Some time late in 1939, around the time World War Two began, I met Rayner Heppenstall in the street, and we went to a pub, no doubt to exchange gloomy views about our likely futures. His first novel would be coming out soon. ‘It might sell a few copies in the rubber shops,’ he said.
The book was The Blaze of Noon. It appeared in November 1939, and its success was assured by an article in the Evening Standard which said in a headline that the novel was a challenge to the censor, and added two subheads: ‘An Affront to Decency ... A Story of Poultry-Yard Morals’. The subsequent sale extended far beyond rubber shops – which, it should perhaps be explained forty years on, sold French letters. According to the publisher, ‘a queue of old ladies and gentlemen in riding boots were offering three or four guineas for a copy.’ The first edition sold out immediately, but a reprint was ready in a couple of weeks. (Happy days.) Since then, the author tells us, it has been constantly in and out of print, and now here it is again. In commercial terms it is probably Mr Heppenstall’s only successful book.
It is, however, untypical of his approach to the writing of fiction. There are in a literary sense two Rayner Heppenstalls. One has produced works of fiction which adhere to some aspects of the French anti-novel as practised by Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Sarraute and others. He has been called the father of the anti-novel, and strictly in terms of time this may be true, although his experiments do not range as widely as those of Robbe-Grillet. In The Connecting Door and Two Moons past and present co-exist, at times confusingly, but there is little of the delight in playing games with himself and with the reader that runs through Robbe-Grillet’s work, or of Robbe-Grillet’s determination, in such books as The Erasers and In the Labyrinth, to leave everything uncertain. Mr Heppenstall is simple by comparison, although too random for old-fashioned devotees of character and incident like me. ‘I had long been sickened by the contrivances expected of a novelist,’ Heppenstall said in 1963, adding that he would have liked to write ‘from day to day, simply about the moment and its concerns and any past matters which pressed on the memory, the prose being merely careful, transparent, exact, easy on eye and ear ... utterly shameless, wholly personal’. The ‘rigid formality of British literary customs’ had by his own account made this impossible, although in fact he has achieved some of it, particularly that careful, transparent and exact prose.
These qualities, plus an almost unvarying tone of sceptical irony, are apparent in the work produced by the other Rayner Heppenstall, the volumes of memoirs in which he offers views of himself and other people. Four Absentees portrays brilliantly George Orwell, Eric Gill, Middleton Murry and Dylan Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Professional Man is an acidly amusing account of his twenty-odd years as a radio producer, and the more directly autobiographical The Intellectual Part offers agreeably eccentric views about many matters, including the casual remark that a national church must always be a monstrosity, and the suggestion that any motorist found responsible for injuring a pedestrian should be flogged. Here is an impersonal account of the sub-arachnoid hemorrhage that nearly killed him, there a courageous defence of the collaborators Drieu la Rochelle and Jacques Doriot, and there again an off-hand remark that ‘nobody but themselves’ thought the Auden group dominated the Thirties literary scene. Near the end of this book filled with opinions, the author says characteristically: ‘I am not an opinion man.’
The skill and colour of his portraiture is suggested by this little sketch of the poet Wilfred Rowland Childe:
At one time he had enjoyed a great reputation as a poet. He was a dear, kind man, but nobody listened to his lectures. He lectured on Wednesday mornings to a large audience composed of both Hons. and Ordinary students. He lectured sitting down. He read his lectures very quietly, with no gesticulation or other playing to the gallery. The gallery repaid him by getting along quietly with its other work or playing noughts and crosses. If you listened intently, you could make out part of what Childe was saying. It was evidently about Style, and perhaps it was very good. His mouth, when he lectured, was like that of a rabbit nibbling. His shirts were of soft material and brightly coloured, his ties broad and hairy. He wore spectacles. His hair was long. His poems were full of stained glass and, latterly (a modern influence), rows of dots.
These delightful books, some of them, alas, out of print,would appear to be written by a man deeply sceptical of human motives and far from idealistic about any human activity. The impression, however, is deceptive.
If Mr Heppenstall does not believe, he would like to believe. As a young man he was much stirred by Christian imagery, and was under instruction by Father D’Arcy, but although able to accept the immortality of the soul and perhaps symbolically the Fall, ‘I could not manage the omniscience and the omnipotence of God, which are pretty basic.’ Despite this, the idea that something beyond environment and heredity, logical understanding and economic pressure, orders our destinies remains permanently attractive to him. In the Thirties he was briefly a member of a commune, in 1948 a lecturer for a PQ (Present Question) group, ‘essentially a conference-holding organisation, devoted to the idea of synthesis’. A reality beyond that of everyday life is what Rayner Heppenstall has looked for in fiction.
In The Blaze of Noon the reality is love, as it is celebrated by a blind masseur and a girl named Sophie Madron:
I touched her lips to stop her talking. And I lifted her to her feet until she was quiet and her eyes full of tears ... It was a love gentle and nervous, gathering itself quickly to a little crisis and then without excess receding, a dance of idealised sensation, wilfully frustrating itself, like an erotic dance in the theatre where the limbs of the dancers entwine without a hold and their lips continually approach and never meet, a love without perceptible fatigue that prolonged itself imperceptibly into sleep and seemed never to have been interrupted at all when at last the morning came.
