Friday, 20 July 2012

Battered Penguins - The Dancing Floor

Somewhat to my surprise, since it is not as well-known as other Buchan works, (at least not to me) , The Dancing Floor is as gripping a read as 39 Steps or Greenmantle. Like them, it is also a great example of how fiction can sometimes give an insight into how differently the inhabitants of times earlier than our own - even times as recent as Buchan's - viewed the world.

The story is told by a lawyer called Leithen, whose unnamed friend begins the book by telling us that Leithen told him the story in a smoking-room in a place where they were stranded together, due to blizzards, on their way back from a shooting holiday in northern Ontario. The unknown friend never appears again in the book, and I'm not really sure what purpose the framing device he provides serves.

The novel is about Leithen's chance meeting and subsequent relationship - an intense and, to modern eyes, somewhat odd (or perhaps the absolutely accurate word would be 'queer') one - with Vernon, a wealthy parentless young man who every year on the same date has a dream in which something unknown approaches the room he is in through a series of interconnecting rooms, drawing one room closer each time. When the book begins, the unnamed thing is twelve rooms away; by the end it is upon Vernon. The mysterious plot line of the dream is enhanced by and eventually interwoven with a second thread of narrative, involving a young woman who is besieged on a Greek island by locals in the grip of a murderous frenzy.

These two plots were intriguing and even exciting, but what added to the fascination of the book for me was its setting against the backdrop of the First World War and, most interestingly, its evocation of the period that came after:

"The war had altered everybody's sense of values," Leithen tells us, "You remember that curious summer of 1919 when everybody was feverishly trying to forget the war. They were crazy days when nobody was quite himself. Politicians talked and writers wrote clotted nonsense, statesmen chased their tails, the working-man wanted to double his wages and halve his working hours at a time when the world was bankrupt, youth tried to make up for the four years of natural pleasure of which it had been cheated, and there was a general loosening of screws and a rise in temperature."

Another of the book's charms was the uninhibited nature of Buchan's passion for England. His lyrical admiration for traditional rural pursuits would be frowned on today, but I found it very appealing:

"I made time now for an occasional day's shooting or hunting, for I had fallen in love with the English country, and it is sport that takes you close to the heart of it. Is there anything in the world like the corner of a great pasture hemmed in with smoky-brown woods in an autumn twilight: or the jogging home after a good run when the moist air is quickening to frost and the wet ruts are lemon-coloured in the sunset; or a morning in November when, on some upland, the wind tosses the driven partridges like leaves over tall hedges, through the gaps of which the steel-blue horizons shine? It is the English winter that intoxicates me more even than the English May, for the noble bones of the land are bare, and you get the essential savour of earth and wood and water."

As you would expect from Buchan, the novel also contains terrific action scenes, and these are combined, again unfashionably, with the author's assumption that the reader regards, as he clearly does, a soldier as a noble being and duty as supreme.

As is also only to be expected from Buchan, the book is crammed full of other old-fashioned notions, expressed with earnestness and a very unmodern intensity:

"I remembered a phrase which Vernon had once used about 'the mailed virgin'. It fitted this girl, and I began to realise the meaning of virginity. True purity, I thought, whether in woman or man, was something far more than the narrow sex thing which was the common notion of it. It meant keeping oneself, as the Bible says, altogether unspotted from the world, free from all tyranny and stain, whether of flesh or spirit, defying the universe to touch even the outworks of the sanctuary which is one's soul. It must be defiant, not the inert fragile crystal, but the supple shining sword. Virginity meant nothing unless it was mailed, and I wondered whether we were not coming to a better understanding of it. The modern girl, with all her harshness, had the gallantry of a free woman. She was a crude Artemis, but her feet were on the hills. Was the blushing sheltered maid of our grandmother's day no more than an untempted Aphrodite?"

The book is beautifully written, full of suspense and a very good way of passing the time if you find yourself stuck in Luton Airport for several hours (a fate that, sad to say, seems to be almost inevitable if you choose a Wizzair flight to Budapest just at the moment). Perhaps it did not become as popular as some of Buchan's other novels precisely because of its many references to the Great War. It seems to me, indeed, that the plot about the Greek island whose population goes mad may in fact be a metaphor for the war itself -and, so soon after such great losses, the suggestion, however subtle, that the whole enterprise of the war had been mere insanity may not have been entirely palatable. We, however,are far enough away from those events to be unphased by such an implication - in fact, it mirrors what we are usually taught to believe. To sum up, if you are looking for a satisfying piece of period escapism, I highly recommend The Dancing Floor.


  1. I loved The Thirty-nine Steps as a teenager. Even now I vividly remember lines from it.

    '...his eyelids fell in that hawk-like hood which fear had stamped on my memory.'
    '"I'll take you on tomorrow and give you a stroke a hole."'

    Sound familiar?

    I also read Greenmantle but right now I can't remember a thing about it. Obviously, it didn't make any such impression.

    Sadly, it seems doesn't have The Dancing Floor. I'm surprised.

    1. I did find a site from which to download a Kindle version of The Dancing Floor and I hope I get a chance to read it. The quotes referred to the villain of the piece, and to the golf game where the spies remained perfectly in character even though they were unaware they were being observed. For some reason that made a big impression on me.