Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy

Hackenfeller's ApeAs you may have heard mentioned in the latest episode of ‘Tea or Books?’, should you listen to that, I’ve recently read Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953) by Brigid Brophy – inspired by listening to a ‘Backlisted’ episode on one of her novels, and hearing her daughter speak at a conference. I think I’d bought the novel (novella?) some time before that, based entirely on the fact that short Virago Modern Classics are often interesting – and it proved to be really rather good.

I’ve read a couple of books about monkeys and humans relating one way or another – though they were both written a little earlier; Appius and Virginia by G.E. Trevelyan is about a woman trying to teach a monkey as though he were a child, while His Monkey Wife by John Collier is… well, what it sounds like. Hackenfeller’s Ape is less adventurous in its premise: the ape remains firmly an ape, and nobody is trying to get him to be anything else.

Professor Darrelhyde is (as the Virago blurb informs me) ‘a diffident bachelor’, and he’s been stationed at London Zoo to observe the mating practices of Hackenfeller’s ape – more particularly, that of Percy and Edwina. In the world of the novel (look, I don’t know if this ape even exists), the mating has never been observed, and it will be a service to science for the Professor to make notes. Only it seems the Percy isn’t keen. Edwina keeps making approaches that he refuses – and Brophy judges brilliantly the amount that we should be let into his perspective, with a certain haziness where Percy can’t quite understand his own ape-motivations.

Halfway through, things change a bit – as the Professor (and a would-be pickpocket who reluctantly joins forces with him) tries to rescue Percy from being sent into space. Bear with me – it sounds absurd, but it works.

What makes Hackenfeller’s Ape so good is Brophy’s writing. She balances light, insouciant dialogue with pretty elaborate and philosophical prose. It shouldn’t work properly together, but it really does – it makes for an intoxicatingly good mix. Here’s an example of her writing from near the beginning – where she describes the humans who have set up the zoo:

These were the young of a species which had laid out the Park with an ingenuity that outstripped the beaver’s; which, already the most dextrous of the land animals, had acquired greater endurance under the sea than the whale and in the air had a lower casualty rate for its journeys than migrating birds. This was, moreover, the only species which imprisoned other species not for any motive of economic parasitism but for the dispassionate parasitism of indulging its curiosity.

She also has a knack for wry observation that was a pleasure to read – not that dissimilar to Elizabeth Taylor, thinking about it. I can imagine either of them penning this line (which is Brophy’s): ‘He smiled in a way which, in the middle-aged man, was boyish. In a boy it would have been sinister.’

It continues, with drama and pathos, poignant and action-packed in turn. And all – may I remind you – in hardly more than a hundred pages.

My conclusions, after finishing this novella, are that I’d read Brophy writing anything. She handles this frankly bizarre premise, and mix of styles, with excellent adeptness – and it gives me great hope for diving into more of her novels in future. It will be intriguing to see how her writing works over a broader canvas.

Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell

You know how I don’t shut up about Miss Hargreaves?  (Have you read it?  It’s great.)  Well, Hayley is (in a rather better mannered way) equally enthusiastic about Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water.  Since Hayley and I often enjoy the same books, I’ve been intending to read it for ages – but every copy I’ve stumbled across in charity shops has been rather ugly.  I wish I’d seen the beautiful cover pictured.  When Hayley lent me her copy (as part of a postal book group we’re both in) I was excited finally to read it.

Well, I say ‘excited’.  There was a part of me that was nervous – because I rarely read non-fiction when it’s not about literature, and I have no particular interest in wildlife rearing.  If it didn’t come with such a strong recommendation from Hayley, I doubt that I’d ever have considered reading it.  And I would have missed out.

Gavin Maxwell doesn’t really structure Ring of Bright Water in a traditional beginning-middle-end sort of way, which I imagine the film adaptation probably does – it isn’t encircled by the life of any single animal, or his occupancy of his remote Scottish home, but instead meanders through many of Maxwell’s countryside adventures.

I’m going to concentrate on the ones which made Ring of Bright Water famous – the otters – although (cover aside) you wouldn’t have much of a clue that they were coming for the first section of the book, which looks at the flora and fauna of the middle of nowhere in Scotland, and such matters as whale fishing (Maxwell is strongly against, despite having run a shark fishery – there is a constant paradox between his love of his animals and his killing of animals).  The only cohesion (and it is quite enough) is that it’s Maxwell’s opinions and voice, and connected with marine and rural life.

