Friday 9 May 2008

A Couple of Capuchins

Well, hasn't it heated up? Anything above polar leaves me manically fanning myself and drinking gallons of water, so I welcome the cool evenings. My computer is also heating me up, in as much as it is slower than me in a marathon at the moment... if you're reading this post, then the unlikely has occurred, and I have battled my way to posting it....!

I've had a little pile of Capuchin Classics to review for a while (click here for an interview that Emma, who runs Capuchin, did for Stuck-in-a-Book). First two out of the starting blocks are The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, and An Error of Judgement by Pamela
Hansford Johnson...

The Green Hat first. I hadn't heard of 1920s vogue novelist Michael Arlen (real name Dikran Konyoumdjian) but was swept in by the opening
sentence: "What kind of hat was it?" And, more importantly, whom the wearer. In this Green Hat, Iris Storm makes her entrance - watched by the novel's narrator - as she visits the recalcitrant Gerald March. What a simple way this novel begins, and yet what a whirl it takes one through - from simple domestic beginnings, we are whisked off over the country, through Europe, through philosophy about marriage; pondering on purity; the drama of near-death illness and the wit of the self-reflective. It's impossible to describe succinctly the plot of The Green Hat, so I shall instead try to tempt you with its style. It's the sort of novel we are assured that the 1920s are full of, and yet which I have never before read. It is the sort of novel which demonstrates how wrong those 'writing experts' are when they say never to use a metaphor where the truth will suffice; never to use five words where three will do, and preferably cut the whole chapter. Arlen luxuriates in his loquacity, and would not be ashamed to say so in words of comparable length.

There are sparks of humour, hyperbolic quips, which make you think he is of the Wodehouse school - then, twisted with a sardonic aftertaste, which brings Wilde instead to mind - and finally he will take the line into an entirely unexpected emotion or thought, which leaves you certain that this could only be described as 'Arlen'. It is brilliant, and only occasionally wearying - like reading witty treacle.

Of course, all that warrants an example, and I can find nothing to fit - but I noted down this:

'I said to the taxi-driver: "Hell can know no torment like the agony of an innocent in a cage," and when he had ca
refully examined his tip he agreed with me.'

The characters are studies in fashionable absurdity; sincere caricatures. Arlen introduces these figures in a dramatic and unique manner - for example:

Hilary was a man who had convinced himself and everyone else that he had neither use nor time for the flibberty-gibberties of life. He collected postage-stamps and had sat as Liberal Member for an Essex constituency for fifteen years. To be a Liberal was against every one of his prejudices, but to be a Conservative was against all his convictions. He thought of democracy as a drain-pipe through which the world must crawl for its health. He did not think the health of the world would ever be good. When travelling he looked porters sternly in the face and over-tipped them. His eyes were grey and gentle, and they were suspicious of being amused. I think that Hilary treasured a belief that his eyes were cold and ironic, as also that his face was of a stern cast. His face was long, and the features somehow muddled. It was a kind face.

Some will say this is all show, and it probably is. People say true art conceals art, but the 1920s disagree - fo
r a lavish, luxurious, and often hilarious read, but one which holds the emotional and painful experience of Iris, a character with depth behind the decadence - you can do little better than The Green Hat.

Onto An Error of Judgement. Pamela Hansford Johnson is one of those names which has been skirti
ng around my consciousness forever, though never enough to actively seek out one of her novels. Written in 1962, An Error of Judgement is an odd mixture - on one hand it is a slanted comedy of manners, a depiction of an ailing marriage - but at the centre of the novel is a gruesome and senseless murder (described, thankfully, in a brief manner). The narrator, Victor, has a fairly average marriage to Jenny - as the novel opens, he has been to see a Harley Street doctor, Setter, and discovered that nothing is wrong with him: he imagines returning with this news - 'I saw Jenny running toward me, her face alight with hope and fear. I saw her transformed into Maenad joy when she heard my good news, clutching at me, clawing at me, in the force of her delight nealy spilling us on the linoleum.' In actuality:...

I put my key in the lock. Jenny came walking towards me.
"Darling," I cried, "I'm all right! I'm all right!"
"I never thought you were anything else," she said, replacing my constant image of her by the equally constant reality, "And what did all that cost us?"

Alongside the dynamics of this middle-class relationship, Setter is quite a grotesque character. He confesses to becoming a doctor because of his love of pain - both preventing and inflicting it. The latter temptation he scrupulously avoids, but thinks he might have found justification when a macabre murder takes place, and he believes he knows who did it.

These two strands work alongside each other, in a portrait of moral decisions and human foibles. Varying in scale, they are nonetheless compatible storylines - though perhaps neither are dealt with quite satisfactorily. I finished the novel uncertain what Pamela Hansford Johnson had been trying to achieve, or whether or not it had been achieved. Certainly a thinker, as they say.

Well, this post has taken longer than I'd have thought humanly possible, and my laptop has made every effort to prevent it... so I shall take myself to bed.


  1. Thanks for bringing Capuchin Classics to my attention. And what a lovely look at two of them. Hope your laptop recovers soon!

  2. "He thought of demoncracy as a drain-pipe through which the world must crawl for its health."

    demoncracy - freudian slip?

  3. Ha! I'm revealing Fascist tendencies I didn't know I had...

  4. What beautiful looking books! They sound very interesting too. I also wilt in heat and use a laptop sometimes that belts hot air out of its underside. This is not conducive to cool, rational thought.

  5. Simon - I take my hat off to you, I found Green Hat unreadable - although I read it through, becasue of the Powell association. You might like to look at my comment on Cornflower today - we have quite different reactions to it!


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