Brigid Brophy’s novels have often been described as ‘brilliantly written’: a judgment which can have done her sales little good. (‘Don’t bother with that book – it’s brilliantly written!’) The notion that a writer ought actually to be able to write as distinct from slapping down words on paper is a dying one. Some far grander potency is required if fiction is to compete at all effectively with television. Television, on the other hand, can afford to be stylish on occasion (and occasionally is) since there is not the faintest doubt of its virility, its power (for as long or short as is desired) to capture and absorb its public. Television is not on the way to destroying fiction (which is what much of it is), it is only going to shove writing, ‘style’, a little further back into the darkness where, one sometimes thinks, true art is most at home, or which it at the least needs in large doses. Or is just going to get anyway.
An example of Brigid Brophy’s stylishness occurs at the opening of Hackenfeller’s Ape, first published in 1953 and the earliest of these reprints:
Radiant and full-leafed, the Park was alive with the murmuring vibration of the species which made it its preserve. The creatures, putting off timidity at the same time as winter drabness, abounded now with no ascertainable purpose except to sun themselves. Their seasonal brilliance – scarlet, sky-blue, yellow – interspersed the deep, high-summer greenness of the foliage The ground, too hard to receive their spoors, shook beneath games that revealed a high degree of social organisation.
The pleasing confusion here, abetted by ensuing references to flattened grass and the ‘scuffles and hoots’ that characterise courting rites, stems from the word ‘species’, which despite the author’s gentle hint can be either singular or plural, together with the expectations set up by the book’s title. This, we gather, is a zoological park, full of zoological species. It is only with the mention of cricket in the second paragraph that we know for sure that the species in question is specifically the human one: ‘the only species which imprisoned other species not for any motive of economic parasitism but for the dispassionate parasitism of indulging its curiosity’.
True stylishness always has a point, and makes it firmly yet discreetly. In this story man as a species is to be seen in relation to other species, the similarities and dissimilarities between them, the fellow feeling and feelinglessness; and it is advisable for us to be reminded at the outset that, while man may have dominion over all the inhabitants of sea, air and earth, he is still himself a species. Miss Brophy’s intention is neither to sentimentalise the animals (though they can generally do with a little of this) nor to put man in his place below the angels and below the beasts as well. The Park it neither a Garden of Eden nor a concentration camp, though it takes in, besides much middle ground, the milder elements of both.
According to the plan, Percy the male ape is to be sent into space as an experimental subject, which is a cause of distress to Professor Darrelhyde, patiently waiting to observe the strange mating ritual of this species, an event never witnessed hitherto by any white man. Unfortunately, while the female Edwina is ever ready for these rites, and for her rights, Percy has achieved too high a degree of consciousness to be willing or able to mate in captivity. ‘If he could not be free, he could not, or would not, be fertile.’ Neither Percy’s guilty feelings towards Edwina (he can practically blush) nor his tender ones can prevail against his idealism: he is a romantic. We may remember how, in Milton, the cool, static classicism of domestic life in Eden yields, after the Fall, to the mixed modes and uneasy motions of romanticism. And Hackenfeller’s Ape is reckoned to be in certain respects closer to man than any other species, a kind of missing link. So it is appropriate that in the upshot a young male of homo sapiens goes to the stars, unofficially, disguised in the late Percy’s pelt. The Professor’s objection to the use of Percy was that the monkey had no choice in the matter, no understanding of it. The young man Kendrick chooses to go knowing he will not return, and moreover his recorded reactions will be of greater scientific significance. If man experiments with the other animals, at least he experiments with himself as well. Just possibly there may be something in Mark Twain’s speculation that God invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey.
In the wake of a temporary escape from his cage, and a voluntary return to it, Percy has managed to mate – the Professor averting his gaze – and consequently Edwina is spared from deputising for him in the rocket since the symptoms of pregnancy would cloud the scientific issues… The novel ends with a set-piece describing the experience of the embryo. It has a rough passage and emerges looking like ‘one of the inadequate who would not survive’; but the Professor, who has come round to thinking that evolution proceeded by way of the weak and inadequate rather than as advertised, lends a hand, or a brisk slap. Hackenfeller’s Ape still lives.
