A History

Allan Massie

James Kennaway’s last book, the novella Silence, begins like this:

    The doctor thought: I wish I could believe her. I wish I could take her story at face value. I wish I could accept what the Sister had to say. I wish I could say I were a simple man, but none of us can say that any more ...

The doctor is in a movie-house which he soon leaves to go to his son-in-law’s club:

    On Sunday afternoons, in the wintertime, the club organised concerts. They had good people, even great people, who came and played or sang ... And now the concert was over the huge premises were filled with well-dressed men and women taking cocktails and telling less or more than all. Some of the past presidents – senators, bankers or railroad millionaires, portrayed within massive gilt frames themselves – looked pained by the chatter. The rooms were very high and lit only with wall lights and standard lamps with red shades. It was as if the dark area above were filled with humming birds and rooks and the occasional wild parakeet.

The doctor goes through to the bar, which ‘today seemed darker because the glass was covered with two or three inches of newly fallen snow’ (snow is to Kennaway as fog to Dickens). There he finds his son-in-law, son and various rich young men, drinking Bloody Marys, which they call Club’s Blood. ‘It’s the best Bloody Mary in the world,’ he is told. ‘The doctor thought, the Bloody Marys only seem stronger because it is so cold, so very cold outside, with that wind blowing across the icy lake.’ For this is Chicago 1968, and the boys in the club are getting tanked up for a sally to the Negro quarter to roust up a Negro who has assaulted the Doctor’s daughter, and it is in connection with this that the Doctor wishes that he ‘could say he were a simple man, but none of us can say that any more.’

There are, as these passages may have made apparent, two voices muttering in the shadows behind Kennaway’s prose, and they are the Old Firm of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. You can hear Hemingway grumbling in the rhythm of the faux-naif opening; it could be Colonel Cantwell muttering to himself as he walks through the fish-market of Venice. You can hear the echo of Fitzgerald, awe-struck and yet defiantly ironic, as he views the rich boys, who have everything and understand so little.

A good starting-point, then, for any consideration of Kennaway is this realisation that he was the same type of novelist (and had something of the same order of talent) as the Old Firm, writers whose self-conscious dandy persona pervades their work, who cannot detach their own personality from the world they have created, who, indeed, are always in danger in real life of being swallowed by their creations. With Kennaway, though the rhythms tend to be Hemingway, and the machismo is his too, where it isn’t simply Scottish, the attitude to experience is closer to Fitzgerald. Such a realisation should go some way towards clarifying the events recorded in The Kennaway Papers.

These consist partly of notebooks kept by Kennaway, and letters written by him, but often not posted, with an introduction and linking passages by his wife, who writes with a beautiful lucidity and balance, and a rare candour too. The events may be quickly summarised.

By the spring of 1964 Kennaway had written four novels: the popular success Tunes of Glory; the deeply impressive Household Ghosts and Bells of Shoreditch; and a novel of suspense, The Mind Benders. He had made a lot of money and acquired a high professional reputation as a writer of film scripts: Tunes of Glory had been made into a very successful film, and in the case of The Mind Benders, the novel was written after the screenplay. He had started work on another novel, which was causing him a good deal of difficulty: ‘A novel, set in Kashmir, which he intended to call Magnificat or Gorgeous Palaces. Later he changed the title to Maclaren’s History and transferred the setting to Scotland. Later still he moved the scene to London and by this time David’ – of whom more later – ‘had joined the list of characters. Although the book was fiction, he drew Fiddes in the likeness of David. This book, Some Gorgeous Accident, was eventually published in 1967. Link in the same book possessed much of James.’ So writes Susan Kennaway. The difficulties Kennaway experienced in the writing of this book caused him to question his talent, and between 1964 and 1967 he came to reassess the sort of writer he was, and arrived at some sort of accommodation between Kennaway the writer and Kennaway the man. The fact that some such accommodation was necessary to him is another sign of the admirable and rather old-fashioned seriousness with which, in what was already the time of Junk Art, of the writer as part of the glossy Entertainment package, he regarded his métier.

