Buchan’s Pathological Vitality

T.J. Binyon

  • The Best Short Stories of John Buchan edited by David Daniell
    Joseph, 224 pp, £7.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 7181 1906 1

David Daniell is also the author of the only full-length critical study of Buchan’s work – The Interpreter’s House (1975). Both there and here, in the introduction to this collection of 12 of Buchan’s stories, he is concerned to defend the writer against the usual accusations of anti-semitism, racism and blatant imperialism; to protest against the way he is automatically ranked with Sapper, Dornford Yates and similar figures; and to assert that he is not only worth reading (which the general public has never forgotten), but also worth reading seriously.

In her fine biography of Buchan Janet Adam Smith earlier argued the case for the author: Dr Daniell develops her points and has little difficulty in proving the attacks to be the result of uninformed prejudice, based on little evidence, and that misinterpreted. It is certainly difficult to see how anyone who has actually read Buchan, Sapper and Yates can yoke the first with the other two. For the difference in flavour – between decency and indecency – compare these three bouts between hero and foreigner. Hannay v. Colonel von Stumm in Greenmantle:

He half tripped over a little table and his face stuck forward. I got him on the point of the chin, and put every ounce of weight I possessed behind the blow. He crumpled up in a heap and rolled over, upsetting a lamp and knocking a big china jar in two. His head, I remember, lay under the escritoire from which he had taken my passport.

Bulldog Drummond v. Count Zadowa in Sapper’s The Black Gang:

It wasn’t until the hunchback pulled a knife that Drummond warmed to his work, but from that moment he lost his temper. And because the hunchback was a hunchback – though endowed withal by Nature with singular strength – it jarred on Drummond to fight him as if he had been a normal man. So he flogged him with a rhinoceros-hide whip till his arm ached, and then he flung him into a chair, gasping, cursing, and scarcely human.

And Richard Chandos v. Boler, the Boche villain of Dornford Yates’s Cost Price:

  ‘Look on your own face,’ I said; ‘for, by God, when you see it next, it won’t look the same.’

  Then, as a man puts the weight, I put his face to the wall beside the pier-glass – with all my might.

  As he slumped to the ground and fell backward, I saw I had kept my word. His nose no longer projected, his teeth were gone, and where his face had been, a bloated mask of crimson was forming before my eyes. And a hole in this was screaming ...

More interesting than the refutation of the slurs is the question of how they arose. Envy might certainly be provoked by his smooth and successful progress from a manse near a linoleum factory in a small Fife town to Rideau Hall, Ottawa the official residence of the Governor-General of Canada (his first book was published when he was 19, and at 22, while still an undergraduate, he was given an entry in Who’s Who); by the ease with which he wrote, composing his novels ‘at dictation speed’; by the sheer bulk of his writings: the long shelf of historical, biographical and fictional works, which yet represent only ‘a side line’ in his life. When a famous Continental psychiatrist was consulted to see whether there might be a psychological basis for Buchan’s continual stomach trouble (like John S. Blenkiron, he had an untrustworthy duodenum), the sage pronounced: ‘Never in my experience have I met anybody less frustrated or less crippled by inhibitions. He is free from neuroses.’ There is a touch of the inhuman here, and the impression is strengthened by Buchan’s own words, when speaking of his mountaineering exploits: ‘I was fortunate to have the opposite of vertigo, for I found a physical comfort in looking down from great heights.’ ‘I thought there was something pathological about his marvellous vitality,’ one character remarks of another in Sick Heart River (1941), and it is hard not to apply the statement to the author himself.

Certainly one might feel that Buchan is too successful in other fields to be considered seriously as a novelist; he presents, too, the image – in Eric Ambler’s words – of ‘an Establishment figure, so club and fuddy-duddy’; and as with Trollope, his very facility tells against him – he openly admits he enjoys writing, and advises his friends to speed their convalescence by composing an adventure story on the grounds that nothing could be more beneficial to the health. Such ignorance of the pains of parturition, such frivolity towards the business of creation, can hardly, some might say, be productive of real art.

