Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Battered Penguins XVIII

It has often struck me that friendship is a peculiarly haphazard thing. You don't usually make a conscious decision to become friends with someone - you just drift into it, without ever knowing exactly why you have become closely involved with this person and not that one (although in one instance I did know; I could in fact pinpoint the exact moment it happened, which was when I answered the telephone and mistook the voice of the person at the other end for the voice of someone I was really fond of. The warmth of my greeting to the actual caller, who I didn't particularly like, changed the whole tenor of our relationship and from there on in it seemed that I'd committed myself to a binding friendship).

I was thinking about all this while reading my latest battered penguin, because my best friend at boarding school was someone who rarely ever read novels - or indeed books of any kind - whereas I rarely had my nose out of some work of fiction or other, and yet she - this friend of mine who did not read - became briefly almost evangelical about a book by Joyce Cary.

It was called  The Horse's Mouth and she discovered  it one school holidays. When she came back to school, she claimed she'd already read it six times. She was batty about it. She even gave me my own copy.

I'm sorry to say though that I never actually read it. Apart from the fact that I have a stupid habit of avoiding things that people are extremely keen to recommend,  I thought my friend's excitement was less to do with that specific book than with the discovery of the pleasure of reading itself.

As a result, I had no previous experience of Joyce Cary's writing when I came to The Captive and the Free and only a vague, faintly negative feeling towards it, left over from being gushed at about it so much. Therefore it was a surprise to discover that it was a really terrific book.

In fact, it wasn't just a surprise; it was actually a revelation, particularly given the absurdly apologetic introduction my edition has been given by David Cecil, who explains that the novel was completed as Cary was dying, and therefore, "Though Cary managed to tell his tale to the end, we are aware that he has not succeeded in evolving the final form in which to present it."

I disagree. The novel gripped me instantly, despite being unlike the books I normally enjoy. Cary tells his story somehow theatrically. Rather than plunging his readers into a rich world they can feel almost part of, in the way that Dickens does in, say, Bleak House, Cary makes them feel like an audience watching a play with very vivid, striking characters.

There is Syson, an ex-soldier, turned clergyman, who sets himself in opposition to Preedy, a preacher and faith healer who is by turns a cynic, who knows that he has no power, and - when under the influence of '...that mysterious movement of feeling which he called power' when 'something flashed into him; something like those discoveries made by the pure contact of sense - a glimpse of the sea, of a ripe field, a scent from the ground, the noise of rain - known a thousand times before, which yet bring a shock of recognition' - someone genuinely convinced that he is capable of the extraordinary, (in other words, a mad man).

There is Hooper, a self-made newspaper man, with immense similarities, it seemed to me, to Murdoch - a man who hates the establishment and also loves it:

"He loved it for its dignity, its power, its romantic distinction, for all that it could do in giving him position and dignity and power; he hated it for its weakness, its slackness, its cant and meanness, its hatred of the original mind, of all that is enterprising and brave",

and who, when stuck in a board meeting which is trying to decide whether to allow pictures of girls on the front page of his newspaper says:

"'I'm all for your ideas ... for putting over something that matters, but you don't need to put it over in a pill. What's the whole problem of publicity? Breaking the crust, getting through to the chap inside. It's the same with everything, shaving soap or sermons, religion or razors. People have been so pounded with words from childhood that they go about in an armour as thick as a tank. To get at the man inside you've got to crack that crust or creep in through the ventilators. And one ventilator is always sex.'".

There are also intriguing incidental characters, particularly Joanna, an ugly, rich girl, with a complex relationship with her dying mother, (which Cary describes with great understanding), and Alice, who is a victim of - or at least strangely entangled with - Preedy.

The book grapples with the complex questions thrown up by the actions of Preedy, but its principal concern is the media and what it does to our understanding of reality. In this, it seems astoundingly contemporary for a book written in the 1950s.

Take the final scene as an example - in it, Hooper has a choice: he can splash a sensational photograph that, while appearing to express the essential reality of a situation, actually conveys almost nothing of its complicated truth, over his front page or suppress it:

"...he could hear the reporters in the Press telling the tale of the photograph of the year, suppressed ...And after all, wouldn't they be right? What did the Dispatch readers want, a piece of psychological analysis? A complicated story of mixed motives leaving them to make out their own judgements? It was crazy even to imagine it. No, there was only one story here - the poor little girl seduced and ruined ..."

Such, I suspect is the routine reasoning today and every day in editors' meetings in tabloid offices the world over

So, having read Cary's The Captive and the Free, I realise my friend may have actually been right to be excited about the novel by him that she loved. I'm going to go now and find that copy she gave me - I know it's somewhere in our bookshelves (nothing ever gets thrown out in this house, least of all books) - and read it from cover to cover after all these years.


  1. If you can find a copy, you might enjoy Cary's Memoir of the Bobotes, a memoir of service with the Red Cross during the Balkan War of 1912-1913, on the Montenegrin side of the lines.

    1. Thanks, George. I wish I'd known that existed when we lived in the part of the world - sounds fascinating.

  2. I think that Cary's novel is a bit different, but the film of it, with Alec Guinness as Gulley Jimson, was a favorite with aspiring artists back in long-ago days when I was at college.

    1. I'm going to seek that out - mainly because, from what little I have read of it so far, I imagine Gulley Jimson as a great deal less plummy than Alec Guiness has been in anything I've seen him in.

    2. Are you a Philadelphian by the way, Frank? I only ask because me and one daughter are going to be there for a couple of days and, as I've already said to Chris of Hats & Rabbits, it would be v nice to meet up with thus far faceless cyber pals for a cup of coffee or a strong alcoholic drink.

  3. How very coincidental. I bought a copy of The Horse's Mouth when I was in my twenties, second hand, I think. I started reading it and simply could not get into it, so it sits at the most inaccessible part of my library, never completed.

    I didn't attempt anything else by him and it never occurred to me to do so until you made these comments about other tales.

    Still, I doubt I ever will come back to it or his other writings. I have spent too long being negative about him, and am in any case running out of time.

    As to friendship, in my experience there rarely is a 'moment', unlike the chemistry of falling in love. Friendship grows. People I have not liked on first meeting have ended up becoming my closest friends. Somewhere along the line, a thread of empathy develops, or one may discover qualities about the other that seem to have been hidden at first.

    One of the better sides of being human, I believe.

    1. I agree re friendship - one odd thing about it, I think, is that if a friendship dies in the view of one party only (sometimes friendships drift apart in the same way that they are drifted into - they are formed at times such as when you have small children but don't survive the transition from that period, et cetera) there is really no breaking it up without incurring a good deal of general disapproval. There is divorce for marriages but there is nothing like it for friendships and a great deal less tolerance of friendships being ended (I'm beginning to sound like a very nasty friend)