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.