Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Mr. Allenby Loses The Way - Frank Baker

This is one of those books I probably wouldn't blog about if it weren't for A Century of Books.  Under the terms and conditions of this challenge, I promised (er, sort of) to read a book from every year of the 20th century, and post a review of each one.  I didn't think that would be the tricky part.  The paltry figure I currently have stated as completed is not quite so paltry as it appears, since there are three or four books which I've read but have yet to review.

Sorry, side-tracked.  I wouldn't normally blog about Mr. Allenby Loses the Way by Frank Baker because it is has the two characteristics of many books I read: it's incredibly difficult to find affordable copies, and it's not especially good.  If it were scarce but brilliant, I'd be the first to write about it; if it were readily available and mediocre, I'd write that review too.  But since it's impossible to find (I read it in the Bodleian) and not really worth finding... oh well, rules is rules, and this is my book for 1946.  Plus it's nice to think that someone will have written about this book on the interwebs, because otherwise a would-be Googler would find nothing.

The name Frank Baker will doubtless ring a bell - it is he who penned one of my all-time faves, Miss Hargreaves, and I keep persevering with his work, in the hope that I find something else as wonderful.  (Miss H, as I blogged recently, even pops up her head in Mr. Allenby Loses The Way.)  But genius seems only to have wandered by once, and the other Baker books I've read are rather more pedestrian.  Actually that's probably not the right term for Mr. Allenby Loses The Way because, in fact, it baffled me utterly in its strangeness.

Sergius Allenby is a diffident newsagent who lives fairly contentedly with his wife and niece.  He's not unlike Norman, from Miss Hargreaves, in being an unassuming but imaginative man.  The family dynamics aren't as amusing as the Huntley family's, but it all seems fairly normal (albeit amidst the air raid sirens and rationings of the time) until a gentlemen turns up wanting to talk to Mr. Allenby.

There was something remarkable about him, thought Sergius, yet he could not easily have described him except to say he was tall, lean-figured, dressed in good but unmemorable dark clothes, with graceful, cat-like movements of the arms.  His dim eyes, blurred by heavy horn spectacles, stared down at his brilliantly polished black shoes as though within those orbs stirred some oracle who guided him.  He was like a shadow, without substance or personality.  When he opened his mouth to speak Sergius expected some extraordinary remark to issue from him.  “There is a basilisk sitting on your right shoulder.”  But he only said, in a persuasive and delicate voice, “You are Mr. Allenby, I believe?”
It turns out that the gentlemen is not, in fact, a gentlemen - but a fairy usurping the body of one.  Sergius is asked whether or not he believes in fairies, and somewhat nervously conceded that he always has done - based on the mysterious and imprecise events surrounding his own birth, abandonment by his mother, and subsequent adoption.  This confession is all that is needed for the fairy-man to grant Sergius five wishes - a transaction done with a businesslike demeanour unbefitting a fairy.
Sergius sat, drumming his fingers on the table-cloth and staring dreamily into space.  The strange referred again to his note-book.  "Hm. Yes," he murmured, "Sergius Allenby.  To be allowed five wishes with the usual reservations.  Period, one month.  Casual wishes not operative.  No other person to assist.  Allow me to congratulate you, Mr. Allenby.  I might tell you, in confidence, that you are the only person in this area to be granted five wishes."

"It does seem a lot." Sergius coughed apologetically.  "It always used to be three in the old tales."

"Frankly, there's not much one can do with three; and first wishes are invariably wasted."
And it is after this that the novel becomes strange.

I imagine quite a lot of you would have stopped listening when I used the word 'fairy'.  I've got to admit, I wasn't thrilled at the prospect myself.  Even with my love of slightly strange novels, which dabble in the fantastic (like a certain Miss Hargreaves, don't know if you've heard of it) I shudder at the thought of fairies and suchlike appearing in a novel.

Well, you're in luck.  Turns out he might not be a fairy after all.  Humphrey Nanson occupies the other narrative thread - he is a strange sort of psychologist, who muses a lot on the nature of morality, works in an underground room filled with erotica and children's books, and seems to be able to possess people.  Told you it became strange.  But he also enjoys toying with other people's lives, and wielding power over them.
“There is the simple expedient of the telephone directory.  Don’t you adore the pin of fate?  As for the joke – I would aim merely at the baffling and bewildering of the chosen victim.  For example, Harold Finching, warehouse clerk, receives, every Tuesday morning, through the post, a parcel of boiled cod and bootlaces.  Miss Pennyprim, of Mon Abri, discovers, every Sunday morning, a pair of bright scarlet bloomers hanging from her line.  Mr. Allenby, newsagent, is visited by a business-like fairy and told he may have five wishes.”
Curiouser and curiouser.  Even curiouserer is that Mr. Allenby's wishes seem to be coming true...

