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.

The Spider’s Palace and other stories by Richard Hughes

Spider's PalaceIn addition to four adult novels, Richard Hughes was a children’s writer. In The Spider’s Palace and other stories, he gives us a series of dreamlike vignettes, mostly involving children, animals, toys, or some combination thereof. They are fairy tales—things come to life, people turn into dolls, there are castles in the sky. But they are not, quite; they are a little too absurd.

An example might be best. In the first story, “Living in W’ales,” “Once there was a man who said he didn’t like the sort of houses people lived in, so he built a model village. It was not really like a model village at all, because the houses were all big enough for real people to live in, and he went about telling people to come and Live in W’ales.” This man becomes a pied piper, leading everyone away to W’ales, including a little girl and a dog who get lost along the way and, seeing a whale, ask to be allowed to live in it.

Inside the whale, though, there is no food for little girls or dogs. The dog begins digging holes inside the whale, which upsets his tummy (understandably so). “So he went up to the top of the water and shouted to the captain of a ship to give him a pill.” What kind of pill does a ship’s captain give a whale? A cold dressed leg of mutton. With such food, the dog stops his digging. Next we must get food for the girl, and a place for her to sleep. After all amenities have been provided, with the help of a parrot and a Harrod’s sales clerk, they girl and dog “said: ‘The man was right; it really is much more fun living in W’ales than living in houses.’ So they stayed on.”

Living in W'ales

That is a happy ending. Not all of them are, but they do lean bright and uplifting with just a touch of cynicism about human nature. The greatest pleasure in reading them came, for me, in their unpredictability. Just as everything and nothing is a non sequitur in a dream, so here. And there is a level of absurdity that seemed almost too old for a children’s book—but maybe I don’t remember how strange some children’s books are. “The China Spaniel” opens:

There was once a school that was rather cross and dull, and it was run by one old woman.

Now it so happened that one of the children at this school was a china spaniel, the kind that has a gold chain round its neck, and doesn’t look as if it had much sense. As a matter of fact, this one had practically no sense at all: he was easily the stupidest pupil in the whole school, and could never learn his lessons properly.

I’m sure you know just the kind of china spaniel.

I really like the one about W’ales. “The Gardener and the White Elephants” was also up there: a gardener stays up all night to see who’s eating his crops, follows a rabbit down his hole, and finds dozens of white elephants living in the burrow, terrified by the rabbit and unable to disobey him and leave. The gardener leads them out, fights the vicious rabbit to the death, and says, “Now will you be my white elephants?”

The Gardener and the Elephants

Not all of the illustrations are so cute, but I thought these ones were good. And they fit the tone so well. (Forgive the poor images; I could not have done much better without tearing the book apart.)

You can really see that the man who wrote A High Wind in Jamaica wrote these, and that the Bas-Thornton children should have read them. It’s kind of a funny double-sided picture. A Spider’s Palace, originally published in 1932, is now out of print (though readily available, it would seem). I’m sure they won’t, but how lovely it would be if NYRB reprinted it the way they have his adult works.

In Hazard by Richard Hughes

In HazardIn his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of In Hazard, John Crowley describes the book as “one of the great gripping true sea stories of modern literature, for much of its length rich with salt spray and engine oil and skillful desperate men doing unimaginably difficult tasks.” I don’t think a more apt description is possible. Richard Hughes took a true story of an incredibly powerful hurricane that swept up a steamer in its track for six days and turned it into a frustratingly beautiful novel. Six days of men pushed to the boundaries of the imaginable, and us right with them, watching helpless as “the seas, huge lumps of water with a point on top, ran about in all directions in a purposeful way at immense speeds.”

Even Hughes’s explanations of weather patterns are a joy to read. He is great for explaining, for giving the full picture of where everything is and what is happening and how it all works. But never, not for a second, boring. After we learn how hurricanes are born:

Thus the spin of the Earth is only the turn of the crank-handle which starts it: the hurricane itself is a vast motor, revolved by the energy generated by the condensation of water from the rising air.