And then the otters come along.

The first otter only lives for a day or two, but after that comes Mij.  He is really the star of Ring of Bright Water, and the high point in Maxwell’s affections.  I can’t give any higher praise than to say that someone like me, interested in the animal kingdom chiefly when it concerns kittens, was entirely enamoured and captivated, and briefly considered whether it would be practical to get a pet otter.

Otters are extremely bad at doing nothing.  That is to say that they cannot, as a dog does, lie still and awake; they are either asleep or entirely absorbed in play or other activity.  If there is no acceptable toy, or if they are in a mood of frustration, they will, apparently with the utmost good humour, set about laying the land waste.  There is, I am convinced, something positively provoking to an otter about order and tidiness in any form, and the greater the state of confusion that they can create about them the more contented they feel.
Er, maybe not.  Maxwell sets out to tell you how incomparable the otter is as a pet – cheerful, companionable, spirited – and only slowly does he reveal that they are completely untameable, very destructive, and occasionally (if repentingly) violent.

But Mij is still a wonder – or, rather, Maxwell is a wonder for the way he tells his story.  He is certainly a gifted and natural storyteller, and the reader is easily lulled into similar levels of affection towards Mij, and a complicit sympathy with Maxwell (and never for a moment what a novelist would subtly ask – that we would pity the loner, or wonder at his isolation.)

I don’t want to spoil the high-jinks (yes, high-jinks – and tomfoolery, mark you) of the book, and I don’t think I can capture Maxwell’s tone – so I will give my usual proviso for books I didn’t expect to enjoy so much: read it even if you don’t think you’ll like it!  (And if David Attenborough is your bag, then you’ll probably love it even more.)

It is a beautiful book, for the rhythm and balance of its prose alone, quite apart from the topic or the setting.  I’m really pleased that, years down the line, I’ve finally taken up Hayley’s recommendation – even if she had to lend Ring of Bright Water to me to make that happen.

The Foolish Immortals – Paul Gallico

I don’t think I’ve read any author whose work is as disparate as Paul Gallico (and I probably start all my reviews of his books by saying that.)  I started with the novel I still consider his best, of the ones I’ve read: the dark fairy-tale Love of Seven Dolls.  Then there is the whimsical (Jennie), the amusing and eccentric (the Mrs. Harris series), the adventure story (although I’ve not read it, The Poseidon Adventure surely falls into this category.)

I started The Foolish Immortals (1953) hoping that it would be in one category, it shifted into another, and then it revealed a whole new facet of Gallico’s writing arsenal.  Confused?  I’ll try to explain…

The concept of The Foolish Immortals immediately appealed to me, because it sounded like the sort of topic which could easily be given the Love of Seven Dolls treatment, revolving (as it did) around manipulation, wilful delusion, and a touch of distorted fairy-tale – the last of which seems to be the ingredient which appears, in some form or other, in all the Gallico novels I’ve read.

Hannah Bascombe is rich, old, American heiress, who has successfully invested the money her business man father left her to make herself one of the richest people in the world.  There is only one aspect of her life over which she does not have ultimate control – and that is its span.  She has, she notes, reached her three-score-and-ten, and cannot have many decades left to live.  And yet… and yet, she hopes that money and power might be able to secure her immortality.

Enter, stage-left, Joe Sears.  He is a poor man and a chancer, clever and manipulative, and sees an opportunity.  Having enlisted the dubious help of a young (but visually ageless) ex-soldier called Ben-Isaac (in case Gallico didn’t signpost it well enough, he’s Jewish), Sears manages to get an appointment with Hannah Bascombe.  To do so, he has to get past her beautiful, utterly dependent niece Clary – but, having manoeuvred his way to Hannah, he recognises her vulnerability, and thinks that it could be a good way to make himself some money…

“What if you were able to duplicate their years?  Supposing you were able to outwit the Philistines waiting to trample your vineyards by outliving them, like Mahlalaleel, Cainan, Jared and Enoch, generation after generation down through the centuries until no living man would remember when you were born and not even unborn generations of the future could hope to be alive when you died?”
He offers Hannah this possibility, based on the ages to which people are described as living in the Old Testament (often many centuries) – suggesting that he knows where they can find a food which will give Hannah the same longevity.  And it’s in Israel.