A less readily assimilable set-piece is the debate between the Professor and the scientific civil servant Post, who believes the mark of Cain is stamped indelibly on man’s forehead, and rejects meat-eaters and vegetarians alike: ‘If they eat lettuce the lettuce-grower will shoot the rabbits who maraud the lettuces.’ Post gets the best of the argument, but it is the Professor’s muddled, grieving, hopeful heart that counts for more. There is in fact not a really vicious character in the novel. The keeper Tom shoots the savage ape who is apparently attacking him (caught in a recognisably human situation, Percy is actually hastening to him as a friend), but is instrumental in saving Percy’s son. Gloria is a thief and a sniveller, but she applies her professional skills to breaking into the monkeys’ cage, thus enabling Percy to exercise a mite of free will and then to do his marital and racial duty. Though he likes men and machines for what they can do whereas the Professor likes men and monkeys for what they cannot do, Kendrick is a brave young man with the courage of his convictions. And, despite a resemblance to some egregiously seedy simian, even Colonel Hunter – who operates on the quasi-pornographic fringe of ‘animal welfare’ and owns one of Pavlov’s original dogs, stuffed – may accidentally do some good by way of his atrocity photographs.
But the novel’s final effect is certainly not one of glossing over man’s behaviour. Rather, it is one, achieved nimbly and light-handedly, of dialectical spiritualism. If there were no goodness in men, how could you hope, why should you ever try, to make them better? If there were no evil, whatever would you find to do, or try to do?
Though easy enough (I would think) to enjoy, Miss Brophy’s writing is hard to discuss, harder than much inferior writing. Paradoxically, one can only hope to convey something of the style by telling something of the story. By their very nature the success of her novels derives from a generous succession of ‘small touches’ rather than large grabs. Thus, in Flesh (1962), when Marcus – unappealing, a hopeless case, a ‘voodoo scarecrow’ – is taken up by the brisk and attractive Nancy, he feels ‘like a derelict property suddenly bought up by a speculator. He was bound to wonder what was to be made of him.’ There follows, without fuss, the story of Marcus’s past in parvo: ‘His relations with what his parents called other young people consisted in his following, in his empty car, their piled, shouting and erratically-driven cars. In the silence of his car he lost communication with them, even though he kept their tail-lights in view.’
Besides being a great organiser, Nancy turns out to possess one particular talent: for sexual intercourse. And, as (to his surprise) he discovers on their honeymoon, Marcus is an apt and quick pupil. Miss Brophy’s two pages on this theme, ‘poetic’ (I suppose) in that they shun four-letter words and the language of the clinic, but given to the pertinence and precision of poetry rather than the evasive and windy tropes of poeticality, speak volumes: perhaps the sexual act can after all be translated into words both fair and faithful.
Marcus’s favourite painter – a starveling’s taste? – is Rubens, with his ‘great blonde areas’ of flesh. When he attempts to convert Nancy, who ‘just can’t see anything in women of that type’, she tells him the story of the man who went round an exhibition of Rubens and came out a vegetarian. In his case, he replies, he went in a vegetarian and came out a carnivore. Now, under Nancy’s tutelage and with the help of copious carbohydrates, Marcus grows fat; and is soon too far gone, in fleshiness and in sex, for dieting to work. ‘I’ve become a Rubens woman’ – a development that horrifies Nancy but (she must see something in men of that type) arouses her too.
When their baby comes along, they hire a German au pair girl – after considerable misgivings on Marcus’s part, in that they are Jewish. But Ilse is a body beautiful. Naturally (the reader may feel) Marcus takes Ilse as his mistress; or is taken by her. Well, this proves that he can make love to a woman other than Nancy, which was something he had had doubts about: one of those luxury worries that afflict the emotionally well-to-do. He tries to goad himself into feeling guilty, but doesn’t get far. After all, he has simply become what Nancy wanted him to be: unthin, unhopeless, unvirgnal, unover-sensitive. The pupil has outstripped the teacher: a not uncommon phenomenon and one a teacher as magnanimous as Nancy can, if not welcome, at any rate disregard. And the more readily in that she has discovered another talent in herself, for being a mother. Ilse’s permit expires, and we leave husband and wife making fat, indolent, matrimonial love. Possibly, Nancy muses, she might have preferred pain to all this irresistible pleasure. But ‘perhaps her body was too nice to be pained. Anyway, he was too nice, and too lazy, to pain her.’ For Flesh is no ‘problem novel’; indeed, like much of this author’s work, it holds a distinct flavour of the fairy-tale, though a flavour that is not allowed to grow too strong. The subject, for once, is the pleasures of the flesh, not the pains.