Most damning of all, however, is the portrayal in his novels of an old-fashioned ethical ideal in which he actually appears to believe. Concepts such as honour, duty, discipline are only too obviously in evidence, and are always linked with an obsessive concern for physical fitness: ‘mens sana ...’ is never a cliché in Buchan. This is of course, at least superficially, the public-school ethos (though Buchan himself was never at public school), and an interesting comparison can be drawn between Buchan’s work and the earlier, more serious novels of P. G. Wodehouse (Dulwich), whose heroes make a similar cult of physical fitness. The attitude is ironically deflated by Kipling (United Services College), most unathletic of writers, in ‘The Brushwood Boy’, in many ways a very Buchanesque story, when one character remarks of the hero:

I’ve only run across one of his muster before – a fellow called Ingles, in South Africa. He was just the same hard-trained, athletic-sports build of animal. Didn’t do him much good, though. Shot at Wesselstroom the week before Majuba.

Buchan’s fiction falls into two general categories: on the one hand, the ‘shockers’, as he termed them, set in the present; on the other, the historical romances – The Path of the King (1921), Midwinter (1923), Witch Wood (1927), The Blanket Of the Dark (1931), The Free Fishers (1934). Of these he wrote: ‘Being equally sensitive to the spells of time and of space, to a tract of years and a tract of landscape, I tried to discover the historical moment which best interpreted the ethos of a particular countryside, and to devise the appropriate legend.’ He took great pains over these works, considering them ‘the most successful of my attempts at imaginative creation’.

Impressive though they undeniably are – particularly in their evocation of past landscapes – there is a slight smell of the lamp about them, and a tendency, common in historical novels, to try and establish a complicity between author and reader at a character’s expense.

To write his ‘shockers’, Buchan tells us, he would imagine a character – often based on a friend – place him in a situation and see how he set about coping with it. In this way he gradually built up a gallery of characters who move from book to book, meeting and mingling to form new combinations. And part of the charm of Buchan is to encounter old friends in new places: the South African mining engineer who has become a landed gentleman in the Cotswolds; the former Attorney-General trying his hand as an amateur poacher; the retired Glasgow provision merchant impersonating a decrepit archduke.

Buchan is often thought of as a writer of spy thrillers, but out of his large production only three novels can properly be so termed: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916) and Mr Standfast (1918) – though one chapter of A Prince of the Captivity (1933) is concerned with the hero’s experiences as a spy. Of these Greenmantle is undoubtedly the best: The Thirty-Nine Steps is too short, Mr Standfast too long; and Greenmantle contains, too, the perfectly imagined enemy in Colonel von Stumm:

He was a perfect mountain of a fellow, six and a half feel if he was an inch ... He was in uniform, and the black-and-white ribbon of the Iron Cross showed at a buttonhole. His tunic was all wrinkled and strained as if it could scarcely contain his huge chest ... He had a great, lazy, smiling face with a square cleft chin which stood out beyond the rest. His brow retreated and the stubby back of his head ran forward to meet it, while his neck below bulged out over his collar. His head was exactly the shape of a pear with the sharp end topmost.

Heads are always an index of villainy in Buchan: in The Three Hostages (1924) Dominick Medina’s is ‘as round as a football’.

The use to which the extra length of Mr Standfast is put throws an interesting light on the book’s aims, which are by no means those of the ordinary thriller. Had it been merely a thriller, it would, no doubt, have ended when Hannay, exhausted after crossing from Italy into Switzerland on foot over the Schwarz-steinthor, stumbles into the Pink Chalet to confront the defeated Graf von Schwabing. But Mr Standfast continues for another 50 pages – a seventh of Its length – to describe the second Battle of the Somme, and to allow Peter Pienaar, the real hero of the book – though he plays only a small part in it – to sacrifice his life in a successful attempt to prevent an enemy reconnaissance plane carrying back the news to the German Army that the way lies open to Amiens and the sea.

Mr Standfast, of course, takes its title from Pilgrim’s Progress, and there are obvious connections between the two books. Pilgrim’s Progress is used by Hannay as the basis for a simple code; it is Peter Pienaar’s favourite reading; and his final transfiguration is expressed through its symbolism when Hannay reads over his grave: ‘the tale of the end not of Mr Standfast, whom he had singled out for his counterpart, but of Mr Valiant-for-Truth whom he had not hoped to emulate’.