A bit of persuasion later, and they’re off.  Nobody really trusts anybody else on this venture, and everybody is out for themselves.  Things grow even trickier to decipher (for the reader too) when they stumble across a man purported to be Ben-Isaac’s missing, much-beloved uncle – a much-lauded academic who is, it turns out, working on the land.  Sears is, naturally, suspicious of this stranger, particularly when he takes over and Hannah appoints him the leader of their venture.  Who is scamming whom?

And this is where Gallico’s other genres come into play.  There is a sizeable amount of what I admired in Love of Seven Dolls, but Sears is never quite as credible a villain as Monsieur Nicholas – in neither a fairytale nor a realistic way – simply because Sears is quite an inconsistent character.  Which matches the change in genres – in Israel, things turn rather ‘adventure novel’ for a while, as they caught up in a shoot-out.  I know this sort of thing is supposed to be very exciting, but I find it unutterably tedious, and ended up skipping most of that section.

So we come onto the genre I’d yet to encounter in Gallico’s novels – the spiritual or religious theme.  As you might know, I am a Christian, but I don’t often read novels which feature faith – and, I have to say, I was a bit nervous to see how skilfully Gallico would handle it.  And, I’ve got to say, I was quite impressed – both the Jewish and Christian characters experience direct or indirect encounters with God while travelling through Israel, and these sections were moving (although, it must be conceded, entirely out of kilter with the rest of the novel.)

There are a few more twists and turns, a few more rugs pulled from under feet, and The Foolish Immortals concludes.  It is a very interesting, but maddeningly inconsistent novel.  Not inconsistent in quality (perhaps), but in style and tone.  It’s as though Gallico wanted to write a novel which took place in Israel, and couldn’t decide whether it should be about faith, boyish adventure, or unsettling manipulation – and so threw all of them in together.

Yet again, this is a book I’m criticising for not being written in the way I’d hoped it would be – but with, I think, greater justification than with yesterday’s post on Consider the Years, because in the case of The Foolish Immortals, it started off in the way I’d expected.  With this ingenious idea, Gallico could have written one of my favourite novels.  As it turns out, he’s written a good book, which I find quite intriguing, a little bewildering, and not insignificantly disappointing.

The Easter Party – Vita Sackville-West

Hayley has a good track record of giving me books that she hasn’t hugely enjoyed, which I end up loving. First off was Marghanita Laski’s Love on the Supertax (which remains my favourite of her novels, although I’ve only read three); now is Vita Sackville-West’s The Easter Party (1953). I couldn’t get a good photograph in the light, so I played around with the image instead.

It certainly isn’t an unflawed novel.  It is melodramatic and improbable.  But, with the odd reservation or two, I loved it.

The Easter party in question is a gathering at Anstey, the beautiful country home of Walter and Rose Mortibois.  In the party is Rose’s dowdy, contented sister Lucy, with her husband Dick and 22 year old son Robin; eccentric, flirtatious Lady Quarles, and Walter’s witty, intelligent brother Gilbert.  It is a curious group of people, all a little wary of the situation, each with their own private or public anxieties.  Which sounds a very trite way to describe the scenario – and, truth be told, Vita Sackville-West doesn’t wander too far from the trite, at times.

This is especially true in the comparison of Rose and Lucy.  Rose is in a loveless marriage – or, rather, an unloved partner in a marriage, for she devotedly loves Walter.  He, however, never made any bones about what he was offering her.  He prefixes his proposal with “I will not pretend to be in love with you,” which is, of course, what every little girl dreams of happening.  By contrast, Lucy and Dick have a delightful marriage.  It is very rare to come across a lovely, loving couple in fiction, and Vita S-W has to be congratulated for creating a pair who, in middle-age, still call each other ‘Pudding’, and are adorable rather than nauseating.

