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
Continue reading The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes
In 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.’
Continue reading The Spider’s Palace and other stories by Richard Hughes
In 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
Continue reading In Hazard by Richard Hughes
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!
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
Continue reading A Piratical Interlude
I 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,
Continue reading A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
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.