); and the drifting first chapter especially (before ‘All three. All hell let loose.’) is a wonder.

And then Silence (1972). ‘I wish I could say I were a simple man, but none of us can say that any more.’ A doctor’s daughter has been assaulted by a man with an address in ‘the Negro quarter’ of Chicago; her husband and his rich pals, fuelled by liquor, drive there to exact justice, and the doctor goes along, though ‘he couldn’t quite believe that the boys were reacting from love of Lilian’. The man is not in the apartment, but his family are: ‘It was as if they had expected the visit and in a sad sort of way were glad their time had come.’ In the street, violence, gunfire. The doctor, with a knife wound in his side, flees, enters a building, then a room. ‘The doctor knew that he was not alone in the room.’ The doctor, and a silent woman. ‘Really, the doctor couldn’t believe that she spoke any language, except that she looked at him sometimes, very slowly, almost, almost smiled.’ She hums, smokes pot, treats the doctor’s wound, feeds him, listens to him; they play games, make mistakes; and the end (there's another cattle slaughterhouse), the end is almost unreadable, unspeakable. Astonishing, terrifying book. (Under 100 pages.)

The publishing history of Kennaway’s novels is patchy. Most were at one time in Penguin, but now not. An omnibus edition (including Tunes of Glory, Household Ghosts and Night) published in 2001 by Canongate is still in print, just about. A US publisher, Valancourt, reissued The Cost of Living like This in 2014. The climate perhaps does not favour books by men who were educated at public school and Oxford and served in the army; and novels infused (but not Silence) with the hard-drinking macho kind of masculinity that background can produce, however brilliant the writing (Kennaway writes sentences that can hurt); I don’t know.

1 comment:

Richard Strachan said...

An interesting writer. I wrote a review of those Valancourt reissues in the Scottish Review of Books recently: