Monday, 4 December 2017

Battered Penguins - The Last Tresillians and A Use of Riches by J.I.M. Stewart

For a long time I have had a couple of novels by an author called J.I.M. Stewart in my bookshelves. I bought them out of interest, because someone in my family used to know Stewart - or at least was taught by him.

Stewart was a don at Oxford - and also, I now discover, a professor of English at the University of Adelaide for many years before joining the English faculty at Oxford. He is best known as Michael Innes, which is the pseudonym he used to write a series of charming whodunnits about a policeman called Appleby, a character who, perhaps unsurprisingly, strikes the reader as rather more a don than a copper.

The books that I have read that were written under Stewart's actual name are novels of ideas, slightly reminiscent of Angus Wilson, (who he refers to at one moment), with a faint element of Aldous Huxley's non-dystopic novels. They are dated now, in the sense that the Britain that they portray is mono-cultural, peopled almost exclusively by characters who are upper middle class - artists, academics, senior civil servants and art experts - with the occasional aristocratic Continental thrown in for a bit of colour. A statement such as this one, which appears in A Use of Riches:

"From late spring to early autumn spans the Englishman's Italy"

would, at the time, it was written, only have been true of a very small proportion of Englishmen. Thus, it reveals the breadth - or lack thereof - of the author's canvas; the majority of the English population in 1957 were not in a position to get to Italy at any time of year.  Similarly, when it is related that a character reflects on an old friend's observation about him that "like all Wykehamists, he regarded virtuous discomfort as the summum bonum achievable by man", there are so many assumptions about what the reader is familiar with that it is hard to know where to begin.

I mention all this utterly without resentment - I find the atmosphere and milieu of the novels very soothing, conjuring up the world of my childhood - and only because reading such a book makes me notice how much has changed. Having a novel with such a narrow social perspective published these days would, I suspect, be out of the question. I suppose the same could be said of Middlemarch or Anna Karenina, but Stewart's books are very nearly contemporary - a mere 50-odd years old - and yet they seem very much to have been written in another era.

The books that I have had for so long and have now got around to reading are A Use of Riches, published in 1957, and The Last Tresilians, published in 1963. Neither was unentertaining. Neither was entirely satisfying. Each, peculiarly, turned on the idea of an artist losing their mind in the later part of their career. More broadly, both were preoccupied with art itself, its function - (at one point a character in crisis goes to see some frescoes by Piero della Francesco, to see whether they were any use to "a London banker in a great state of personal anxiety" and discovers that they aren't) - its meaning, whether producing it allows a personality to transcend the bounds set for non-artists.

The first of the two I read was A Use of Riches. It concerns a couple who are happily married until the wife's first husband turns out not to be dead after all. The first husband is an artist and he has become blind. The second husband, Rupert Craine is profoundly unartistic; this is how we are introduced to him:

"Ruddy and iron grey, clipped and brushed and polished, he might have been a general who had made the common move from commanding regiments to directing companies."

However, he is very intelligent, perceptive and a highly sensitive consumer of beauty, "he possessed a flair that way", although he is a little ashamed of it: "The Medici, he ... thought, were the last bankers not to look absurd when operating at all noticeably on such territory".

The twists and turns of the story are myriad and I won't go into them here as the book, although not entirely resolved is a pleasant read and I don't want to spoil it for anyone. However, I will quote some of the more memorable moments, including that in which Stewart points out that the feeling Craine and his wife feel most strongly after receiving the news of the survival - or resurrection, at least into their lives - of the first husband is "excitement", something Craine distrusts, even though, as Stewart points out:

"It might be called, in either of them, a biologically healthy response to their new situation. When anything firm comes unstuck, when the static turns fluid, when not the sun but a question-mark sails up over the horizon one day then this undertone of excitement, distinguishably pleasurable, even if what one largely faces is calamity, represents simply the wholesome knowledge that one isn't dead, that one has powers to call up and perhaps even quite surprising possibilities to explore."

As well as being an interesting dissection of a feeling, I think this passage reveals the dense and serious tone of Stewart's writing, as strange today as the clipped accent of a newsreel commentator from the 1940s or '50s.

I also enjoyed the distinction Craine makes between musical talent and the talent of a visual artist:

"'You see', Craine went on, 'the ordinary man doesn't, as he moves about, ever hear in Nature something uncommonly like a fugue or a symphony. But he does from time to time see something uncommonly like a picture.'"

and the recognition, already in a way raised in the reference to the Medici, that money and art are more interlinked than most artists care to admit:

"innumerable works of art would never have been executed if rich men had no fondness for possession".

There is a scene reminiscent of Dostoevsky in which a character sees a horse being beaten with a shovel and then later being given a nosebag and left in peace. When it ends the character thinks to himself:

“From beating to beating the creature carried, conceivably, no more than a dim sense that the universe has its unkindly moments. In humans … we call that displaying a good nervous tone. It's how one gets along – more or less ignoring or forgetting until the great shovel is again about one's head and flanks.”

At the time I read it, I had just witnessed someone going through great physical trials and this made a great deal of sense to me.

There is a description of a train journey that reminded me how pleasant travel by rail can be:

"The train was luxurious, and the dinner timed to occupy the greater part of the smooth swift run through darkness to Florence. He ate it conscientiously, and exchanged a few sentences in his careful Italian with an elderly man in the opposite seat. When the train stopped at Picaenza, he could glimpse on the platform people still buffeted by the wind."

The Last Tresilians contains a charming love story, sent awry in part by events in the past. It centres again on an artist, although this one has been dead for some time. I found it more disturbing and less straightforwardly enjoyable than A Use of Riches, because it has sexual elements that I found troubling. However, once again it is intelligently written and full of well imagined characters;  JIM Stewart was very talented in his ability to conjure up characters and also in his descriptive powers. An example of the latter is this imagining of a London apartment, that reminds me vividly of the depressing one I used to go to sometimes with my father to visit my great-aunt Nell:

He "found himself in a cavernous hall. It was compounded of Turkey carpeting, chocolate-coloured paint and massive bronze objects - these last preponderantly human, substantially unclothed, and frozen in gestures which seemed part athletic and part inspirational. From the ceiling there depended a chandelier ..."

I'm glad to think that such places no longer exist.

Similarly striking is the description of a don's view of punting students: "undergraduates in their touching ephemerality."

While I don't think in either book JIM Stewart quite resolves the questions he poses, he does throw up some stimulating ideas - does the assertion put forward by one character that "Good writing is rarely a matter of tenuous differences" have any basis, for example? When he gets onto something he really knows about, such as the inner workings of the minds of dons, he is fascinating, as when he has a character called Littlejohn muse thus:

"Dons are inherently conservative. And, equally, they are inherently Philistine. It is a thing chiefly to be remarked - he added grimly to himself - among some of those who give themselves airs of taste. The speculative intelligence - it comes down to this - is radically inimical to the imaginative and aesthetic. The thing is evident in the current architectural chaos. It has long been evident in those university disciplines that march, willynilly, along with any manifestation of the creative mind. Consider - Littlejohn told himself - the university's senior litterateurs, steeped since childhood in an education conceived precisely as Addison or Johnson conceived education, who so ludicrously back the wrong horses in every department of the contemporary and developing artistic or literary scene."

I am glad to have read both books, I enjoyed the process. I may well seek out other JIM Stewarts, if I find them for under £1. Perhaps not a resounding cry in favour of literary resurrection but not as feeble as it may first appear - I am after all stating that I am happy to spend many more hours in the company of this forgotten novelist. And time, after all, is a precious commodity, especially when one is as ancient as I am.

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