Of Pilgrim’s Progress Buchan writes, in Memory Hold-the-Door (1940): ‘Its spell was largely due to its plain narrative, its picture of life as a pilgrimage over hill and dale, where surprising adventures lurked by the wayside, a hard road with now and then long views to cheer the traveller and a great brightness at the end of it.’ This formula can be seen as the paradigm for almost all Buchan’s adventure novels, although the connection is made most obviously in Mr Standfast. And the link is not just a superficial, external one: if Buchan does not go so far as to make adventure only an allegory for spiritual experience, the religious, the spiritual, the mystical dimension is, to a greater or lesser extent, almost always there. On the surface his novels may be about uncovering a German spy ring, circumventing a worldwide conspiracy, or freeing a rich Danish recluse from blackmailers, but beyond this they are voyages of self-discovery, quests for self-knowledge, searchings for one’s soul, ending in regeneration or rebirth in life, or in self-sacrifice and transfiguration in death.

One would not wish to make too much of this element. It does not obtrude itself upon the reader. Indeed, most probably miss it. But the extra dimension does raise the novels far above those with which they are commonly ranked: does give them, at moments, undoubted power and moral authority. Viewed from this angle, too, the cult of physical fitness takes on a different significance: it is not merely a left-over from the school gymnasium, but a necessary hardening of the body and spirit to prepare both for the ordeal they must face.

Two novels stand apart as being intended more seriously, less as entertainments – A Prince of the Captivity and Sick Heart River. Both take up and rework the subject of Mr Standfast. In the first, set in the 1930s, Adam Melfort sacrifices his life to rescue a politician from right-wing assassins, a politician who, he believes, can save Europe from war. In the second, set in Canada just after the outbreak of the Second World War, Sir Edward Leithen abandons the chance of being cured from the disease that is killing him and devotes his last months to caring for a sickly and exhausted tribe of Indians.

The two novels contain some of Buchan’s best scenes, some of his most impressive effects; and Sick Heart River is interesting, too, for an element of self-portraiture (‘His Excellency is writing a very odd book, so unlike him, so introspective,’ his secretary reported). But in the end both narrowly fail, and for the same reason. In each the characters are taken out of stock, from Buchan’s old boy network. These creations function supremely well in the adventure stories, fitting together to form a fictional world of their own: but this is the only world to which they can give life.

As a novelist Buchan is unique. No one else has ploughed that particular field in that particular way. But behind his short stories there looms off and on the gigantic presence of Kipling. In this collection, for example, ‘The Frying-Pan and the Fire’ seems a reworking, a filling-out, of Kipling’s anecdote ‘The Arrest of Lieutenant Golightly’, while ‘The Last Crusade’ is based on the same idea – the manufacturing of public opinion through journalism – as ‘The Village that voted the Earth was flat’. And this is possibly why one finds the short stories, even those which take up in miniature the themes of the novels, slightly less satisfying than the latter.

But Dr Daniell’s selection is an interesting one, and he deserves our gratitude, too, for including six stories which have not been in print since 1899, when they appeared in Grey Weather, Buchan’s first collection. Perhaps because they are less familiar, they seem fresher and more original than the others, and reveal Buchan as a careful chronicler of Tweeddale life, and as a dialect writer of some skill. On the whole, though, there can be no regrets that he moved on to a different manner and a different subject-matter.

Buchan is the direct heir to the tradition of Scott and Stevenson, and it is with them, rather than with Sapper and Dornford Yates, that he should be ranked. Certainly there is much more to be said about him than has so far been said, and future investigators might be left with two quotations to take as their starting-point. The first, cited by Janet Adam Smith, comes from a modern French commentator:

Personnellement, je n’ai réellement compris l’oeuvre de Buchan, que je connaissais pourtant parfaitement, qu’au cours de mes aventures de résistance et au camp de concentration. Certaines réflexions sur le courage dans ‘Mr Standfast’ ne sont, me semble-t-il, compréhensibles que pour quelqu ’un qui a été lui-mâme aux frontières de la peur et de la résistance physique.

The second is the inscription placed by the Emperor Akbar on the great portal of the mosque in Fatehpur-Sikri, which was taken by Buchan as the epigraph for A Prince of the Captivity:

Thus said Jesus, upon whom be peace. The World is a bridge; pass over it, but build no house upon It.