Wait a minute—“energy generated by the condensation of water from the rising air”? Did I mention the Archimedes is a steamship? A status which presents such interesting problems. Steamships don’t get caught in hurricanes. By now we have the technology to avoid them, and steamers are fast enough and not beholden to wind to do so. And if a steamer does get caught, she can just sit there with no sails and nothing to worry about while the storm blows over. And the main funnel of the Archimedes was built to withstand wind pressures of up to a hundred tons.* But when the engine fails and no one can understand why, the men finally realize that the funnel is gone entirely. Hughes’s fatalism is harsh:

That funnel, guyed to stand a lateral pressure of a hundred tons! A hurricane-wind, at 75 m.p.h., would exert a pressure on it of fifteen tons. But the pressure exerted by air (leaving humidity out of account) increases according to the square of its velocity: the pressure of a wind at 200 m.p.h. therefore, would be roughly seven times as great. And that would mean a total of…but you can work that out for yourself, as Captain Edwardes did, in his head, while Mr. Buxton ran into the engine room yelling “The funnel’s gone! The funnel’s gone!” like a maniac.

And once the funnel is gone, and the steam is gone, they cannot do anything. They cannot even steer, which is what does them in and leaves them pushed by the hurricane broadside for days on end, listing some 45 degrees (creating a vacuum on the lee side of the decks, which sucks off all the hatches and leaves the hold to fill with thousands of gallons of spray).

She was dead, as a log is dead, rolling in the sea; she was not a ship any more. She was full of men, of course; but there was no work for them to do, because ships having once discarded man’s strength, cannot fall back on that strength in an emergency.

There’s that work again, we’ve seen that before. It’s a big deal. And the work on a steamship is very different; for one thing, there are two crews: the ship’s actual crew, and the engine room workers. They are entirely separate, work separately, and experience the storm separately.

And for all the really well-done man mastering nature bits, the bits about the men themselves are even better. These are men doing some really grand and wondrous things, and the fear, desperation, and desperate avoidance of fear are perfect. An argument between the chief engineer and one of his men on hell is, at least to me, one of the best pieces of dialogue I have ever read.

And there is so much more: the Chinese members of the crew; Mr. Rabb, the terrified supernumerary officer; Richard Hughes’s own comments in his afterword that the story prefigures in some ways the second world war; the meaning of the end of the age of sail. Religion is everywhere, in all the men, all over, worth studying all on its own, probably. Almost as good as the hell argument: Dick Watchett, recalling his adolescent instruction about a less literal God, was disappointed to find out that He did not really do miracles anymore “simply because He was above that sort of thing, and meant us to learn Boyle’s Law and so on”—Boyle’s Law!!!

Even though the Archimedes is a dead log, with no steam, no power, no steering, and no sail, the men do find ways to work. Unbelievable ways, like pouring oil a single drop at a time onto the water to deaden the waves. And they come through it all alive, and no one even hurt with more than a cut or bruise. Even in a world of amazing stories, this one is on another plane, and the men in it as well.

*In Crowley’s introduction, he says two hundred. But he says Hughes says two hundred, not implying this is merely a difference between the fictional and real-life ships. What is up with these mistakes?

I simply must have more

I don’t think I will have time to post about In Hazard until next week, but I will tease you a little. John Crowley quotes Ford Madox Ford in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition; apparently he told Richard Hughes:

I have seen one or two notices that quite miss all the points and resolve themselves into saying that it is or isn’t better than Typhoon. It isn’t, of course, better than Typhoon. Typhoon was written by a great writer who was a man. In Hazard was written by someone inhuman…and consummate in the expression of inhumanities.

For myself, I am considering making it my life’s mission to evangelize everyone I know, handing out copies of this and A High Wind in Jamaica on the street even. Or, you know, not, but if a single person does listen to me on this guy I will consider the blog generally worthwhile. Ford Madox Ford liked him too!

A Piratical Interlude

The ship is another of Margaret Cohen’s maritime chronotopes, one of rigid hierarchy and work. As in many hierarchical societies, ships often need a “carnival” to let off steam (c.f. the sperm scene in Moby-Dick). And meanwhile,

The pirate communities that shadow lawful ships are a kind of permanent carnival, where the ship’s structures of authority are inverted and undone. The alternatives offered by pirate communities to the authoritarian societies on ship include an order founded on utopian aspirations of equality, a comic version of the medieval ship of fools concerned only with pleasure, and presocial communities where all are out for themselves dedicated to the sheer pursuit of gain.

The pirate ship in Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica offers a ship of fools of sorts. Our first encounter with the pirates there is as cross-dressers. Instead of violently boarding the ship carrying the Bas-Thornton children, the pirates wait for a moment when the sailors of the Clorinda are having their own little carnival, at play with a drunken monkey, then approach dressed as women and board totally unnoticed.

But it is precisely to accomplish the constant hard work necessary to avoid danger on blue and white water that the rigidness of the ship exists. The pirates manage to navigate around the Caribbean, but bungle just about everything else. It’s by accident that they ended up with the children, and by accident that one of the children is killed. They can’t sell their plunder or figure out what to do with the half-dozen toddlers running around their ship. When the children first start to feel comfortable on board, they realize the wet deck of the schooner is perfect for tobogganing across on their bottoms. Captain Jonsen lets it go at first, but finally he has had enough, realizing that the ship really does need a degree of order.

“Hi! You! Stop that!”
They gazed at him in astonishment and disillusion.

“Stop it! Stop it, I tell you!”
(They had already done so, of course.)
The whole unreasonableness, the monstrousness of the imposition of these brats on his ship suddenly came over him, and summed itself up in a single symbol:
“If you go and wear holes in your drawers, do you think I am going to mend them?—Lieber Gott! What do you think I am, eh? What do you think this ship is? What do you think we all are? To mend your drawers for you, eh? To mend…your…drawers?
There was a pause, while they all stood thunderstruck.
But even now he had not finished:
“Where do you think you’ll get new ones, eh?” he asked, in a voice explosive with rage. Then he added, with an insulting coarseness of tone: “And I’ll not have you going about my ship without them! See?”

Now, who would be surprised that the children don’t take such pirates seriously? That they don’t keep much order on their ship?

They let Rachel, one of the smaller girls, play with a marlinspike as if it were a doll. She sits up on the mainmast and cradles it like a baby. But funny pirates and small children don’t banish danger from maritime life, and sure enough Rachel drops her spike right onto Emily’s leg. The injury is serious enough that Emily is bedridden for the rest of the trip, touching off her own violent episode.

Even on this ship of fools, though, some hierarchy is maintained. The difference between the forecastle and the cabin is still a stark one, and Captain Jonsen and first mate Otto keep their distance from the crew, while remaining strangely close to one another. I still don’t quite understand their relationship. The mate passive-aggressively ignores Jonsen after a slight at the helm; eventually Jonsen gives over, shouting out, “Otto! Mein Schatz…!” And they go below together. They spend a lot of time below together. But they also spend a lot of time below with Margaret. In any case, not entirely ship-shape.

By the latter part of the book, Captain Jonsen realizes this cannot go on, and re-inverts his pirate carnival into a serious, hard-working crew. He has a plan for getting rid of the kids, and needs to pull it off without anyone realizing they are pirates. He manages to keep things together long enough to deposit the children safely on a steamer, and it looks as though his take-charge authoritarian turn has worked. But it’s not to be. On the ship of fools only people on the outer edges were in real danger; the pirates made out okay. Now that they’ve pulled together and accomplished something, though, it comes back to bite them.

