Friday 31 August 2018

Robinson: appendix 3 – Gerald Brenan

[Robinson was published in 2017. Written in the months following the EU referendum, it argued that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has had a crippling influence on British education and politics; latter-day Robinsons in Kafka, CĂ©line, Patrick Keiller, Muriel Spark, Sherwood Anderson, Ian Crichton Smith and others were also discussed. This is the third appendix, catching up with Robinsons discovered since the book was written; previous ones look at Robinsons in Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene.]

Jack Robinson: A Picaresque Novel (1933) by George Beaton is a rum book. For starters, more play with pen-names: Beaton is Gerald Brenan, who had Bloomsbury Group connections and is best known as author of The Spanish Labyrinth (1943) and South from Granada (1957). Growing up, he enjoyed neither school nor his home life, and disliked his father, an ex-infantry officer in the Boer War who ‘had a mania for giving orders in a sharp, rude voice, for the consciousness of exercising power was his greatest pleasure’, with a vengeance: ‘He belonged to an utterly different species of humanity from myself.’ Aged 18, Brenan set off in secret with a friend to walk to China; they got as far as Bosnia, a tramp of more than 1,500 miles.

Before the end of the first page of the novel Jack Robinson’s father has died and the family house has burned down. To escape from his mother – ‘the state of my clothes and my general respectability and decorum were the chief pegs of her existence’ – Robinson decides to run away to sea, but before the sea even comes into sight he falls in with a shifting population of tramps, beggars, pimps and prostitutes, and he remains with them until the final page of the book, when he returns home, where his mother is ‘ironing some white shirts and chatting to a neighbour’. The most lively conversation in the book is between the teenage Robinson and a woman – not exactly a prostitute, but she lives off her rich lover – who, before she takes him to bed, tells him ‘it never rains but I wish the rain would go on coming down until it covered the whole world and everyone on it was drowned or turned into fishes . . . I love destruction.’

Robinson is distinguished by a paralysing inertia. While begging on the streets of London, he is offered work as a cabin boy on a steamer bound for South America, but ‘My feet were chained to these flat grey pavements, my eyes were riveted to these smoke-plumed houses – for among them rather than within me seemed to lie the conflicts that were just now engaging me and which did not leave me sufficient energy to part from them. Unsatisfactory as I felt my life to be at this time, I had neither the desire to evade it nor the force to alter it.’ Grandfather Crusoe’s assumption of agency is drained entirely; this is a Robinson alienated both from society and from himself. Jack Robinson carries the bleak suggestion that there is no sea to run away to, that the only places you get to when you run are doss-houses and begging on the streets, and the only escape from those is back to a mother who is ironing shirts and chatting to a neighbour. (She takes in washing and ironing for cash, I assume, given that to the reader’s knowledge there is no man in her life except her runaway son.)


The second book Brenan published under the pen-name George Beaton is even rummer. Doctor Partridge’s Almanack for 1935 (1934) purports to be a series of fragmentary prophecies by Dr Partridge, astrologer and author of almanacs, with a preface by ‘G. Robinson, Practising Astrologer’. (Dr John Partridge, 1644–1715, was a historical person. In 1708 Jonathan Swift, writing as Isaac Bickerstaff and with the intention of exposing Partridge’s quackery, predicted that Partridge would die on 29 March of that year; when Partridge wrote on 2 April that he was still alive, and advertised in newspapers that he was ‘not only now alive, but was also alive upon the 29th of March in question’, Swift replied that his statement was demonstrably untrue, as ‘no man alive ever writ such damned stuff as this’.) According to G. Robinson’s introductory account, Partridge died in 1727 and was buried in a cellar under a house in Fitzroy Street; 190 years later, Partridge is stirred back into life by a rat nibbling his finger; learning from nearby talkative bones of the current state of the world (‘Is there never to be an end? Must the world grow more bloodthirsty and more feeble-minded with every century?’), he determines to offer ‘to mankind a complete calendar and recital of their fate’ – ‘less with the view, I doubt not, of converting them to the hard creed of Cessation than of relieving them now at this present of some of the fever of life by cutting off their expectancy’.

