poison

WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD BY BARBARA COMYNS

‘She wasn’t going to tell you,’ her mother had begun. And then she – her mother – told me. I, for my part, remarked that I hadn’t noticed anything. ‘It only shows when I’m nervous,’ Megan replied, looking at the floor, or something beyond it. ‘She makes all kinds of noises,’ her mother took up, before imitating her daughter’s Tourette’s. ‘If you ever do get nervous,’ I said, ‘don’t worry about it. Everyone gets nervous sometimes.’ I’m not sure now what exactly I was trying to say. I guess I wanted to let her know that her condition wasn’t a big deal for me, although I knew it would be a big deal for her. ‘See, Megan,’ her mother said, smilingly, ‘even normal people get nervous.’ And then there was silence, long enough for me to wonder whether her mother was conscious of her unkindness. Was there some malice in it? Or was it sheer thoughtlessness? And did it even matter? The effect was the same.

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Last year I read Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. I was impressed by the prose style, but thought it a failure as a novel in almost every other respect. Especially irksome was the characterisation, which was so lacking in subtlety, so predictable, as to be soap opera-ish. Alice’s father, for example, is just plain bad, and his every appearance results in him doing something brutish. His mistress, on the other hand, is the archetypal common tart. Everyone in the novel conforms to a cliche, and, in my opinion, calling it a ‘fairytale’ doesn’t excuse these faults. Consequently, the small number of pages – one hundred and thirty in my edition – felt like a slog; and, bearing in mind that The Vet’s Daughter is often described as Comyns’ most accomplished work, I was reticent to try another. I’m glad, however, that I overcame my reticence as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, her third novel, might be the best thing I have read this year.

The term ‘gothic’ is consistently applied to Comyns’ books, and the title of this one certainly suggests dark and creepy. Indeed, there are a number of gothic motifs, such as a thunderstorm and a monstrously ugly man with a scarred face; and references are made to ‘tormented screams’ and the ‘stench of evilness.’ Moreover, the novel begins with a flood, with, therefore, disaster; but more tellingly it begins with death. A pig is said to float by, ‘its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding’; then ‘a tabby cat with a distended belly passed, its little paws showing above the water, its small head hanging low.’ As the narrative progresses, the corpses increase in number, and are not at all limited to the animal kingdom. However, unlike with The Vet’s Daughter, I felt as though the violence and bleakness of some of the content serves a purpose, which is to tell us something significant about the characters, and, by extension, people-in-general.

In terms of death, therefore, what is important is not the event itself but people’s reactions to it. When the flood hits one of the first questions asked is: has anyone drowned? And more than one character is eager to see a dead body. Likewise, the turn-out for funerals is high. This sort of gruesome voyeurism is not news, or certainly not to me. There is a reason why there is a spike in newspaper sales, online hits, tv viewing figures, whenever a tragedy strikes; and there is a reason why the death toll is so relentlessly reported. We enjoy this stuff. The higher the count, the grislier the details, the better. The book focuses on the Willoweed family, and it is interesting to note how the two eldest members deal wth death. First, Ebin seeks to make money out of it, to further his career, by writing articles about the quickly expiring locals and selling them to The Daily Courier. The grandmother, on the other hand, gleefully wishes it upon others, bantering with Ives about who will croak first. Finally, both mother and son feel sorry for themselves when one of the family passes away.

article-0-19721C12000005DC-69_634x473 (1).jpg

As I criticised the characterisation in The Vet’s Daughter I should point out that I had similar misgivings about Grandmother Willoweed, the ‘bad fairy’ or ‘dreadful old black bird’ of the story. The family matriarch is a violent bully, who hits out at her maids with a carpet-beater and calls them names, such as ‘sluts.’ The rest of the Willoweeds, and many of the other villagers, except perhaps old Ives, are fearful of her, and one gets the impression  – as with all sadists – that she enjoys it, or at least mistakes it for respect. Yet what makes her slightly more interesting than Alice’s father, what gives her a smidgen of depth, is her age, and therefore her vulnerability. During the course of the novel she has her seventieth birthday. To be that grand age is, I would imagine, to feel powerless, and so one might understand her desire to dominate in terms of that, i.e. as a way of avoiding feeling pathetic. Moreover, one wonders how much of her behaviour might be due to dementia; certainly, she appears to have gone mad towards the end.