That the story has, besides, a good deal of simple human interest is undeniable, and I gather that a proposed serialisation in a Sunday paper has been refused because it was intended to point up the human interest in a most lively and sensational way – that of the gossip column. That spring, Kennaway met a younger writer, called David, who had recently published an extremely successful spy novel. This was to be filmed, and there was a possibility that Kennaway would write the script. In fact, on a visit to Paris, he had quarrelled with the film’s director, who, among other things, had called him immature. (He resented this, as who wouldn’t, concealing his suspicion that it was to some extent true.) Meanwhile, however, David and Susan had fallen in love: Susan still loving James, and James and David having a close, but not, I think, ambiguous relationship – a Hemingway friendship again, like that of Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton in Fiesta.

Kennaway discovered the affair while he and his family were living in a gloomy Alpine villa. Though he had been by no means faithful to Susan, and had indeed insisted on telling her of his various affairs (which he justified as necessary to his talent), he now exploded. What followed was high drama mixed with farce, fuelled by a great deal of liquor and the unsettling influence of Alpine scenery. Temper, recriminations, sulking abounded; at one point Kennaway tried to compel Susan and David to go off together (David, in fact, had no desire to abandon his wife, the bystander in the affair). Susan realised that her husband was trying to force the situation into a pattern that for some reason appealed to him – ‘James was a great manipulator of people’ – and that she and David were having to act out a script that Kennaway was writing. Stuck on his novel, he was obliging life to provide him with a solution. Without seeing the drafts of Maclaren’s History, one can’t be sure, but it appears that that material lacked convincing life: accordingly, life itself must come to the rescue of the book. Gradually it began to come right. By the time he was living in Germany in a hotel more or less attached to a brothel, he was able to note: ‘how wonderfully close fiction and life have suddenly become. And all moving to reality. It seems a blessing suddenly, the whole thing (though I suspected it from the start) and I seem to be moved not to recollection in the lock-up Proustian sense, of which I’ve been so afraid, but to a different kind of related loneliness.’ Like Malcolm Lowry, Kennaway was hooked on the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset. Ortega’s notion that man is writing the novel of his own life appealed to him: but he had always ‘worried that my life was not full enough to enable me to write.’

This, probably the besetting fear of any novelist, that the well is not dug deep enough for knowledge and will therefore run dry, is perhaps particularly sharp and gnawing for a writer like Kennaway (or Fitzgerald) who starts on success young. Kennaway, in 1964, was 35, nel mezzo del cammin. What had he done with his life? He had been to a good conventional public school, Glenalmond, not very likely to have offered him that intensity of emotional experience which Connolly found at Eton. His father had died when he was 12, and that had imposed a premature sense of responsibility on him: perhaps it had precluded the follies of youth which offer such a rich store for the novelist. His success had been of the most proper: ‘head boy, belt of honour cadet, youngest prefect’. Then military service with the Camerons, administering occupied Germany: it gave him Tunes of Glory, but that wonderfully assured first novel is remarkable for its objectivity. Then Oxford and early marriage to a beautiful girl, and soon a young family, and working for Longman’s and early literary success and film money: it was all terribly smooth, and whatever traumas the loss of a father had set up seemed shoved well out of sight. With energy and charm, he combined – again like Fitzgerald – literary glamour with social success.

But he was short of failure and disaster, and such unbroken swimming success has its limitations: it doesn’t encourage self-knowledge. So now Kennaway was feeling the same need that Fitzgerald had – to widen and deepen his experience, to find out what lay below. It drove them on to what seemed a deliberate tempting of fate: both felt the magnetic attraction of the precipice. For the successful man, danger is something that has to be sought and forced: he can’t manage the failure’s luxury of letting it come naturally. Luckier writers know the worst before they put pen to paper. The late starters like Stendhal and Proust don’t need to court experience in this way: Dostoevsky has already faced the firing-squad and endured Siberia; Conrad has seen enough of men in action to be able to sit scribbling in Kent for the rest of his days. Kennaway, by contrast, had to force action on himself to find out what he felt about things and to understand his nature.

