150+ essays on literary topics
Bell from a Distant Temple, a novel by my favourite neglected author, Ronald Fraser, is set in eighth century China. The Flying Draper (about a draper who masters the art of levitation and takes it to extreme lengths) and Rose Anstey (about a beautiful woman who appears out of nowhere, lacking a past, and rather like Goldilocks makes herself at home with three older men) are set mainly in twentieth century London. Surprising Results (about British ex-pats and a beautiful woman of loose morals) is set in the south of France.
Fraser’s discontent with materialism, not uncommon at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, finds expression in different ways in each of the four novels and gives them their distinctive quality. Sometimes, as in The Flying Draper, the power of mind over matter is what drives the plot, sometimes it is simply an undercurrent. Nothing that is physically impossible happens in Rose Anstey or Surprising Results (except perhaps the almost miraculous slimming of the overweight French woman that turns her into a beautiful nymph-like creature) but both are nonetheless imbued with a sense of other-worldliness, the mystery that surrounds Rose in the former, the idyllic location in the latter. At any moment, you expect a metamorphosis to occur.
Tu Ku, the central character in Bell from a Distant Temple, is based on Tu Fu, a poet of the T’ang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 906 AD. A few of the other characters are made up, but most are people who actually existed. One of the fictitious characters is the narrator, Tu Ku’s servant, nicknamed ‘The Mirror’ or ‘Master Self-effacement’ by Tu Ku. Another is The Priest of Luan, with whom the servant forms a close bond. In his introduction, Fraser writes that the Priest is a Taoist, ‘not one of those whom widening superstition credited with little but wonder-working powers and the secret of concocting an elixir, but a true follower of the Master Lao Tzu and one who had become an initiate in the mysteries that are surely common to all systems of esoteric knowledge, including esoteric Christianity’.
Fraser wrote more than twenty novels of which The Flying Draper in 1924 was the first and Bell from a Distant Temple in 1954 among the last. Albert Codling, the levitating Londoner, was still alive and well thirty years later in eighth century China, after a variety of incarnations in other times and other places, still firm in his belief that, as Hamlet puts it, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.
Herbert Read, an almost exact contemporary of Fraser and, like him though for different reasons, services to literature as opposed to diplomatic service, given a knighthood, is remembered mainly for his books about art, but he was also a poet and the author of one novel, The Green Child. It was published by Heinemann in 1935, Penguin published it in 1969 but have since discontinued it. On the back cover of my Penguin edition it is described as ‘a brilliantly sustained piece of political and philosophical fantasy’.
The novel is in three parts, of which the first and third are written in the third person and the second in the first. Olivero, an Englishman who for the last thirty years has been head of state in a South American republic which he helped to found, fakes his own assassination so that he can return to England and solve a mystery which began in his childhood when a mysterious green child turned up in the village, was adopted by a widow called Mrs Hardie and later married to a man called Kneeshaw. When he returns, he finds that a stream he remembers playing in when he was a boy is now flowing in the other direction. He meets the Green Child again and with her follows it to its source.
‘She walked swiftly through the water on to the silvery sand. She was sinking, and as she sank she turned towards Olivero. Her face was transfigured, radiant as an angel’s. She stretched out an arm towards Olivero. With a cry of happiness, as if a secret joy had been revealed to him, he raced forward and hand in hand they sank below the surface of the pool.’
In Part 2, Olivero tells his own story, from the day he left the village to the day, thirty years later, when he returned to it. The philosophical fantasy of Part 1, to which the author returns in Part 3, is now replaced by political fantasy, as Olivero describes in some detail the founding of the republic, the constitution he writes for it and his experience as head of state. It is, in effect, a Platonic monologue on the subject of the ideal state and is longer than the other two parts put together.
Part 3 takes up the story where Part 1 left off.
‘The water had no sooner closed over them than it seemed to be sucked away from their bodies, to curve upwards at their feet, to arch over their heads, until it formed a perfect spheroid. They were standing within an immense bubble, against which the water pressed in vain, the sandy particles quivering rapidly against its glassy inner wall.’
When the bubble bursts, they find themselves ‘in a large grotto, filled with an aqueous light, blue in the darker reaches, pale green towards the apparent outlet’.
Olivero is accepted into the world of the Green Child and after a period of adjustment, when ‘fully disintoxicated of all his earthly sentiments’ begins his journey through the stages of life, working first as a food-gatherer, then as a spinner and weaver, then as a crystal polisher. Having achieved perfection in that art, he joins one of the groups of philosophers who spend their days walking, talking and thinking. Finally, he passes from being the leader of his group to the final stage of solitary contemplation, followed by a peaceful death.
‘The beating of his heart was like the jumping of a flame in an empty lamp. Summoning his last vital effort, he stifled for all time that anxious agitation.’
The voice is different, as are the narrative technique and the symbolism which runs through it, but one thing that Sir Herbert had in common with Sir Ronald was a belief that art should be more than a realistic representation of everyday life. It was a strand in the literature of the first few decades of the twentieth century that has been lost and forgotten, novels that were experimental, not in language and form, like Joyce or Woolf, but in their subject matter and its treatment. David Garnett and T.F.Powys were two more for whom real life was never real enough. All these writers took liberties with reality in the way that artists were doing at the same time. The stories of T.F.Powys have more in common with the paintings of Stanley Spencer than with the work of his literary contemporaries. All these writers, well read and well thought of in their day, languish now in a literary backwater, known at best for just one or two books, Garnett for Lady Into Fox, Powys for Mr Weston’s Good Wine. The Green Child has recently been published in a new edition by Capuchin Classics. They should turn their attention now to Sir Ronald Fraser.
My next piece, on 20 August, will be about the Essays of Sir Francis Bacon.
My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 27 August.