As already suggested, Ebin Willoweed is another notable character, and he, thankfully, is not painted in quite such broad strokes. He is initially described as a ‘slothful’ and ‘ineffectual’ man, who is something of a failure, even a fool. His favourite daughter, for example, is clearly not his – Hattie is mixed race – and he is only living with his mother due to having been dismissed from his job because of ‘carelessness.’ However, although he might be a fool, he is evidently not harmless. Emma, the heroine of the novel, states at one point that her father has made her hate men, and for such a compassionate child this strikes one as a telling claim. Yet it is his son, Dennis, who receives the harshest treatment, and who reminded me of my friend Megan. Dennis is a nervous and insular boy, whom Ebin refers to as a ‘cissy.’ When the father takes his son swimming, and Dennis struggles and clings onto the boat, Ebin hits his hands with the oar. It’s the kind of insensitive, small-scale sadism that I wrote about in my introduction, and which is often justified as ‘tough love.’ In this way, and many others, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead struck me, not so much as concerning itself with life’s big questions or issues, but with its little, yet still painful, tragedies.

LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES BY JEAN COCTEAU

I thought the cliché that adults don’t understand children was untrue until I spent a year or two teaching. Having no young relatives, it was the first time I had been around them since my own childhood, and, more importantly, it was the first time I had frequent discussions about them with other adults. And I was astonished by how naïve the adults, in particular the parents, were, how totally, how greedily, they swallowed and regurgitated the idea that these kids were innocence personified, that they were incapable of, and uninterested in, anything dubious, even when presented with concrete, and sizeable, evidence to the contrary.

Being in that environment I would, naturally, regularly think back to my own youth, to the fights that were more bloody and savage than any I have seen or been involved in since, to the sexual experimentation, and the promiscuity, that would make a decadent Parisian author blush, to the ever revolving carousel of gangs, friends and enemies, to the appalling cruelty and the intense bonds, and the complex games that lasted for weeks, which often involved malevolently stalking each other through the woods. The only innocence was in the lack of understanding regarding what exactly all this stuff meant; you didn’t psychoanalyse, introspect, or define or make connections. You didn’t, for example, call what you felt love or happiness or hate, you simply felt; and you accepted, without question, that this was the world, never giving a thought to the existence of another world, the world of your parents.

One man who did know a thing or two about all this was French author, filmmaker, and artist, Jean Cocteau, whose most well-known work is the one under review here. Les Enfants Terribles begins in Balzacian style, with Cocteau describing a peaceful scene, into which he then places a group of schoolboys, who ‘shatter the silence with the sound of tumult.’ Note the choice of words: ‘shatter,’ ‘tumult’; Cocteau wants to impress upon the reader that there is something brutal, a kind of violence, in the behaviour. By the end of the passage he has gone even further, describing the boys, and by extension all children, as ‘terrors’ with ‘animal instincts,’ a theme he pursues throughout the rest of his short novel. Indeed, when he introduces one of the main characters, Paul, he is hit with a snowball containing a stone and ends up badly hurt.

“At all costs the true world of childhood must prevail, must be restored; that world whose momentous, heroic, mysterious quality is fed on airy nothings, whose substance is so ill-fitted to withstand the brutal touch of adult inquisition.”

As the novel progresses the focus narrows until it is concerned with four people only, Paul and Elisabeth, who are brother and sister, and Agatha and Gerard; although the two siblings are, of course, the dominant force. But before focussing on them myself, I want to linger a little longer over the opening passage, because, once again, what the author describes here plays a central role in the rest of the text. Cocteau emphasises the schoolboys’ imaginative capacity as they transform the peaceful scene into an ‘Athlete’s stadium,’ or a ‘Wonder fair,’ or ‘Court of love’; the world, he suggests, isn’t for children something that is fixed, it is whatever they want it to be. But this world is insular, it, in a sense, excludes adults, with it having its own ‘cryptic language’, secret rites, etc. In a nice touch, Cocteau imagines a group of painters opening their windows and looking out at the boys and not recognising them as the subject of their sentimental paintings, titled things like Merry Wee Rascals and Play In A White World.

