One of the many lovely things about being at home in Somerset is that most of my books are down here. Although I have several hundred unread books in Oxford, I have many more in Somerset that I don’t get to run my eyes over everyday – and so there are some fun surprises on the shelves here. Not so much books I’d forgotten about, but certainly books I hadn’t expected to be able to read soon. Saturday was so sunny and lovely that I wanted to pick up something that perfectly matched my mood. And what better than to treat myself with a long-awaited Barbara Comyns?
|Oh, how did you get into the picture, Sherpa?|
I’ve read nearly all of Comyns’ novels now (saving just A Touch of Mistletoe) and I’d thought that the styles divided neatly into two – the seven novels of the 1940s-’60s, and the three which she published in the 1980s after being rediscovered by those bastions of rediscovery, Virago Modern Classics. Well, if I’d read Mr. Fox blindfolded (…as it were) then I would have placed it in the first group. Which is a very good thing, in my book – Mr. Fox (1987) is up there with Comyns’ best books, in terms of tone, character, and sheer calm madness.
The setting is World War Two, and the heroine (of sorts) is typically Comyns territory – Caroline Seymore has a young daughter (Jenny) but is quite like a child herself. As she narrates her life – running from flat to house to flat, avoiding bombs, selling pianos, cleaning for a neurotic vegetarian – she is that wonderfully Comynsian combination of naive and fatalistic and optimistic:
I still had a feeling something wonderful was going to happen, although it was taking a long time. Perhaps it was just as well to get all the sad part of my life over at one go and have all the good things to look forward to.
I don’t think any sentence could encapsulate the outlook of a Comyns heroine better than that. As always, we have the surreal told in a matter-of-fact way, and the novel reminded me most of The Skin Chairs. It is like someone telling their life story in one long breath, slightly muddled, with emphasis falling equally on the significant and insignificant. It makes reading the novel a bit disorientating, but in a lovely way – you just go along for the ride, and wait to see what will happen. And it makes it all feel so believable, because surely no novelist could craft something so detailed and yet so arbitrary?
And the Mr. Fox of the title? He is that wartime speciality, the spiv. There never seems to be any romance between Caroline and Mr. Fox, but they live together to save money and conduct their curious operations together – whether on the black market or, as mentioned, selling grand pianos. He is a charming man, and Caroline seems curiously drawn to his ginger beard, but he also has a ferocious temper – and Caroline is often happier when he’s not around. The pairing is bizarre – a marriage of convenience that isn’t actually a marriage. It adds to the surreality of the novel, and I can’t really work out why he gets the title to himself, since Mr. Fox seems to be so much more about Caroline. Or even, indeed, about the Second World War. With air raids and rationing and evacuees, Comyns uses the recognisable elements of every wartime novel or memoir, but distorts them with her unusual style and choice of focus. How many times have we seen films or read novels with a scene of anxious villagers gathered in church to hear war declared? Compare that with the way in which Comyns shows it:
On Sunday I could stay at home because the men from the Council took a holiday; so the Sunday following my visit to Straws I was washing and ironing all the curtains so that they would be fresh for the new house. I listened to the wireless as I ironed, but I was thinking of other things and was not listening very carefully; then suddenly I heard Mr Chamberlain telling everyone the war had come, it was really here although outside the sun was shining. It didn’t seem suitable to iron now the war had really come, so I disconnected the iron and stood by the window biting my nails and wondering what to do next.
Mr. Fox, like all her novels, is also very funny. Mostly that is because of the naive but unshockable voice which is cumulatively built up, but I also loved lines like this:
I hoped they liked warmth, because I had an idea vegetarians thought it unhealthy to be warm or comfortable and usually lived in a howling draught
The novel has such an authenticity that I wonder if Comyns kept it in a drawer for decades. I wish somebody would hurry up and write a biography of her, because I’d dearly love to know more about her life – if it is a tenth as bizarre and captivating as her novels, then it’d make for a splendid biography.
If you’ve never read any of Barbara Comyns’ work before, I’d still recommend starting with Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead or The Vet’s Daughter (and probably not Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, which is her most well-known and my least favourite), but you wouldn’t be doing badly if Mr. Fox was your first encounter with her. And if you already know and love Comyns, make sure you find yourself a copy of this one – you’re in for a treat.