Fat and Fretful

John Bayley

  • Foreign Country: The Life of L.P. Hartley by Adrian Wright
    Deutsch, 304 pp, £17.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 233 98976 5

The only time L.P. Hartley met E.M. Forster they did not get on. Too much politeness, and mutual wariness. And what a comedy in contrasting physiques: Forster sharp, quizzical and birdlike; Hartley plump, vacant, moustached and apologetic, half walrus and half melting snowman, pipe in mouth. But underneath they had a great deal in common, and chiefly the mysterious, almost unconscious knowledge of their own powers as natural artists. They knew how to put themselves and what they wanted to say into an artifice that would enhance and dramatise by disguise, to the point where disguise itself became the object of art. Homosexuality may have been at the core of this knowledge, but more important was the instinct to personalise sexuality, so that it referred to themselves alone, a pure individualness in which the disguises of art could rejoice and revel, displaying themselves in their own way and in their own tongue.

Oblomov reproved his friends for comparing him with Other People. It is fatal to this kind of art to be standardised critically in terms of other people and their conventional problems. To assert, as Adrian Wright continually does, that familiar traumas and ‘terrible truths’ lie under it collapses art into convention, and indeed into banality. Shorn of the disguise that is itself, the allurements and the personality of its humours, it can look no more than a formula for a standard type of ‘powerful’ story, the kind that any creative writing course can teach you. Terrible truths are two a penny in fiction: what is needed is the art to deconventionalise them, to transform them into the personal, the really intriguing and engaging case.

Probably the worst thing that has happened to the fiction of our time is that it has lost the naturalness of a once necessary disguise, and has no way of recovering it. The absence of any social censorship and the imperative of ‘absolute honesty’ alike see to that. Wuthering Heights (Hartley’s favourite novel), A Passage to India, The Go-Between not only belong to the foreignness of the novel’s past – they seem to cling to it. Without the disguises that reveal the individual as in art he really is and can be, the novel, or to be more precise certain kinds of novel, would be quite lost.

The impulse and need to create a being in terms of art and the novel carried Forster through five of them, made him a famous writer and then left him stranded. After that he was wisely silent. Not so Hartley. The critical success of The Shrimp and the Anemone and the popular acclaim won by The Go-Between triumphantly overcame a lingering writer’s block that had dogged his native diffidence and indecision. From then on he wrote compulsively. He had found the formula for being himself and now abused it: he became an old buffer, he aired his prejudices, he bewailed the way things were going, he hated modern England.

In the late Forties, by when George Orwell was confiding to friends that he ‘loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future’, Hartley, a most un-Orwellian figure, was routinely and predictably saying the same. Satire was the last thing he could do well. Facial Justice, a laborious take-off of the cliché of ‘social justice’, is a cranky and absurd novel which might have been written by a different author, and yet – paradoxically – it reveals Hartley himself as he was in the flesh: a fat fretful rentier lamenting the state of the country. Though Adrian Wright loves Hartley and his books, and writes about them with style and spirit, he never quite confronts this paradox, nor the yet more misunderstood one of Hartley’s homosexuality, revealed more or less openly in the novels he wrote at the end of his life, like The Harness Room, which came out the year before he died. Unlike his spruce and overtly homosexual friend and fellow rentier C.H.B. Kitchen, some of whose books – Olive E, The Auction Sale and A Short Walk in Williams Park, for example – certainly deserve a reprint, Hartley in his last days went rapidly downhill, in life as in art.

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