The Strange Case of Peter Vansittart

Martin Seymour-Smith

  • Aspects of Feeling by Peter Vansittart
    Peter Owen, 251 pp, £10.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 7206 0637 3

Peter Vansittart, novelist, historian and writer for children, has been singled out for praise by critics as diverse as Philip Toynbee, Francis King, Angus Wilson and Andrew Sinclair. All feel that he lacks the large audience he deserves. Yet the curious reader, anxious to gain more information about this somewhat enigmatic writer, of undoubted power (and above all vision), may easily find himself defeated. He is not even included in the massive – if frequently trivial and banal – Contemporary Novelists. He is omitted from surveys of literature (even by those who have praised him). This is certainly undeserved neglect: but could it also be that critics find it difficult to explain him?

Vansittart began his writing life with a novel, I am the world (1942). Since then, he has written 20 more, as well as a history book and several volumes of stories for children. He was a history scholar at Oxford, and then a teacher (a headmaster) for some twenty years. His name is quite well-known, and most people have read at least one of his books. His writing is evidently of high quality and originality, and he has not often attracted hostile comment. So it seems that the neglect into which he has fallen – this is in itself perhaps better-known than any specific book he has written – is owed partly to the fact that few, if any, know in what tradition or group to place him. He is less ignored, then, really, than genuinely puzzling and therefore not much commented upon. Beyond the scope of a review, critics do not know what to say about him. And they can be forgiven for it.

In his historical novels, which are by no means typical of the genre (if they were, he would be richer and more popular than he is), Vansittart shares an attitude with the strange Polish novelist Teodor Parnicki. Parnicki does not pretend to be writing ‘history’ at all: he treats the past as part of his own present, and therefore never even attempts to ‘recreate’ it. When he feels like it, he freely mixes anachronism, invention and fantasy with meticulously documented fact (usually, let it be admitted, of periods about which no one but himself knows anything). Vansittart has himself said that he is ‘unconcerned’ with the ‘picturesque and antiquarian’, and has quoted Croce’s dictum that ‘all history is contemporary.’ The very least of his intentions is to give any kind of ‘true’ picture of the past. He is instead anxious to convey the manner in which the present is permeated by the past – and this is one of the many themes of his most recent novel.

But it does prove very hard to place Vansittart in any tradition or group. All the obvious influences are there, as well as a few more unusual ones: Sienkowicz as well as Kafka, the Carlyle of Sartor Resartus as well as Dickens – and so forth. But these writers have been thoroughly assimilated. He doesn’t resemble anyone at all closely; he reminds the reader of no one of this century. There is sometimes, it seems, a price to pay for this kind of originality. Although markedly eccentric, he is not just that. ‘When will this extraordinary writer receive his due?’ a critic has asked; nor is the question in the least surprising. Vansittart himself must be puzzled by the paucity of attention accorded to him. ‘Easily upset in life, I am fortunately undismayed by critical neglect, or by reviewers,’ he has written. But there is certainly a too personal note about the way in which he handles the ‘literary world’ in his new novel: the passages dealing with it are the least successful (and the least original) in that very remarkable book. Although Vansittart is undoubtedly unlucky – as gifted English eccentrics often are – he also has himself to blame for the fact that people seldom think of him until confronted by his books. He is in a sense oblivious to contemporary literature, although clearly he reads it. Doubtless he needs this obliviousness to preserve his originality: it is nonetheless a defect in his sensibility, and this is apparent whenever he has to deal in a precise manner with a contemporary phenomenon. Doubtless British literary life since the war has been every bit as awful and false as Vansittart wants us to think. Still, it has not been so in the way he too irascibly tries to demonstrate; and there has been no publisher remotely like the ones of whom he provides caricatures. This whole exercise reads like that of a person far away from the literary world.

The problem for Vansittart has always been that he is excessive: he wants to achieve too much within the bounds of a single volume. Nor will he give this ambition up – but by now his persistence has become courageous and impressive. He has the aspirations of a poet – he wants to make a brilliant and compressed success, something like a great short lyric – but he lacks the discipline. I am the world, published early in the war when he was only 21 years old, is excessive (promisingly so): about the rise and fall of a dictator clearly based on Hitler, it seems to want to say everything that can be said about dictatorship. It is relentlessly and ambitiously unpleasant – the brutal and dark side of Vansittart has not, surprisingly, attracted the attention of reviewers – and is written in a curiously over-rhetorical, almost gushing style which sits very awkwardly with its sombre theme. The earlier successors to it sought almost heroically to correct all of its shortcomings except its excessiveness: its didacticism, its rhetoric, its high melodrama – even its improbability. Perhaps no living English novelist is so relentlessly experimental within his own terms of reference. Vansittart always has had several novels on the go at once – and he has semi-abandoned them and left them lying about for years. When he feels like publishing a new book, he selects from the vast amount he has available (huge slabs of unformulated reaction to everything under the sun), written as though it belonged to nothing, and seeks to unify it in a single volume: he rewrites, adds, subtracts, rounds off and, above all, tries to achieve a consistent style. Yet no contemporary writer is more detached from the actual structures of his creations. He is extremely close to the language he employs, which amounts to a sort of poetry: but he remains detached from ‘plots’ and all the other devices that are used to take their place. In Broken Canes (1957), his worst and most facetious book, he tried to abandon ‘rich’ prose altogether: the result is a feeble farce about a progressive school. The only interesting aspect of this attempt at a tightly plotted novel is that there is no point of view – the reader is left in the dark as to whether progressive schools are desirable or ridiculous, and the author’s desperate ambivalence remains unresolved.

But Vansittart’s main impulse in writing is in fact to do just that: to resolve his ambivalence about past versus present, tradition versus progress. A frequent device is to set progressive or humanist types against cynical pragmatists or reactionaries; what is unusual, again, is the absence of a point of view. Yet nothing is resolved. Vansittart’s real, unequivocal world is that of a sceptical poet, one in a permanent state of negative capability, immersed in language and what it leads to. But he lacks the capacity to achieve the rhythm of poetry, and such satire as is in him is released, not always very effectively, against all creatures of habit: those whose attitudes are fashionable, false, calculated constructions. The apparently successful but hollow and spiritually dead poetess (this is what she deserves to be called) Della, in Aspects of Feeling, is a typical example. One might call Della a novelist posing as a poet. Yet in Vansittart’s wistful descriptions of her actual poems (none of which he can quote), there is something of envy of real poetry. Is Vansittart himself a frustrated poet, a poet self-miscast as a novelist?

The ‘monster’ of this novel is the career diplomat Roger Kirkland, the ‘high sans peur’ without any feelings (even ill feelings), but with many appetites thus made disgusting. His function here is certainly as the focus of disharmony and inhumanity: yet Vansittart is not satirical about him at all, as he is about Della, and he is the only character in the book upon whom is conferred a consistent if cynical wisdom. One simply does not know if the narrator or arranger of this material is for or against Machiavelli ... Thus we are again teased by an absence of any point of view: is it only because we know (or think we know) that cynicism and lack of principle are wrong that we react unfavourably to Kirkland’s talk? We are aware of Della’s falsity to herself because the author comes very near to informing us about it through his shrill and improbable description of the manner in which her verses are received by literati. But this may be an unjust criticism, since the surface of almost all Vansittart’s prose is corrugated into surreality by his exuberant, sometimes reckless use of language.

His book for young people, Green Knights, Black Angels (1969), ‘a mosaic of history’, was described by him – but by no one else – as ‘straightforward’. He wrote it, he said, to purge himself of a ‘didactic tendency’. But reviewers found it as irritating as they found it verbally brilliant. It may well be that Vansittart has always been more aware of his ‘didactic tendency’ than he realises: this would explain the puzzling or at least highly unfamiliar absence of any point of view in his texts. Certainly one gets the feeling of didacticism, even though the command is withdrawn: it is a curious combination. Much more sober and non-didactic was his first book for children, The Dark Tower: Tales from the Past (1965). This ought to have been acclaimed for its extraordinary purity and lucidity of style, doubtless induced in Vansittart by his sense of a new audience: but it went more or less unnoticed. Here his writing is not at all puzzling: he has dropped the rhetoric because he has assumed that it is unsuitable for his audience and not because he wants to change his style ‘for adults’.