One of the pains of the flesh is the thought of mortality. Not only does Miss Brophy write well, but she writes well about different things. Like her greatly admired Jane Austen, she is ‘a Writer of Fancy’, and in The Snow Ball (1964) considerably more fanciful than Jane Austen ever was. And considerably more baroque than in her recent novel Palace without Chairs, which, though subtitled ‘A Baroque Novel’, is more fairly described as a shrewd quasi-fairy-tale about the impingement of the modern world on a quasi-Rumanian monarchy.
In The Snow Ball, Anna K., whose face is that of a ‘discontented lapdog about to sneeze’ (her own description, however), meets a Don Giovanni at a New Year’s Eve fancy dress ball: she of course is dressed as Donna Anna. Will she prove chaste as snow, or will she (as it were) be undone by the Don? Sophistication is rife, the wealthy host and hostess are called Tom-Tom and Tum-Tum, and the decor is elegant, or at least expensive, to the point at which the common reader might find himself hesitating to object at all firmly to a gangbang or a few lynchings by the peasantry. We are swaying on the edge of the lusher adverts in the colour magazines, remote indeed from the sparse strong lines of Hackenfeller’s Ape. However, the dense baroquerie – perhaps we should rather use Anna’s expression, ‘couturier’s rococo’, or even ‘tart’s rococo’ – is happily relieved by two guests of a younger generation, Ruth and Edward, dressed as Cherubino and Casanova, and particularly by Ruth’s seemingly naive, up-to-the-minute diary.
‘Perhaps real trouble between Ed. and me is am already too old to love,’ she writes down in the ladies’ cloakroom. Edward prefers to dance with the mature Anna. He doesn’t care to be seen dancing with a stable-hand. ‘Who is this Cherubino, anyway?’ – Edward is ‘v. badly educated,’ Ruth has noted in her diary, ‘anyway about cultured things.’ But the inevitable is bound to happen. And does, in the back of Ruth’s father’s car. Whereupon, under the entry ‘ANNA K. IS A WHORE,’ she adds: ‘Suppose I am too, now (3.22 a.m.).’ Having recovered from a sharp kick in the crotch which Ruth gives him for throwing an amorous snowball at Anna and talking big about the benefits of sex with older women, Edward reflects that it is rather magnificent: ‘I mean, the first time one has it – to have it in a Bentley.’ Such touches of vulgar (if not precisely everyday) reality rest felicitously against the backdrop of artifice. They even prop it up.
The older couple’s affair is more sombre and less straightforward, though in each case the man is the less intelligent of the two, the woman the more troubled. For Anna considers herself too old for adventures and is much concerned with death: a concern not dispelled by Don Giovanni’s cheery assurance that sexual intercourse drives out thoughts of death in direct proportion to its frequency – and despite her going with him to his flat, in mid-ball. Tum-Tum, the plump, much-married and more sanguine hostess (her name, deliberately no doubt but confusingly, is Anne), has also enjoyed an amorous interlude, in her case marital, in the course of the ball. We glimpse her on the grand staircase, praying to a hideous statue of the only god she believes in: ‘O Cupid, save the world.’ Down below in the ballroom a guest collapses and dies. And Anna goes home in a taxi, careful not to let Don Giovanni overhear her address. Outside the snow is beginning to melt.
Brigid Brophy is probably too versatile for her own good, as good goes, and possibly a little too clever, and certainly too much of a writer. As my daughter remarked recently, apropos of the paradoxes that nestle at the heart of the book trade, people seem to prefer to read books that aren’t by writers.