The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes

The Fox in the Attic is the first volume in Richard Hughes’s “The Human Predicament.” It stars Augustine, an aristocratic 23-year-old Englishman who is a positive darling living out the interwar years isolated in his country manor in Wales. Augustine is young and idealistic; he is melancholy and craves solitude; he doesn’t believe in having servants and doesn’t attend the local events a squire normally would; he is sympathetic and intelligent.

We love Augustine as we suffer with him through the horror of finding a child’s dead body in a swamp on his property at the very beginning of the novel; we love him as he flees to the comfort of his sister and beloved niece Polly. We are set up to like him just as much as she does at five years old, and then everything tilts when he decides to visit distant relatives outside Munich, as a beginning in seeing the world.

Normally a man Augustine’s age would already have seen some of the world, but he’s never been out of Britain. The year is 1923 and he missed fighting in the Great war by a matter of months. He also grew up with the war, never visited the Continent, never thought he would live past the age of 19. And that seemed “normal” for him.

Now we are firmly post-war and nobody in England—at least nobody Augustine knows—thinks there could ever possibly be a war again; “[a]ny government which ever again anywhere even talked of war would next minute be winkled out of Whitehall or the Wilhelmstrasse or wherever by its own unanimous citizens and hanged like stoats.”

But then we see Bavaria. Augustine begins to realize that the differences here are more than superficial when he notices a room in his family’s castle is dominated by a massive portrait featuring them with King Ludwig III.

But of course—“Ludwig of Bavaria!” Thinking of “Germany” one tended to forget that Bavaria had remained a sovereign state-within-a-state, with her own king (down to the revolution five years ago), and her own government and even army. Moreover Augustine remembered hearing that this peaceable-looking old gentleman had carried to his recent grave a Prusisan bullet in his body: a bullet from the war of ’66, before there was any “Germany”—a war when Prussia and Bavaria had been two sovereign countries fighting on opposite sides. To an Englishman, used to long perspectives and slow changes, this was indeed History telescoped: as if King George V had been wounded at Bannockburn.

Poor Augustine. The more he realizes, the more he shows his naïveté. And he gets so much wrong in Germany. There are the obvious language problems—he does speak German, but polished Swiss German, which Bavarian country folk do not. But even when he understands the words and sentences, he misconstrues them entirely. He misreads faces as well; he doesn’t understand the facial expression or emotional state of anyone he is staying with at the castle. In any social situation at all in England he would know exactly where he stood, what to do, what to say; but in Germany he muddles every social situation.

One of Augustine’s more endearing naïve traits, at least for me, is a truly genuine and implicit belief that Modernism and especially Freud have forever freed the world from religion, and that with the influence of this most important man of all time had come a great freedom, and it was simply impossible that anyone should still believe in God. Simply unthinkable.

It is equally unthinkable to Augustine that anyone on earth should consider the baroque architecture of so many Munich churches anything but kitsch. “[P]eople who found such things beautiful must be essentially unserious people: their religion…must be only skin-deep: their culture, a froth and a sham. …The ‘AsamKirche,’ for instance: where here was the classic austerity (hall-mark of all true art), the truth to nature? The bareness of line, the restraint?”

These two seemingly disparate threads come together in his wild and, for the reader, horrific misunderstanding of his cousin Mitzi, with whom he is madly in love and who had just gone blind. He follows her secretly to the family chapel, where “he stood aghast.”

For the little family chapel at Lorienburg was a baroque confection of exceptional splendor. Augustine had been reared in an Anglo-Gothic reverential gloom; but this was all light and color and swelling curves. There was extravagantly molded plaster and painted trompe-l’oeil, peeping angels, babies submerged in silver soap-suds and gilded glittering rays…Augustine had heard of Baroque—as the very last word in decadence and bad taste; but anything so outrageous as this was incredible in a secular…and this was a sacred place! Even the professing atheist could not but be shocked.

Convinced the ridiculousness of this baroque family chapel must mean Mitzi is only fake-Catholic, he foresees no problems at all in marrying her and easily converting her to an enlightened atheism. Poor, poor Augustine. You have no idea. You also have no idea that you’ve basically been living with Nazis for a month and Catholicism is not the only variety of fanaticism you don’t understand.

That is something I have not quite mentioned. Augustine visits his cousins in November 1923, just in time for Hitler’s failed Beer-Hall Putsch. A major plot point and also central scene of the narrative is the story of the Putsch and of the little private armies running around Munich making brief alliances with each other and representing a current of deep unrest in the country. I’m not at the end of the full work, but Hughes is brilliant in the way he explains and makes comprehensible the situation in Britain during the Great War and in both countries afterward, and how this is leading to further horror. His treatment of the generation just too young to have served in the first war makes a perfect follow-up to Ford’s Parade’s End. It is not packed quite as full as all that, but there is a lot here to wrestle with all the same. Much too much for one post but that’s all we’ll get until a re-read, or at least until I get to The Wooden Shepherdess, its sequel.

Read about more NYRB Classics during NYRB Reading Week, hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons.

7 comments to The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes

  • MFB

    I knew I wouldn’t escape NYRB week without adding a few must-haves to my wish list…this sounds awesome! And it’s part of a series! Ahhhhhhhh.

  • Oh yeah, you would dig this one. Only problem is Hughes died writing the third book, only about 50 pages of which were ever published. Still totally worth it…I want to pick up the second one right now.

  • I was picking up a scent of Parade’s End early in your post.

    The interpretation of a family through a bad misreading of Baroque achitecture is hilarious. part of misunderstandin everythng, I guess?

  • Given your reference to Parade’s End I have added this book to my TBR list-did you see the BBC will do a production of Parade’s End next year?

  • I just read Hughes’ book, A High Wind in Jamaica, and I found it hilarious. Then, as I was reading your review, I laughed at the part where you describe Augustine believing that Freud and Modernism have saved the world from religion and God. He sounds like a fascinating character! So, yes, I’ve added this book to my to-buy list. Thanks again for another wonderful review!

  • AR—I feel like to some extent Parade’s End colors anything Great-War-related for me, but yes, definitely. And yes to your actual question. I think Augustine would crack you up. He is certainly interesting in terms of “sympathy.”

    Mel—No, I didn’t know that, and I’m now super excited. I don’t watch many of those adaptations even though I probably should (considering my tastes), but this one I will really be waiting for. Oh, could be so good! (Or bad, shh, we won’t think about how much will be left out…)

    fantaghiro—Excellent; my Hughes evangelism will continue to have some small successes. Augustine is wonderful.

  • Interesting-sounding novel, Nicole, and I appreciate your essay-ending technique in the last sentence: I need to use your “that’s all we’ll get until a re-read” approach one of these days, ha ha! Not being very familiar with any of your NYRB Classics spotlight picks this week, though, I have to thank you for bringing YET MORE books from that publisher to my attention whether my wallet can bear the burden or not. Thanks!