Ten years before that he wrote his most ambitious and interesting novel (until Aspects of Feeling): The Game and the Ground (1956). This is the only one of his works to bear discernible signs of a single outside influence: but it may be pure coincidence that it resembles Ernst Jünger’s uneasy anti-Nazi allegory On the Marble Cliffs. The novel is set, in an unnamed country, on an ancient estate that has only recently been in use as a concentration camp. In the dilapidated house that is its centre two brothers are now trying to rehabilitate savage and illiterate children who have been crippled and confused by exposure to the conditions of total war. Then a third brother returns to re-corrupt the young people with the vicious hero-myth that has caused that war in the first place. As in George Steiner’s novella about a hypothetical Hitler captured in Latin America, the odious false mythology is presented with a gusto that seems dubious. But in this case at least the reason is the author’s helpless detachment from what he has simply set in motion: a pessimistic feeling of inability to resist the energy of evil, together with a feeling that he is responsible for all the horrors which fascinate him – just because they do fascinate him. We begin to see that an apparently inartistic surrender to what is felt as natural can be an advantage – and perhaps we see this only in Vansittart among contemporary English writers. He can hardly be accused of being fashionable. But is he, for all that, much more fashionable than he thinks? In The Game and the Ground he emerged, for all the vigour of his writing, as a man who was both fascinated and repelled by the immoderateness – the excessiveness – of his own imagination; he also emerged as one who lacked the discipline to discover a structural device by which he might organise a text into coherence. Ultimately I think he has tried to turn this into a strength: by presenting himself as incoherent but truthful. One is reminded of the Spanish novelist Pio Baroja, who claimed that well-structured novels are not like life (but examination of his demonstrates that they are more cunningly structured than he let on). Vansittart’s verbal exuberance is felt by him as amoral: but the reader apprehends this only because, built into the exuberance, is the fact that it bothers the writer. What Vansittart calls his ‘didactic tendency’ is more precisely a tendency to fall into aristocratic cliché (as exemplified in the sayings of Kirkland, the anti-hero of Aspects of Feeling). The exercise of writing The Dark Tower was salutary: in achieving such sudden lucidity and serenity there (I insist that it is a children’s classic for our time), he demonstrated to himself that all his yearning was for the true Being of things – as it emerges in the poetry of Hölderlin, and even more explicitly and self-consciously in that of Rilke (an acknowledged influence). A frustrated poet, then, whose message is that we resist and reject the past because, in Rilke’s words in the First Elegy,

                   the beautiful is nothing
  But the first apprehension of the terrible.

The present, for him, is always already the past: menacing, but comfortable because it has become history.

His next large book, The Story Teller (1968), traced the life of a character from his birth in the Hundred Years’ War to his old age in modern Sweden. This was more coherent than any of his previous major novels had been, but suffered from two main faults. The first was that his ‘Sweden’, intended as ‘realistic’, was not very convincing. The second was more serious: readers found it hard to sustain their interest in the protagonist because, although his transformations were interesting, he lacked a personality. One great weakness of Vansittart as a novelist is that he pays little attention to character. It is almost as if for him it does not exist, or as if he recognised it as an afterthought. He has a Heideggerian interest in Being as against mere beings, so he cannot make us feel that his beings experience Being (when they do or are supposed to) – he can only tell us, obliquely, how he does.

Aspects of Feeling is clearly an attempt to do better in the matter of character, or at least to create more effective illusions; and to exercise a greater power of organisation than heretofore. It is his most carefully plotted novel. But, for all its intrinsic interest and the sheer brilliance of its language, it remains somewhat obscure. Unless, of course, one were not to treat it as a novel at all ... Where does Vansittart’s refusal or inability to systematise lead him – and his reader?

