Thursday, 12 April 2012

Authors on Authors (Part 2)

A series of pamphlets called Writers and Their Work was issued by British Book News in the early 1950s, and I happen to have got my hands on two of them.  In fact, they were amongst the books I bought during Project 24.  As you'll be gathering from this week (as if you didn't already know) I love authors writing about authors - especially when both sides of the equation are authors whom I love.  I. Compton Burnett by Pamela Hansford Johnson was a no-brainer for me - I love ICB, and I like PHJ, so I had to get hold of this.  Plus it ticks off 1951 on A Century of Books in under fifty pages.  I'll try to make my post appropriately brief.


I bang on about Dame Ivy quite a bit here - basically, I want everyone to try her, and I've resigned myself to the fact that at least four-fifths of those who give Ivy a whirl will be unimpressed.  But the final fifth... oh, boy, we love her!  As Hansford Johnson writes, 'She is not to be mildly liked or disliked.  She is a writer to be left alone, or else to be made into an addiction.'  Reading this pamphlet has made this addict desperate to read another ICB novel, and I imagine it won't be long before I'm writing about one.  I love reading another author's enthusiasm for ICB, especially when she describes so perfectly what it is that I love about the Ivester.  (Sorry.  That won't happen again.)
The peculiar charm of Miss Compton-Burnett's novels, the charm that has won her not merely admirers but addicts, lies in her speaking of home-truths.  She achieves this by a certain fixed method.  One character propounds some ordinary, homely hypocrisy, the kind of phrase from which mankind for centuries has had his comfort and his peace of mind.  Immediately another character shows it up for the fraud it is, and does it in so plain and so frightful a fashion that one feels the sky is far more likely to fall upon the truth-teller than the hypocrite.  In these books there is always someone to lie and someone to tell the truth; the power of light and the power of darkness speaking antiphonally, with a dispassionate mutual understanding.
I can't add much to that, except 'agreed!'  A perceptive reader is always such a joy to read - that's why we love blogs, isn't it? - and Hansford Johnson writes as a reader, rather than a critic.  She shares the joy of the ICB addict; she recommends which novel to start with, and which to save for later; she even writes what amount to mini blog reviews of each novel - and, be warned, she gives away most of the plot, although plot is easily the least essential ingredient of a Compton-Burnett novel.  Drastic and shocking events occur, but only incidental to a lengthy discussion about grammar or, as PHJ points out above, the hypocrisy of a common phrase.  There is the occasional sense that PHJ wrote this quickly and could have done with editing a bit - one particular sentiment about service being unpleasant is repeated three times in 43 pages - but we can forgive her that.

What makes this pamphlet even more intriguing is that it was written in the middle of Ivy Compton-Burnett's career.  In 1951 she still had seven novels yet to write, including my introduction to her, Mother and Son.  So this is not the place to go for the final say on Dame Ivy's work, but it is fascinating to read a response in media res, as it were.


There is one description in this pamphlet which I will cherish - which so perfectly sums up ICB's peculiar genius, and which I will finish on.  (Come back tomorrow for the final in this mini-series of Authors on Authors - and one which is rather less niche.)
This is why Miss Compton-Burnett's writing appears so strange to the reader who comes upon it without warning, a gentle tea-cosy madness, a coil of vipers in a sewing-basket.

13 comments:

  1. This would be completely wasted on me now as I still don't know if I'm in the unimpressed 4/5ths of the population or the adoring 1/5th when it comes to ICB. It is really time to try her for myself!

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    1. Do try! Do! (But, yes, probably not worth reading this one just yet.)

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  2. My library has a copy in reserve stock and so I've placed an order. I'm not too worried about spoilers, because I have a feeling ICB may be an author who benefits from that foreknowledge so you can concentrate on the characters without the distraction of wondering what has going to happen.

    And I'm pleased to note you like PHJ as I've been wondering about her lately - since seeing the Bello Books reissues - the library had a lot of her books when I first started reading from the grown-up shelves but I never quite got to them before they disappeared.

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    1. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, Jane - have you read any ICB?

      PHJ - I really liked The Honours Board, and didn't much like An Error of Judgement (and only wrote about the latter here, I think) so I'm not entirely sure what I think of her!

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  3. I'm afraid I'm in the unimpressed camp so far which is a pity -- I tried one a while back on your recommendation and just couldn't get on with it. Sad, because when I hear you talk about her it makes me feel that I SHOULD love her. One day, perhaps, I'll give her another go -- just not yet.

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    1. Never mind, Harriet, I forgive you! I am a bit surprised, since I'd have thought she might appeal to you in a similar way to Patrick Hamilton, but I still forgive you. ;) To be honest, they're all more or less the same, so trying again might be fruitless... but you can always try!

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  4. You have such unusual taste - well, unusual for the present day. I do love Ivy Compton Burnett, but I have to admit I thought no one else was reading her nowadays (and I did read her a while ago, in my 20s). I'm also a big Jane Austen fan and don't get the whole 'chick lit' phenomenon associated with her - no, Emma is not Bridget Jones! You'll be telling me you like Barbars Pym as well, next?

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    1. Lovely to hear from another ICB fan! Yes, my tastes aren't entirely the usual ones for a 20-something male ;)

      I have only read one Pym novel - Excellent Women, years ago - and enjoyed it, so must read more.

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  5. Oops, no, I'm not on pet-name basis with Barbara Pym, just hit the wrong button in my excitement...

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    1. And there you had me hoping she was your best friend ;)

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  6. I once took a dish of curried eggs along to a literary lunch as my Barbara Pym contribution.
    I am not in the 1/5 'love her' section - nor even the 4/5 'unimpressed' section regarding ICB - I have my own section - entitled 'Chuck her book against the wall in utter fury' section - I detest her!
    Simon and I agree to differ!

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    1. Yes! I have met few who loathe ICB quite as much as my darling mother ;)

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