After the incident with the snowball Gerard takes an ailing Paul home, and in the back of the cab we get the first reference to the Game, when Gerard wonders if Paul is genuinely as hurt as he appears to be. His suspicion is that he may be ‘putting it on,’ which of course gives the impression that this would not be out of character. Both Paul and Elisabeth, it becomes clear, live a life somewhere between fantasy and reality. They adopt poses and attitudes, set each other [and Gerard] challenges, act out roles, etc.; their relationship is extremely close, but dominated by a kind of one-upmanship and a desire to exasperate or irritate the other. To return to what I wrote earlier regarding innocence, the siblings are innocent only in so much as they lack self-awareness. Numerous times Cocteau states that they are not conscious of the game-playing or the acting; he also mentions how Gerard felt something of ‘perversion or necrophilly in the delicious pleasures’ of travelling with Paul, but would never have thought about it, or understood it, in those terms. And so one sees the term ‘innocent’ as being defined by a kind of ignorance rather than goodness.

les-enfants-terribles

[From the film of the same name, which was also written by Jean Cocteau]

Despite giving the impression, with that brilliant opening, that the book was to be about the strange, savage nature of children in general, with, one assumed, the siblings being held up as an example, Cocteau rather ruins this interpretation [which, by the way, I preferred] by giving Paul and Elisabeth a background or history that justifies or explains their behaviour and approach and ideas. In short, he reveals that both their father and mother were neglectful and wild, and so one understands that the offspring of this couple have grown up without appropriate adult role models, and that they have been, to all intents and purposes, left to themselves to raise themselves; indeed, the author refers to an ‘inheritance of instability’. What this means for Les Entants Terribles is that it becomes particular; in other words, whatever it says about the two main characters can only be applied to these children in these circumstances or, at best, other children in similar circumstances. As hinted, I think it was a poor decision to take the novel in this direction, and, moreover, I’m not entirely certain it was Cocteau’s intention.

Another issue I had was with the author’s lack of subtlety or faith in his audience. At times it is as though he didn’t trust the reader to join the dots, to understand his work, and so repeatedly chimes in with unnecessary exposition, mostly in relation to the children’s lack of consciousness or self-awareness. In fact, there is a point in the text when he prefaces yet another reference to this with the phrase ‘it must be remembered’ as though there is any way even the dimmest reader could have forgotten when Les Enfants Terribles is less than one hundred pages long and he had already made the same point, in almost exactly the same words, about five or six times. Moreover, these infuriating authorial intrusions added to what was, for me, the book’s biggest flaw, which is that it feels more like a sketch, or draft, of a novel than one that is fully realised.

Before concluding, I want to comment on the style, because much is made of it in the reviews that I have so far encountered, with the word ‘beautiful’ being the most popular descriptor. Well, I didn’t find the writing beautiful. I would go with something like ‘overwrought,’ although I ought to point out that this isn’t necessarily a criticism. While it is not my favourite, I’m not at all opposed to a bit of ornate, bells-and-whistles prose from time to time. What I found more impressive was the symbolism. The book begins with snow, and there are numerous references to it throughout; the siblings are also said to be both extremely pale, and both wear white clothes [dressing gowns? I can’t remember] at various points. White is, of course, representative of innocence, but it is commonly associated with the spectral too. There are several deaths in the book, but I’m not too interested in those, although they are of course relevant and important. What did grab me is the idea that ghosts could be said to exist between two worlds, and this equally applies to Elisabeth and Paul, who, it must be remembered[!], live a life between fantasy and reality; they are of this world, and simultaneously not of it.

I didn’t know how to fit this into my review without ruining the structure, so I am placing it here.

I would like to point out that I do not understand the term ‘shocking’ as applied to this book; honestly, there is nothing shocking in it; in fact, the action is rather banal, for the most part. Furthermore, the claim that there is the suggestion of incest or homosexuality is, for me, a mighty stretch. I sometimes wonder if some people actually read what is before their eyes, or whether they simply allow their imaginations to run wild, because things are more fun that way. Yes, Elisabeth is once almost brought to tears by the ‘grace and beauty’ of Paul’s body, and yes they share a bath at one point, but thats it, theres nothing more salacious than that. In terms of homosexuality, Paul does have something of a crush on a boy called Dargelos, but Cocteau himself describes this as ‘chaste.’