It begins in the 1930s. Roger and Janet Kirkland (she is not his wife) are guardians of three children, whom they are bringing up in their large country house called Dragon House. Kirkland, of the Foreign Office, is young, wealthy, admired and well-connected. The brief section devoted to the adolescence of the children – Della, Bayard and Graham – is ironically presented as idyllic in the traditional sense. It is this, but it is also haunted by past horrors and disasters – pervasive images in all Vansittart’s fiction – such as the sinking of the Titanic and a picture of a First World War deserter, strapped to a chair and masked, awaiting his execution as his grave is dug. We are thus given a view of menaced innocence presided over by golden-voiced corruption (Kirkland). Between this and the grotesque (and, we take it, contemporary) society wedding of Kirkland and Janet, one of his finest and maddest scenes, he gives a selective account of the lives of the three younger people. Della becomes an empty poetaster whose work is intermittently taken up (she sometimes thinks that this is on its merits or imagined merits, but we learn otherwise). Graham drifts through Army service (during which he is involved in the massacre of the Russians who had worked for the Nazis and who are being returned from Germany to the Soviet Union) and schoolmastering, when he becomes his foster-father’s assistant – but he ends as a reluctant, Philip Toynbee-like would-be saint. Bayard, whose name is certainly not accidental, is the mysterious one. Apart from the fact that he is a member of the Crystal Knot, a strange and ancient society which exposes wrong-doing in high places (and thus ferments scandals), we learn little about him. In some ways one senses that Bayard, if Kirkland is the anti-hero, is the hero or ‘saved character’, the others being merely indeterminate. But if this is so, then in terms of traditional fiction – and Vansittart appears to want to be a traditionalist – it remains unsatisfactorily defined. The lives of Della and Graham are traced in some detail, but that of Bayard is (deliberately) only glimpsed through what the others – to whom he is also a complete mystery – discover.

At the end of the novel one of the five is all but eclipsed by a political scandal, and another is murdered. If the work has a focus, it is the affair of the Russian prisoners who had worked for the Germans and who were then ‘repatriated’. This is of course a very real scandal, in which almost everyone in politics at the time was involved. It stands for the thousands of other iniquitous deeds to which Vansittart glancingly alludes (he is obsessed, and no doubt rightly, with such things).

Vansittart has not here overcome his difficulties with characterisation. But we begin to wonder if he should have done: if characterisation is not, by virtue of where he belongs (without realising it – and I doubt if he could happily grasp the turgid language of deconstruction), an old-fashioned or even a disgraceful concept. It is Being, as I have remarked, in which he is interested – not beings. The portrayal of Kirkland is superb, but it is accomplished through an anthology of suavely wicked sayings. The mauvaise foi exemplified in Della’s verses is badly handled, though: the literary satire is over-shrill, and the descriptions of the verses make them seem to lack the emptiness of other objects of ephemeral high reputations (for example, Humbert Wolfe or the wartime Pudney). The revelation that what passed for interplay of feeling among these five people was, after all, something else, and something much more sinister, carries less conviction than it should: we are never allowed to view it psychologically. But is that what Vansittart really wants us to do?

What is truly remarkable is the sheer energy and versatility of the prose. Vansittart will not admit to caring about ‘what the Novel should be doing’ – an attitude that might imply some impatience and even exasperation with contemporary letters. But he is certainly doing some unusual things with it: Aspects of Feeling has the look of a study in relationships strung out over forty years (though no one ages in the least). But is it not instead its author’s frenzied prose-poem? Whether the narrator is Vansittart or not, I do not know; I should doubt it. Perhaps he is just a man standing at a crossroads where language meets people ... This is a sustained interior monologue disguised as an up-market family saga. It is also exceedingly pessimistic – a catalogue of horrors and hopelessness whose only affirmation lies in the vitality of its prose. It requires very close reading, and not, perhaps, reading of an ordinary kind: the real narrative is fragmented – occasionally squandered – amongst the welter of the prose.

Vansittart the writer is himself a little like the Bayard of his book: elusive, mocking, ambivalent, acting the opposite of what he feels, gallantly open to menace and, eventually, total catastrophe. He is painfully English and painfully and openly wounded by bad actions, he can depict highly sophisticated people (through what they say) very well, but he absolutely refuses to be sophisticated himself. He is in fact so English that he sometimes seems to resemble a Continental, someone who does not ‘take’ easily to English soil. Do the very English take well in England? Have they ever? But does Vansittart look like a deconstructionist? One can imagine what he would say. But his text would naturally lend itself to ‘mis-readings’ and to deconstruction. It precisely anticipates it. Like all his novels, Aspects of Feeling leaves a very strong and vivid impression. It is a verbal explosion from a writer who can scarcely believe, intellectually, in the viability of anything, let alone effective self-expression; he is agonisedly convinced that literature really is what the structuralists and post-structuralists say it is: something ‘already written’ and without origin, its author ‘cancelled’. But those critics want the death of the author. Vansittart wants his birth. From that perhaps excessively (for him, too) Modernist position, then, this book makes a fine and loud romantic protest against itself.