It is important, in the context of Heppenstall’s ideas, that the masseur should be blind, because his blindness gives an extra dimension to what might otherwise be merely a sexual encounter. But isn’t it just a sexual encounter, with the titillation for the reader that one of the partners cannot see? Not a single sexual word is used in the book, nor in any other Heppenstall fiction I have read – that desire to be perfectly shameless evidently does not extend to direct description – yet the story has a sexual atmosphere that for me is not agreeable. In form, The Blaze of Noon is an orthodox novel, the only one written by its author, but really it is a book about sex. Because the narrator lacks sight, he has a kind of sixth sensual sense which tells him from Sophie’s voice that she is passionate, and suggests that when she does not shake hands it is because she is ‘so erotically self-conscious that she had considered beforehand how important and therefore how compromising to herself is the touch of a man whose eyes are in his fingers’. There were times in the book when I found myself longing for this creepy sexual magic of the blind to be cleared away with some four-letter words. When the narrator says things like ‘a woman is at all times a continent to be explored,’ the temptation to talk instead about a good fuck is particularly strong.
But The Blaze of Noon is not typical. Heppenstall’s personality and temperament have been best conveyed in fiction by his next book Saturnine (1943), which suggests better than anything else I know the vaguely disorderly quality of existence in the months before and after the beginning of World War Two, the sense that a way of living was at an end and that one existed now in a world where almost anything might happen. Real life and fantasy blend into each other, and everything is put down with much exactness. When a ceiling falls, the fact is somehow verified by the concern of the narrator, Alick Frobisher, to note that the date ‘was the 8th or the 15th of January, 1939’. Frobisher was a dangling man before Saul Bellow invented the title, happily married but still yearning for a girl met at the Institute of Mystical Science, a sceptic in most things but a believer in astrology and ghosts. Footnotes are provided for verisimilitude, there are pub discussions in which the tapeworm is praised as embodying a ‘conception of sin which would enhance the creation by man of this filth in his own body’, a girl is sawn in half. Alick’s wife Margaret (the name of the author’s wife) bears a child, the Germans invade Norway. The book ends with Alick, no longer dangling, marked Grade One for army service. There is nothing else like Saturnine’s mixture of philosophical reflection, near-mysticism, triviality and fact in modern literature, and the book, later reprinted with some modifications and additions as The Greater Infortune, is surely Heppenstall’s most considerable achievement. Names like Firbank and Sterne have been mentioned in relation to him, but he has never fitted comfortably into any other writer’s stylistic clothes. Saturnine was followed after ten years by The Lesser Infortune, a sparely-written and apparently factual account of life in the Army. This is always interesting and often amusing, but the author was dissatisfied with the book, and certainly it bears no relation to his developing theories of fiction. His later imaginative writing has been concerned to suggest the random quality of existence and the fluidity of time, and seems to show (one can never be quite sure when Mr Heppenstall is kidding) an increasing faith in astrology.
Saturnine derives part of its unique flavour from the strong realities of the war, which both enhanced and acted as a corrective to the more grotesque material. The Connecting Door (1962) and Two Moons (1977) attempt to replace that powerful background with mere actualities (‘At the Oval cricket ground on the Surrey side of the Thames, teams of Englishmen and Australians, the former captained by Ray Illingworth and the latter by Ian Chappell’ etc) in a way that quickly becomes tedious. Against such material is placed, in the later book, the figure of Harold Atha and his affairs as they might be seen by a man in the moon.
Nothing Rayner Heppenstall writes is without interest, and The Connecting Door contains several scenes and people observed with his customary elegant exactness. But this, in the author’s aesthetic, is of less concern than Berkeleyan touches like that in which the narrator tells the young student Harold, ‘You were doing nothing because I didn’t think about you,’ or the implicit conflict between free will and determinism with which the book ends. Two Moons requires, or at least desires, us to read the left and the right-hand pages in parallel even though there is no direct connection between them. The feeble may read the left-hand pages first and follow them with the right-hand ones, when ‘the narrative thread [will] be single and consecutive.’ So why not do this anyway? Well, the left-hand pages are about happenings during one lunation, the right-hand pages about the one following, and unless we read as the author wishes we shall lose the parallelisms of time and event important to the narrative.
It is hard to see that this procedure has any more value than that of the ingenious novelist who wrote a book without using the letter ‘e’. Naturally there are parallelisms in Two Moons, because the author has put them there. He is forcing astrologically-ordered cards on us in this reciting of facts, conjectures, and the personal occasions of Harold Atha. One can read Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers with pleasure independent of any relation it has to the Tarot pack, and enjoy Last Year at Marienbad while remaining ignorant of its connection with an old Chinese game, but if you don’t accept Mr Heppenstall’s views about the importance of different lunations, then Two Moons can only seem a late and unhappy case of French flu.
Considered as a whole Rayner Heppenstall’s work, having perhaps been over-valued in the Sixties, when the anti-novel was fashionable, is certainly underrated today. The fictions that most fully embody his theories are in one degree or another unsuccessful, but the personality revealed in Saturnine, The Lesser Infortune and his memoirs is quirky, on occasion downright foolish, but never lacking integrity or interest. His writing, even in comparative potboilers like his books about French crime, has a deliberate stylishness that makes it always a pleasure to read. He is an original and serious writer, who has never, except in Saturnine, found a form in which the originality could be fully expressed. His admirers must hope that he may still produce a work, no doubt in some measure autobiographical, ‘utterly shameless, wholly personal’ (qualities surely not precluded by any rigid formality of our present literary customs), in which his talents will be altogether fulfilled.