A Writer’s Fancy

D.J. Enright

  • Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy
    Allison and Busby, 125 pp, £5.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 85031 314 7
  • Flesh by Brigid Brophy
    Allison and Busby, 124 pp, £1.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 08 503131 3
  • The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy
    Allison and Busby, 143 pp, £1.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 85031 316 3

Brigid Brophy’s novels have often been described as ‘brilliantly written’: a judgment which can have done her sales little good. (‘Don’t bother with that book – it’s brilliantly written!’) The notion that a writer ought actually to be able to write as distinct from slapping down words on paper is a dying one. Some far grander potency is required if fiction is to compete at all effectively with television. Television, on the other hand, can afford to be stylish on occasion (and occasionally is) since there is not the faintest doubt of its virility, its power (for as long or short as is desired) to capture and absorb its public. Television is not on the way to destroying fiction (which is what much of it is), it is only going to shove writing, ‘style’, a little further back into the darkness where, one sometimes thinks, true art is most at home, or which it at the least needs in large doses. Or is just going to get anyway.

An example of Brigid Brophy’s stylishness occurs at the opening of Hackenfeller’s Ape, first published in 1953 and the earliest of these reprints:

Radiant and full-leafed, the Park was alive with the murmuring vibration of the species which made it its preserve. The creatures, putting off timidity at the same time as winter drabness, abounded now with no ascertainable purpose except to sun themselves. Their seasonal brilliance – scarlet, sky-blue, yellow – interspersed the deep, high-summer greenness of the foliage The ground, too hard to receive their spoors, shook beneath games that revealed a high degree of social organisation.

The pleasing confusion here, abetted by ensuing references to flattened grass and the ‘scuffles and hoots’ that characterise courting rites, stems from the word ‘species’, which despite the author’s gentle hint can be either singular or plural, together with the expectations set up by the book’s title. This, we gather, is a zoological park, full of zoological species. It is only with the mention of cricket in the second paragraph that we know for sure that the species in question is specifically the human one: ‘the only species which imprisoned other species not for any motive of economic parasitism but for the dispassionate parasitism of indulging its curiosity’.

True stylishness always has a point, and makes it firmly yet discreetly. In this story man as a species is to be seen in relation to other species, the similarities and dissimilarities between them, the fellow feeling and feelinglessness; and it is advisable for us to be reminded at the outset that, while man may have dominion over all the inhabitants of sea, air and earth, he is still himself a species. Miss Brophy’s intention is neither to sentimentalise the animals (though they can generally do with a little of this) nor to put man in his place below the angels and below the beasts as well. The Park it neither a Garden of Eden nor a concentration camp, though it takes in, besides much middle ground, the milder elements of both.

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