So, yes, we have the rich, unhappy woman and her poor, happy woman.  (By ‘poor’ I mean, naturally, ‘only has one bathroom’ – they’re not on the streets.)  It’s not the most original set-up, and I did wonder whether Vita was writing this in a rush – it was her penultimate novel, and I already knew that I hadn’t been much of a fan of her final one.  But this turns out to be more than a collection of amusing, exaggerated characters and well-worn, inevitable moral lessons.  Vita Sackville-West weaves something rather wonderful from this material.  For starters, it is amusing – here is Gilbert’s faux-horror at the idea of meeting Lady Quarles:

Are you trying to tell me that Lady Quarles is cosy?  If so, I don’t believe it.  Nothing that I have ever heard of her indicates anything of the sort.  It is true that my cognizance of her is limited to the piles of illustrated papers, all out of date, which I contemplate only when I visit, in a state of the greatest apprehension, my dentist or my doctor.  I am perhaps then not in the best of moods to appreciate the charm of irresistible, lovable ladies propped on a shooting-stick in tweeds or entering a theatre by flashlight in an ermine cloak, but on the whole I think I had better not risk transferring my acquaintance with Lady Quarles from the printed page to the flesh.  I might be disillusioned.
She is a wonderful character when she arrives – garrulous, excitable, somehow loved by all despite being an almighty nuisance.  I found her a little less tolerable when she started bearing her soul – because she started declaiming things in a very third-act-Ibsen way.  Thinking of The Easter Party in dramatic terms was very helpful for these segments…

It is, however, with the host and hostess that The Easter Party gets more interesting and original – and stand above similar novels.  I don’t know about you, but I find passion between humans in novels rather dull to read about – it’s so apt, if not done perfectly, to smack of the third-rate melodrama.  Perhaps it’s my diet of soap operas which has made me so intolerant of these unconvincing sounding conversations.  But what I will run towards, eagerly, are novels where a human is has a passionate love for something non-human.  I was going to say inanimate, but that’s not true for the central passions in The Easter Party.

For Rose, it is (besides her cold husband) Anstey and its gardens.  In Vita Sackville-West’s exceptionally brilliant novella The Heir, a man develops a loving obsession with the house he inherited.  Thirty years later, Vita Sackville-West is still exploring the relationship between person and property.  She, of course, had this deep bond with her family home Knole (and was justifiably pained and outraged that the laws of primogeniture meant her gender precluded her inheriting it.)  This affection, along with her expertise as a gardener, enables her to write beautifully and movingly about Anstey and its grounds:

The beauty of the renowned Anstey gardens!  Rose stood amazed.  Svend [the dog] brought one of his little sticks and dropped it at her feet and stood looking up, waiting for her to throw it, but she could take no notice.  She was gazing across the lake, with the great amphitheatre of trees piling up behind it, and the classical temples standing at intervals along its shores.  It was one of the most famous landscape gardens in England, laid out in the eighteenth century, far too big for the house it belonged to.  The house, however, was not visible from here, and, but for the temples, the garden might not have been a thing of artifice at all, but part of the natural scenery of woods and water, stretching away indefinitely into the countryside, untended by the hand of man.  Already the legions of wild daffodils were yellowing the grassy slopes, and a flight of duck rose from the lake which they frequented of their own accord.  The air was soft with the first warmth of spring, which is so different from the last warmth of autumn; the difference between the beginning and the end, between arrival and departure.
But this is familiar Vita territory; I was not surprised to encounter it.  A more unexpected, and unexpectedly moving, passion was the relationship Walter has with his Alsatian Svend.  (And in case you’re worrying, based on my previous reading of Lady into Fox and His Monkey Wife, fear not – their relationship is entirely unsuspect.)  Walter, who cannot express affection for any human, including his wife, is devoted to his dog.  The scenes describing their companionship and mutual trust could have felt like a mawkishly over-sentimental Marley and Me intrusion, but are done so cleverly and touchingly, that I doubt anybody could censor them.  And that’s coming from a cat person.  Svend even becomes an important plot pivot…

There are enough lingering secrets and unlikely speeches to make The Easter Party feel like a throwback to theatrical melodrama, but Vita Sackville-West combines these with gorgeous description, genuine pathos, and a web of delicate writing which bewitches the reader.  It’s a heady mixture, and one I doubt many authors could pull off – but I loved it.  Vita Sackville-West will never be in the same stable as Virginia Woolf, the author with whom she is still most often mentioned.  She wasn’t trying to be.  She was a talented writer, crafting something unusual – somehow both willfully derivative and original, and (for me, at least) an absorbing, delightful, occasionally tragic, read.  Thank you, Hayley!