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

A High Wind in JamaicaI said yesterday that Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica was the best book I had read about children in ages; I think, in fact, it may be the best book I have ever read about children. Its exploration of their psychology is certainly deep and affecting. It begins in Jamaica, where the five Bas-Thornton children are growing up on an old sugar plantation. The eldest two were born in England, and as newcomers to the island they are subtly but importantly differentiated from the Creoles—families European in origin but which have spent at least a generation in the Caribbean. Emily is the oldest girl, the undisputed queen of the children and a focal point of the novel. And an intriguing child, bossy about “the Liddlies” and fastidious about the smallest bits of morality. She and her older brother John are sent to pay a visit to the Fernandez family, nearby Creoles, who are not quite up to her standards.

Emily said nothing. Of course people smelt different: it didn’t need arguing. She could always tell her own towel from John’s, for instance: or even knew if one of the others had used it. But it just showed what sort of people Creoles were, to talk about Smell, in that open way.

But with the Creoles Emily has her first amazing experience: an earthquake. It is a minor tremor, but she feels herself transformed; she has now had an Adventure. An Earthquake. Hughes really understands the magic of words, here. A hurricane comes and blows the Thorntons’ house right down, but since it’s only called a “storm” she is totally unfazed. Her parents, on the other hand, are finally driven to send the children back to England to school. They pack them off with nice Captain Marpole, who Mrs. Bas-Thornton knows “will worship” the children—but lo, the five, along with the Fernandez boy and girl, are soon kidnapped by pirates.

But the children—most of them, at least—have no idea they have been kidnapped, do not acknowledge they are with a ship full of criminals, and completely block out the memory of elder brother John after his accidental death. Their life on the ship is like Lord of the Flies, only with benevolent if bumbling adults hanging around, and a mix of girls and boys. And Queen Emily still very much in charge of things.

Hughes has an amazing sense of the resilience and resourcefulness of the children, and of their weird, secretive inner lives. The siblings are, of course, all different ages, and each has a very distinct and lovingly drawn personality.

Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term “human” a wide sense): but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby: and babies of course are not human—they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates.

In short, babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind.

It is true they look human—but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.

Subconsciously, too, every one recognizes they are animals—why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.

Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree—and even if one’s success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.

How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?

“One of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates” indeed—my dearest love and companion in this vale of tears has been known to refer to them as larvae, and I feel another companion in Richard Hughes. I am just in love with this passage, in every respect. Children are mad, in “human” terms; the adults in the novel certainly cannot understand their motivations or inner lives, or really anything about them or their adventure at all.

Of course, there is, as in Lord of the Flies, a darker side to children, as there is a dark side to nature and to human nature. Emily might be scandalized to think of addressing an adult by her first name, but murder is not beyond her—nor is letting her pirate friends hang for it. The disturbing last section of the book, after the children are deposited safely on a steamer headed for England, is, unfortunately, inevitable. And of course very well done. I am going to have to search out more of this Hughes fellow, even if it does mean reading novels about the rise of Hitler (not a super appealing subject for me).

How to Read Like a…?

The pirates in A High Wind in Jamaica are pretty wonderful. After finishing the novel I went back and re-read Francine Prose’s introduction to the NYRB edition, and she doesn’t like them quite as much. But why?

Captain Jonsen’s drunken display of murky attention leads Emily to defend herself by biting his thumb, and later there is a creepy moment when he looks in on the sleeping children and, knowing that Emily is awake and watching, flicks his fingernail against baby Laura’s bare and upraised bottom.

Except for one thing. Jonsen “did not notice Emily, sitting up in the darkness and watching him.”

The scene as I read it was much closer to cute than creepy. I can handle differences of opinion, but find this kind of error upsetting. And I think it’s an important one, because after that one creepy scene, Jonsen really doesn’t have another, and to have one at the point claimed wouldn’t make much sense in the story, &tc.

More on the novel later, of course. Best thing about children I have read in ages. But in the end they are almost more infuriating than usual.