Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Battered Penguins - The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes

Having bought four large bookshelves and had one wall of an entire room lined with more shelves and having filled all of these, it was agreed that we would buy no more books. Which was why I was surprised, on a rainy day in a coastal town in England, that my husband suggested we shelter in a secondhand bookshop. It turned out that he had spotted an old map in a window that he liked the look of. I meanwhile picked up The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes, and began to read:

'Only the steady creaking of a flight of swans disturbed the silence, labouring low overhead with outstretched necks towards the sea.

It was a warm, wet, windless afternoon with a soft feathery feeling in the air: rain, yet so fine it could scarcely fall but rather floated. It clung to everything it touched; the rushes in the deep choked ditches of the sea-marsh were bowed down with it, the small black cattle looked cobwebbed with it, their horns jewelled with it. Curiously stumpy too these cattle looked, the whole herd sunk nearly to the knees in a soft patch.

This sea-marsh stretched for miles. Seaward, a greyish merging into sky had altogether rubbed out the line of dunes which bounded it that way: inland, another and darker blurred greyness was all you could see of the solid Welsh hills. But nearby loomed a solitary gate, where the path crossed a footbridge and humped over the big dyke; and here in a sodden tangle of brambles the scent of a fox hung, too heavy today to rise or dissipate.

The gate clicked sharply and shed its cascade as two men passed through. Both were heavily loaded in oilskins. The elder and more tattered one carried two shotguns, negligently, and a brace of golden plover were tied to the bit of old rope he wore knotted round his middle: glimpses of a sharp-featured weather-beaten face showed from within his bonneted souwester but mouth and even chin were hidden in a long weeping moustache. The younger man was springy and tall and well built and carried over his shoulder the body of a dead child. Her thin muddy legs dangled against his chest, her head and arms hung down his back; and at his heels walked a black dog - disciplined, saturated and eager.'

What an opening. Beautifully written, with such a surprise at its conclusion. I broke the no-new-books rules and bought The Fox in the Attic. I probably would have even without that opening, as an earlier book that I read by Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica, fascinatingly original and strange.

Sadly, I ended up being disappointed by The Fox in the Attic. It seemed to me to be a number of unfinished novels, with several lectures thrown in for good measure. Because it wasn't just one of these things - or, in the case of the lectures, because they were there at all - it ended up being unsatisfactory, at least for me. But I still acknowledge that Hughes is a brilliant, interesting and original writer.

The main character of The Fox in the Attic is the man who is carrying the dead child in that opening scene. His name is Augustine and, following the opening scene, we are introduced to him in his own home - a house he has inherited only because his cousin is dead, lost at Ypres. By means of this inheritance explanation, one of the book's subjects - its main subject, really  - the condition of Europe after the first world war, is inserted.

Augustine has grown up in wartime and "No one had warned him he might after all find himself with his life to live out: with sixty years still to spend, perhaps, instead of the bare six months he thought was all he had in his pocket. Peace was a condition unknown to him and scarcely imaginable. The whole real-seeming world in which he had grown to manhood had melted round him".

When I say, "following the opening scene", by the way, I don't mean "directly following the opening scene". Instead, what happens immediately after that opening is that Hughes whisks us to a banquet in Augustine's local town, where we are treated to one of the book's best passages - a really vivid stream of consciousness passage delivered from inside the increasingly inebriated mind of the local coroner, Dr Brinley. Given how well we get to know Dr Brinley during the course of this, it is surprising that after this section we never see him in the book again.

But this glimpsing of characters as if from the window of a speeding train is something we have to get used to. We go on to meet Augustine's niece Polly at some length; his sister Mary; some of the characters who work in her household; and, extremely briefly, her husband, Gilbert a "Man of Principle" (in the same way that countries that have Democratic in their titles are almost certainly anything but, we are led to believe that Gilbert is, in fact, far from principled). He is also a Liberal (I think) politician, (Toryism versus Liberalism is another minor theme).  While at Mary's, we could easily be lulled into thinking that we are about to enjoy a story about a big country household and the interconnections between upstairs and downstairs, the relationships and arguments and possible love affairs that take place in that small community. No such luck.