As outlined in a second preface, this one by ‘Professor Blish’, the worldview of ‘our great Partridge’ holds that ‘discord, folly, strife and confusion [are] the permanent condition of the world and of each separate human being’, and humankind must therefore ‘learn to look forward with a perpetual increase in longing to the great reconciler and deliverer – that is, to death’. Dr Partridge is a doomy fanatic, but unlike others of that ilk he has a light touch. Some sample entries … January 9: ‘If you wish to obtain a reputation for stinginess, give a large dance or evening party.’ January 31: ‘This is a good day for poets and novelists to burn their manuscripts, for painters to tear to pieces their canvases and for lovers to put their heads into gas-ovens.’ February 1: ‘On this day a man called Timothy Pippin will found a New Religion of universal love, in which all those who do not believe are to be anathematised, imprisoned, tortured, flayed, and roasted.’ February 19: ‘This is an unlucky day for barmaids and for all people who live under railway bridges.’ March 22: ‘This is an unlucky day for those who collect tram tickets and while away their lives gazing at rivers and seas.’ May 28: ‘On this day the world will not come to an end, however many reasons there may be for desiring it.’ June 13: ‘If you have not lost anything lately, pray to St Anthony of Padua and he will lose it for you.’ June 15: ‘St Modestus was so modest that in 63 years he never once removed his pants.’ November 8: ‘Any reviewer disparaging this almanack will drop dead on the spot.’ November 11: ‘On this day the European nations will give up their offensive weapons, such as hockey sticks and motor horns and insect powder, and take to strictly defensive ones, such as tanks and aeroplanes and poison gas, which are much more likely, as everyone knows, to keep off war.’ December 26: ‘O world, world, world, world, if you do not come to an end before next year is out, I, Dr Partridge, have done with you.’

Brenan later distanced himself from Jack Robinson (‘there is no book of mine that I dislike more’) but he remained fond of Doctor Partridge’s Almanack, for ‘a certain command of language as well as a pessimism that seems to forecast the days of Stalin, Hitler and the atom bomb’. He wrote the book ‘without any previous plan or intention and almost as though the words were dictated to me’. In the prefaces his memories of the First World War and of a doomed love affair (along with ‘some rather inappropriate Old Testament imagery’) ‘combined to set up an atmosphere of horror, disgust for life and melancholy that is so far-fetched that it is always on the point of toppling over into absurdity’.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

One new, one old

I’d almost forgotten this blog exists. The output this year has been pathetic. But now that fewer people (I think) follow these creaky old things, I’ll put more effort into it. The excuse to get going again is publication of CBe’s second book of the year, City Works Dept. by Philip Hancock. Ken Loach: ‘Phil Hancock’s insights are precise and authentic – he is part of the great tradition of writers who capture the true spirit of working-class life.’ More information – and a ‘buy now’ button – here.

Meanwhile, since downscaling CBe a couple of years ago I’ve had more time to read, and most of the books I’ve been reading have not been the ones you can buy in bookshops, either because they are out of print or because bookshops don’t have the space to stock them (even the new ones tend to vanish after a few months, to be replaced by the even newer). So I’ve been using online shops. This is what they are for: getting hold of books that even the very lovely local independent bookshop doesn’t have in stock, the shop which itself is often going to have difficulty ordering in if the book is not in stock with either of the two major wholesalers (which most CBe books are not: another story). Online booksellers are, for my purposes, necessary and wonderful.

I’ve also been re-reading from my shelves. This one, for example, by Natalia Ginzburg:

A man leaves Italy to go to live with his older brother in the US. He’s a man with bony legs and cold hands and the reasons why he goes to the US are unclear even to himself: ‘I’m someone who doesn’t know what to be and who stares at everything indecisively.’ The City and the House consists of letters written to the man by members of the close group of friends he was a part of before he left, and his own letters to them, and letters between the friends. Over the course of two and a half years people fall in and out of love, marry and separate, worry about money and old age, work and cook meals and make mistakes and die (of illness but also guns and knives). A soap opera? Yes, in a way, but all the events happen off-stage and any melodrama is filtered through the medium – letters – in which the events are recounted by one character to another, retrospectively. A step back. Taking another step back, an unnecessary step, I could say it’s a novel about how people explain (or fail to) their lives to themselves, which sounds like a private activity but can’t be because we are social beings. It’s very subtle, very moving. It was written, I think, in the early 1980s (it was first published in Italy in 1985, and by Carcanet in Dick Davis’s English translation in 1986) – probably the last years in which a contemporary epistolary novel was possible, before letters largely gave way to email, so it’s a book you read historically but it hasn’t dated.

Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues has recently been re-issued by Daunt Books; her Family Lexicon will follow in September. Good. And good, too that Penguin have recently re-issued novels by Alfred Hayes, who I’ve written about before. (Who decides which books get published and which not? God, obviously. And who decides which books get translated from one language into another, and which out-of-print books get re-issued? Same person. He/she works in mysterious ways.)