There are some fantastic ideas in this novel.  My favourite conceit within it (which is more or less incidental to the plot) is that of an artist so absorbed in painting the sea scene in front of him that it is not until the picture is completed that he realises he has included a woman drowning herself... as indeed she has.  But good ideas do not a novel make.  Where Miss Hargreaves was insouciant and joyful with an undercurrent of the sinister, Mr. Allenby Loses The Way rather loses the joy.  Instead we have a lot of meanderings about philosophy and morality and psychology which do little other than baffle and skip round in circles.  In the meantime, the plot arcs and interweavings don't seem to make much sense or maintain much continuity.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no character with the life of Miss Hargreaves.   She is a true one-off, a brilliant invention; I could read her dialogue with delight for months.  There is a vitality in her which spreads through her novel.  Mr. Allenby Loses The Way has no such character; everything is slightly leaden.  The writing is not bad, in and of itself, but neither is it sprightly.  The odd amusing turn of phrase reminds me of Baker at his peak, but only for a moment or two.

After I read Miss Hargreaves I had hoped I had been introduced to a wonderful writer, and could spend many happy years tracking down and loving his novels.  Instead, I am left rather desolate that Miss Hargreaves was the one bright light amidst mediocrity.  But I'll keep trying his books.  If any of them are half as wonderful as Miss Hargreaves, it'll have been worth the search.

Have you had that experience with any author - one brilliant book, but only one?  If so, let me know...




13 comments:

  1. It is clear to me now that I should probably finally read Miss Hargreaves (it is on my list for 2012) and that Frank Baker had the perfect 'dashing and artistic yet also intelligent and serious' beard - an impressive achievement, especially considering the sad beards so many other authors and artists have sported. This book definitely sounds like a miss but I do admire you for having followed through on your resolution and reviewed it.

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    1. But of course you have to, Claire - I'm very glad that the beard is added incentive!

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  2. I've just finished Miss Hargreaves (I haven't even got round to writing about it yet), and can see why Simon raves about it. She really is the most wonderful creation. Haven't read anything else by Frank Baker though.

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    1. So pleased you like it! I'm tempted to suggest you to stop there with Baker, as the others might be an anti-climax...

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  3. It reminds me of the note attached to a returned manuscript: 'Your hero lacks charisma' - well, he was a public health inspector who spent his life looking down drains - so what would one expect? I suppose we are all surrounded by a certain amount of mediocrity and long for the extraordinary!

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    1. Ha! True. Was this one of your own mss? Don't think I know of a book with a public health inspector in it! Although Edith Olivier's The Seraphim Room has a lengthy plotline about drains.

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  4. I wonder if its about internal hype, bear with me... I just recently picked up a book I was so excited about, not because of the author but because the book sounded so 'me' in terms of story and genres, and it fell flat with me. Part of this was because it wasn't that great but my inner disappointment caused by my own created pre-read hype made the blow all the worse.

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    1. I think you might be right - I'd have been less disappointed if this book appeared under a different author's name.

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  5. Not entirely related but I'm curious - have you read any Alice Thomas Ellis? As for Baker at least you found the one good book early otherwise you may never have found it at all which would have been a shame.

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    1. I haven't, actually - I've got a couple, but not read any.
      And good point - if I'd started with this, I wouldn't have read Miss H. (Although I do sometimes persevere with authors with fantastic results - viz. Waugh, Spark, and EM Forster.)

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  6. I have just acquired a copy of 'The Birds' - written by Baker in 1936 - so before Miss Hargreaves. This was of course long before the Daphne du Maurier short story of the same name (1952). All they really have in common is the notion of Birds attacking people which had been used before - e.g. by Arthur Machen in The Terror (1917). Baker may not even have been aware of Daphne's story when first published - the collection was called 'The Apple Tree'. But when the Hitchcock film was being made in 1962, Baker found out and took legal advice. He was advised that an action would be unlikely to succeed. He then wrote to du Maurier, who replied promptly saying she'd never heard of his book. And why should she have? After all, it was 25 years old and had only ever sold 350 copies! However, it was originally published by Peter Davies who was Daphne's first cousin. Early in 1936 she was researching for her family history "The Du Mauriers" (published in 1937) - so might well have been in Peter's office looking at papers belonging to his mother, Sylvia du Maurier, who had died when he was still a child. The central situation in the film is more like Frank's book than Daphne's short story. However, given the book's total obscurity - how could screenwriter Evan Hunter have obtained a copy in 1962? They are all dead of course. Hitchcock in 1980, Baker in 1988, Du Maurier in 1989 and Hunter in 2005. So we'll never know! Frank managed to sell the paperback rights on the back of the film - and it's this 1964 edition that I have just bought.

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    1. I have a copy, which I have yet to read, but it's all so very intriguing, isn't it? I hadn't realised it only sold 350 copies originally, nor that Daphne was related to the publisher... She did eventually read Baker's novel, and thought it much better (ideas-wise) than her story - she wrote to Oriel Malet about it, and it's in some collected letters to Malet.

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  7. Yes - the collection is called "Letters from Menabilly". Daphne read Frank's book because he sent her a copy following their correspondence - and that must have been an original Peter Davies copy - but yet she does not mention that 'coincidence' in her letter to Malet. I suspect that this was because she had been so traumatised by the "Rebecca" plagiarism case, which had forced her to spend a long period in New York giving evidence to clear the company that made the 1940 film, that she was not going to say anything to anyone that might cast doubt. In any case, Baker had no possible claim against her as her story is nothing like his book. His complaint was against Evan Hunter and Hitchcock. My question remains though - if Hunter did use Frank's book as a source, how did he find out about it and where did he get his copy from? Anyway, all this has inspired me to read Frank Baker's "The Birds".

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