Instead, we are whisked away with Augustine to Germany. There we are introduced to one-legged Otto, a veteran from the losing side in WWI. We are treated to his memories of coming back from the conflict, but then we switch to the author explaining for pages about the first world war and what their defeat at the end of it had done to the German psyche - page upon page of this sort of stuff (this is among the best bits):

"In 1914, then, there was something of an emotional void in England: and into it war-patriotism poured like Noah's Flood. For the invasion of Belgium seemed once again to present an issue in the almost-forgotten terms of right and wrong - always incomparably the most powerful motive of human conduct that history has to show. Thus the day Belgium was invaded every caged Ego in England could at last burst its false Cartesian bonds and go mafficking off into its long-abandoned penumbral regions towards boundaries new-drawn."

When this section ends at last, we meet Lothar, who of course we grow interested by, especially as he seems to represent the rising generation of young Germans yearning to prove themselves. But once again we are not destined to get to know him properly. As we were with the servants in England, we are treated to only a glimpse of Lothar and then another fleeting sighting, when he appears again for a moment, as part of plot twist that seems to have no point

But look, now a castle in Germany is being wonderfully evoked, with all its occupants included, (as I read this section, I kept thinking of the castle in which the family featured in the BBC's excellent radio series RatLine lived). And now we switch to Munich and the Ludendorff uprising, which is wonderfully vividly told - Hughes is a magnificent writer, if poor at structuring a novel, at least in this case. And following that little history lesson, we lurch back to the castle, in time to witness a girl become suddenly blind.

We stay at the castle for quite some time, accompanying Augustine, who falls in love with the blind girl. Meanwhile, a German intent on killing Augustine kills himself instead.  We go back to England and a character called Nellie, who is having a rough time, partly due to the misplaced kindness of Augustine's sister. We return to Augustine, who finishes his trip as mystified by this foreign culture he has been exposed to as he was to begin with, (such supposedly mind-broadening exchanges are often futile - a cousin of mine, sent to France, climbed the aeroplane steps muttering, "Why do I have to go to bloody abroad" and then, according to his host family, spent his entire time lying under his bed, listening to cricket on his transistor radio).

Augustine is not quite so unwilling to engage as my cousin was but in the end we find him giving in to bafflement. "These Germans", he thinks to himself, " ... all this passion for politics ... all these millions of sinister similar man-grown evergreen trees". He decides that Germany never seemed quite real to him. I presume the author intends the reader to draw the conclusion that it was this kind of failure of comprehension that led to the next war.

Perhaps, if you wanted to, you might argue that a careering sleigh ride that is described at the heart of the book is emblematic of the instability of the historic period in which the book is set and that the novel's lurching plot mirrors both the sleigh ride and the lurches of the period where, at least in Germany, everyone was:

"somehow, some way, riding the Great Inflation. Thus, in their manner they reminded one rather of skaters caught far out too late in a thaw, who know their only but desperate hope lies in speed. The ice is steaming in the sun and there can be no turning back. They hear anguished cries behind them but they lower their heads with muffled ears, they flail with their arms and thrust ever more desperately with their legs in their efforts to skate ever faster still on the slushy, cracking, sinking ice"

You could argue that, but it doesn't necessarily assuage the frustration of the reader of The Fox in the Attic. Maybe I should press on and read the second volume in what I think may in the end have been an unfinished trilogy. It might be worth it for Hughes's gift of description. On the other hand, if there are more lengthy passages of the "Primitive man is conscious that the true boundary of his self is no tight little stockade round one lonely perceiving 'I' detached wholly from its setting ... Selfhood is not wholly curtailed within the 'I' ... That primitive truth about selfhood we battle against at our peril ...the depleted voltages must cry out for a re-charge and dichotomies new..." I find myself profoundly uninclined. And after all I do now have a no-new-books rule - yes, on this occasion I think I will choose to observe it and therefore to say no Volume 2.


  1. "go mafficking off into its long-abandoned penumbral regions towards boundaries new-drawn."

    Goodness. It must be unusual to live in a country with the cash and population to indulge in the amusement, and not see it go mafficking off now and then. But long-abandoned penumbral regions? Does the author refer to the way that Flanders for so long served as a handy battlefield for the British and pretty much everyone else west of Poland? I suppose all those years since Waterloo would make it count as long abandoned.

    Or is all this explained?

    1. Please don’t make me go back & check - that section was almost unreadable