Susan Kennaway was tougher than Zelda and refused to go mad. Kennaway himself stopped short of the crack-up. All the same, this book indicates how close he came. There was a moment in zell-am-See, after the big scene in which he had tried to give Susan to David, when it had very nearly happened. ‘Denys came into the hotel,’ writes Susan (Denys had been James’s best man at their wedding). ‘ “You’d better come to the house. I think James is going mad.” ’

    We climbed the hill again and we went into the big bedroom, where James was curled on the bed in his vest and pants, unshaven, in the foetal position, crying. It had been snowing in the night and the white flakes piled up high against the window panes caused both a strange lightness and a shadowless gloom on the room.

Like the Club Bar in Silence. That was the nadir: it was a slow climb back to normal functioning, a restored marriage and so on, but they made it. For the last year of his life ‘we were on a “wonderful up”.’

What did he get out of it? First, he got his novel written. Some Gorgeous Accident (which has just been republished as part of a project to bring all his novels back into print[*]) is very much a reworking of the triangle he had perversely brought into being, an exploration of the feelings for Susan and David which he had forced himself to discover, barely coated with a fictional sheen. It is not his best book; probably he was too close to the experience, as perhaps Fitzgerald was in Tender is the night, where so much works, but not altogether Dick Diver’s feelings about Nicole’s insanity. The weaknesses in Some Gorgeous Accident are the intrusive facetiousness, certain mannerisms, and the still too romantic acceptance of Link on his own terms. But he got the book done, which hadn’t seemed likely at one time, and despite these flaws it is a work of enormous vitality and penetration. Moreover, it cleared the ground for The Cost of Living Like This and the astonishing Silence; and it is bitter to reflect that he was only 40 when he died, approaching a novelist’s peak. He had also acquired self-knowledge.

In trying to prepare a new life for myself I divided very sharply the artist and the man, refusing to defend the behaviour of the man, being fairly ruthless and arrogant in the protection of the artist. I actually wrote down words in this notebook for them to describe my reasons for refusing ‘control’: Let me scream like a child if I write like a man; let me die if I write like a god.

And again:

I’m sure, sure, sure other artists of awkward cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face kind like myself have a baby within them to defend; and that baby is themself, but somewhere along the line the pain was unbearable and the character split, one part ruthless in defence, the other preserved in original innocence.

It had not just been emotional self-indulgence rampant, or even a perverse desire to tear things apart. He had done what was necessary to release his talent. Artists have, as people, no licence to behave badly: but the chances are that they will, at some periods of their life, do just that. Other people can exist happily as Dr Jekyll, in comfortable ignorance of what they have to Hyde; they may live better, certainly more comfortably, and in most cases it will make no difference to the quality of their work. Not so with artists. Of course they will destroy themselves if they give Hyde his head; many have; but they will stultify their talent if they pretend he doesn’t exist. They have to take chances with life as with art, lay it on the line. Those who, like Waugh, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Kennaway, are granted the carapace of young success, may well have to seek out dangerous playgrounds, they will have to search for the dark alleys, the mean streets, the infernal corridors; they will have to listen in the bleak blank hours of the night’s house for the signal of despair. If they’re lucky, they’ll come through and write true. If not, they die. But if they don’t take the risk, what dies is not the body, but the talent; and that death leaves no rosy glow in the future’s western sky.

This little book records such a quest. We ought to be grateful that Susan Kennaway hasn’t allowed a false sense of decorum to keep it from us; and also that she has presented it in such a way as to allow what is serious and lasting in the story to take precedence over the merely personal and, for other people, trivial.

[*] Mainstream Publishing (Edinburgh), 192 pp., £5.95, 22 January, 0 906391 13 X.